A Nine Year Quest, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Looking Cool and Love the Van

by Ur-Turn
a nine year quest or how i learned to stop worrying about looking cool and love the

(If you have some time this weekend, this contribution, from our reader Robert, will be worth that time — JB)

“I will NEVER drive a minivan.” Thus ended the first [s]hostile negotiation[/s] serious discussion with my wife about our next vehicle purchase.

The story so far: It was the summer of 2005. Our family truckster (a 1995 Toyota 4Runner SR5) was doing a fine job hauling mom and the first born around town during the week, plus me, the dog, and the cubic yard of gear required to travel with a one year old child on our frequent weekend trips to the Texas hill country. Anything I wanted to bring had to survive on the roof.

The 4Runner had been a masterpiece of engineering, form, and function to us. But even with Toyota’s legendary reliability, after 10 years and 135k on the clock, her many trouble-free miles were running out. A starter here, a radiator there, and stranding my wife and infant son on the side of the road with electrical gremlins made its replacement eminent. Contemplating the addition of another child with our already tight space requirements made it a matter of practicality. Her preference for large SUVs and my deep seated frugality made it, um, interesting.

“A Sequoia or Armada will work.”

Gas had just hit an all time high of $2.50 a gallon. (Heh.) With her staying home to raise our son, the rising cost of gas, the nontrivial price premium big SUVs command over minivans, and our already meager budget – there was no way we could swing that. Round 1 was a draw.

One peaceful (read: not discussing the car situation) Saturday afternoon we were watching broadcast TV at home. (Cable? Those frills cost money! Nor caller ID, call waiting or smartphones. I had the neighbors convinced that “Suburban Amish” was a thing). This ad came on:

“Hm. If I ever did drive a minivan, it would have to be that one.” Did she just say that in her outside voice?

Truth be told I didn’t want to drive a minivan either, but the Quest really did seem to be something different, daring even with the swept back look and unconventional styling. Every other van out there just looked like a box; at least they were trying. I was already a Nissan fan, having put enough miles on 3 Hardbody trucks to make it all the way to the moon and most of the trip back. Finding out it shared much DNA with the Maxima, my top pick for “what would I drive if I didn’t need a truck” made it almost, dare I say it, kind of cool.

August 22, 2005: I’m rushing to get to work, but she stops me at the door and hands me an odd looking book with a frilly cloth cover, tied with a satin sash. I stare at it, dumbfounded. “Its a new baby book. We’re going to need it.” OH! SQUEEEEEEE!! We hold each other tightly in wordless celebration. I break the silence – “Thats great news! We’re buying a van today.” She looks at the ground and offers one last muted protest. “Sequoia?” “Baby, the Quest is the best.”

A quick search on AutoTrader found a used base model with the right miles for the right price. The only drawback – it was 90 minutes away in Angleton. I called the dealer to make sure they still had it and we hit the road. In keeping with the long standing tradition of auto dealers everywhere, of course the van wasn’t there. They assured me they had a similar one that I would like, they just needed to get it from their other store across town. Well, we did come all this way…

We grab lunch to kill time and return to find the other van really does exist. She approaches to inspect it… I watch from a safe distance. It’s actually much nicer than the one we originally came for, a well optioned 2005 grey on grey SL with heated leather seats, panoramic sunroof, 6 CD changer with Bose sound, and a power sliding door. It was fresh off a one year lease with all of 4,722 miles. She briefly looks around the driver’s seat, glances at the second row, up at all the sunroofs (there are 5), then looking not quite at the van but not quite at me either she gives half a nod to no one in particular. The signal. It’s a done deal. A few hours later we bid the 4Runner farewell and start the long drive home, full of optimism about our growing family and the adventures we will have in our new chariot.

Delivering the goods

This van is big. Vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big compared to the 4Runner. The greenhouse is enormous; visibility is almost completely unobstructed.

Almost…The D pillars are pretty big, but the rear window is so wide you hardly notice they’re there. The third row headrests are visible in the rearview mirror but adjusting them all the way down helps a lot. The side mirrors are large which is a good thing; you’re going to need them when cutting through rush hour traffic. There is no trace of the vehicle visible out the front glass, which takes some getting used to if you’re accustomed to seeing the hood of your truck at all times.

The second row seats have more legroom than the front. The third row seats have almost as much as the second row, and you can walk right to them between the captain’s chairs. Seven Texas-sized adults can ride in comfort. Fold the third row down and you have an enormous cargo area that will swallow two 50” flatscreens in one bite, or a sheet of plywood if you don’t mind some of it hanging out the back. The second row seats move forward a few inches to make even more room.

With the third row up there is a huge well in the floor behind the seat backs.

Nissan’s ubiquitous 3.5L VQ engine delivers MAD MAXIMA POWAH! It’s just silly how strong it is off the line. Per Wikipedia, the engine is good for 240 hp and 242 lb-ft of torque that will get you to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds. Practical application: if you need to cross ALL the lanes of FM1488 to get to the Whataburger thats only 100 feet up the road from the stoplight because somebody forgot to pee before you left the Renaissance Festival, you can do that with authority and a satisfying roar from the engine. Of course it helps if nobody else at the light knows they are racing. Stomp the throttle from a roll below 10 mph and the tires spin. 80 mph is effortless, and you’ll get there without even noticing if you’re not careful. Fortunately my unassuming mom mobile has been invisible to law enforcement; I hoon it around with impunity. EPA estimated mileage is 18-24 MPG, but I always got 19 in mixed driving.

