Mini-vans, God love them. Gone are the days when a van was mostly a truck with the front seats set far too close to the windshield and separated by a giant, ill-fitting plastic engine cover that allowed the sounds, smell and heat of the engine to leak into the vehicle’s interior. No, today’s vans are quiet, spacious and refined people movers that still provide a great deal of utility while carrying your precious family in great comfort. While they may not set the average auto enthusiast’s heart aflutter, ask any family man and he will sing you the song of infinite praises for the humble mini-van. I am just such a man, and as my Ford Freestar is on its way out, I must now find a replacement.
Shopping for cars is fun and I was looking forward to a great many test drives in my quest to replace the Gray Lady but it turns out that there really aren’t that many passenger vans for sale in the American market. Contrast this with my experience in Japan where the “one box” segment offers dozens of choices. I have no idea why this should be, but the amount of options available to the Japanese consumer is amazing and you can buy anything from a stripped out base model van that is virtually nothing more than a bare metal box with some seats bolted into the back to a fully optioned van so luxurious that the owner of a Toyota Century would blush at the sheer extravagance of the purchase. Nissan alone offers a choice of six different min-vans for the Japanese market, and just to clarify here I am talking about six different actual designs, not simply six different trim levels of the same van with different names hung on them.
Despite the fact that Americans are people who like to think we want the very best of everything, I was surprised to discover that we do not get always get the best looking Japanese vans and, because Nissan changed the front fascia of its top of the line Elgrand, I at first mistook the Quest for Nissan’s second tier JDM offering known as the “Serena.” I like the idea of owning an Elgrand and even looked at previous models on the used market when I lived in Japan so, regardless of what I think were unnecessary and unattractive changes to the front of the vehicle, I am happy I got the chance to check out its American cousin.
We don’t get the fully optioned versions of this van in the USA but even without all the extras the Quest can still be quite plush and, with the highest end LE model starting at $42,640, it turns out they can be quite expensive as well. Fortunately, the entry level “S” model, is a more modest $25,990 and is, at the very least, outfitted with the same 260 horsepower V6 backed and CVT transmission that is offered all across the range. The one I tested was the slightly up market “SV” that begins at $29,740 and it had the features my wife and I were looking for including a back-up camera, power sliding doors, alloy wheels and all the other basic bells and whistles most mini-vans come with these days.
My first thought upon seeing the van in person is that it is tall and looks somewhat ungainly. It is terribly slab-sided and the curving bodyline, set up high on the back but sagging rather limply as it runs towards the front of the vehicle, does little to break up the acres of flat, featureless steel. SL and higher models have better looking alloy wheels and a chrome trim piece that runs just above the rocker panels that helps to mitigate the blandness, but the almost four-thousand additional dollars required to step up to that level seems a bit much to me. Additionally, Nissan has failed to disguise the opening in the body that all minivans have to facilitate the sliding rear doors. The best looking vans usually set this opening just below the window glass where it blends in and doesn’t attract so much attention, but Nissan has opted to place it right in the middle of the panel where it resembles and ugly black scar across the rear quarter of the vehicle.
Inside, the Quest SL was fairly unremarkable. Like most vehicles the instruments and controls were well laid out but I was a little surprised at just tall the dashboard felt to me. I remember riding in a 72 Mach 1 when I was a kid, sitting low in seats that had deep cut-outs and facing a massive, high dashboard. From my perspective, the windshield looked like a bright slit about four inches wide and there was no way I could see out the front. The Quest evoked this memory right away and I could imagine my wife, who is only about five feet tall, feeling the same way and being forced to crank the seat all the way to the top of its adjustment range in order to simply see out. Additionally, although I confess I may be nitpicking, I also found the side mirrors to be oddly shaped and positioned in such a way that, although they didn’t block my view, was distracting.
To make matters worse, the Nissan I drove had two center consoles, one for the front and another for the second row. This means, in order to access the third row a passenger would need to flip up one of the second row seats and then climb in behind it – something I have not seen since I last drove a sporty, two door coupe. Because two of our three kids still require full car seats, we would be faced with the choice of either placing one of those seats in the third row, where we would have to get into the van to buckle and unbuckle the child at every stop, or with putting both car seats in the second row and forcing my oldest child to climb over the top of the console in order to go between the seats to his spot in the back. The whole thing was not very well thought out, in my opinion, and I didn’t even bother to ask if that console could be removed or deleted because, seriously, who the hell wants to do that when they are paying $30K for a vehicle?
The Quest was a dead man walking in my mind before I even took it out on the street, and that’s a shame because out on the road I found the van to be quiet, comfortable and downright well mannered. The CVT, the first I have ever driven, was smooth and I was unable to find a single flaw with it. Nissan’s V6 was great in the big van and when I put my foot down, the road rushed forward to meet me every single time whether I was accelerating from a stop or rolling on the power at 50 mph. In a smaller, lighter vehicle, I can only imagine the real thrill that power train must offer.
To sum up, I came away impressed with the power and handling of the van but was turned off by the frumpy styling of all but the highest end models, the surprising lack of thought put into the interior design and by the high prices of all but basest of models. There seems to be a real hole in the market as far as the Japanese brands are concerned, for a well optioned, value priced minivan that offers the good looks and the stylistic extras of the highest end models but deletes all the touches of luxury that I, as a family man, can’t really conceive of using. There is no way I am dropping 42 large on a van just so I can get one that looks half-way decent.
I am not a bargain shopper, but neither am I a fool. In my life I have bought a grand total of four brand new cars and I tend to live with them for a long, long time. I know that our next new vehicle will become a part of my family and that it will travel with us wherever we go. Barring incidents and accidents, if we take good care of it there is a good chance that my six year old son may one day find himself behind the wheel. When it comes down to that kind of commitment, the Nissan Quest SV fails to make the grade and I, unwilling to drop the cash required to get into a higher trim level, will look elsewhere.
Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.
*Note – this article was edited to correct inaccuracies pointed out by philadlj in the comments section. Thanks for the assist.