The handling is surprisingly good for something this large and heavy (204.1 inches long, 77.6 inches wide, 70 inches tall, 5,732 lbs). My driving style varies from spirited to aggressive, but I’ve never been able to unsettle it more than just getting the back end to step out a few degrees on hard corner exits, and even that takes a lot of effort. The steering has very little play; small inputs are faithfully translated into minor course adjustments. On the highway it tracks straight with very little effort needed to keep it between the ditches. The disc brakes front and back have always felt adequate for normal driving; the whoa matches the go.

It’s certainly the most luxurious vehicle we’ve owned so far. The leather seats are comfortable on long road trips, although at 6’ I wish they would go back another inch. The heated front seats provide welcome relief for my chronic back pain; I run them year round. My only complaint is the two heater settings are “is this thing on?” and “the seat is melting”, forcing me to toggle between high and off to maintain a comfortable temperature. The multi panel sunroof cheers up the otherwise drab greyness of the interior. Kids love the airplane-style overhead lights and vents.

The Details

In addition to the pleasing big ticket items above, the van is endowed with some extremely well conceived and executed features that are a joy to use.

There is a strip of grocery bag hangers on the back of the third row seats. This is a killer feature. There are other knobs that things can hang on or be tied to.

There is a map holder molded into the steering column. This is extremely handy if you still use old school written directions like me.

There is a large hook within the driver’s reach on the passenger seat base. Our salesman said it was a purse hanger. Well, It’s a handy place to anchor a grocery bag or really anything else you don’t want sliding around on the floor. And slide it will; there is no center console separating the driver and passenger footwells.

The Bose speakers sounded great then, and they still sound great 9 years later. I feed it a steady diet of ’80s heavy metal turned up to 11 when it’s just the boys and I.

Rounding out the family friendly bona fides, there are little storage bins and compartments everywhere. I keep them full of band aids, water bottles, gummy worms, kids’ allergy medicine, and Red Bull (for me of course).

Things that make you go hmmm

It also has some things that are just different for the sake of being different and make no damn sense at all.

The speedometer sits in the middle of the dash above the center stack instead of directly in front of the driver. What. The. Hell? This foolishness easily doubles the amount of time it takes to glance down and across at the speedometer and back at the road. Backseat drivers love it. This conversation, in perpetuity: “You’re speeding.” (low grumble) “I like the way I’m driving better than the way you’re not.” Nissan abandoned this foolishness before the end of the model run, so make sure you get a 2007 or later if you like your road speed like you like your browser history – private.

The front cup holders feel like an afterthought. They’re too low to comfortably reach while driving; your beverage is sitting nearly on the floor. I have to bend a little to the side to reach them. They’re also fragile and easily stepped on by children. Mine haven’t closed properly for years.

Finally, the third row seat stowing procedure is complicated, strenuous, and a little dangerous:

Remove the third row headrests and store them in a bag that hangs in the back corner.

Remove the bag and put it…somewhere.

Fold the seat forward and down to the flat position.

Reach as far forward as you possibly can and pull with all your might on a nylon strap to lift the seat all the way back up and over until it drops into the well with enough force to crush a small child. I’m 6′, 245 lbs and I struggle with this. I can’t imagine the target demographic Quest driver has an easy time with this.

Hang the stupid bag back up.

Most of the time I just leave the headrests and bag at home and reinstall them when I have passengers. If I like them.

Heading out to the highway

Beauty is skin deep, but cheap parts and assembly are to the bone.

For our first 5 years of Questdom, the van was used as a light commuter for my wife and as our weekend road trip hauler. During that time it accumulated squeaks, leaks, and rattles in much the same way that Toyotas don’t. That must be what the SL badge on the back stands for, or possibly, Sticky Leather.

There are several plastic splash shields under the engine compartment. I can’t tell you how many because I’ve never seen them all at the same time, but I’ve counted at least four that pushed their eject button somewhere out on the Texas highways. I know the scraping sound they make so well that I can hear a Quest coming from blocks away. Sometimes they drop onto a tire and make a terrific burning smell as they melt and splatter molten plastic all over the brake rotor. The van sits very low, especially the nose, and the suspension bottoms easily which I’m sure exacerbates the problem. I used to replace them, but the van just drops them like a bad habit so I don’t bother anymore. It seems to get along just fine without them.

The liftgate button also likes to disappear – into the body moulding. The first several times I dutifully fished it back out and reinstalled, only to have it happen again after a few more pushes. Closing it manually is a safer bet anyway, because every time you use the button there is a good chance the liftgate will stop a few inches before closing and open right back up, beeping a warning like you did something wrong. It likes to pull the opposite trick too, raising a few inches, beeping, and then suddenly closing. When it does you will be tempted to grab the handle and try to pull it back up. Don’t, because when you miss the handle and instead rip the painted plastic cover off it is expensive to put it back on.

“Daddy, it’s raining on me.” The multi panel moonroofs leak during anything harder than a sprinkle. When I finally felt like doing something about it, the roof was already rusted through in places around the glass. Oops. The power sunroof is a chronic leaker as well, dripping water right onto my lap while driving. This can be temporarily remedied by standing up through the sunroof and cleaning the drain lines with a pipe cleaner; I keep a pair in the glove box at all times. The moisture gives the electronics a sense of adventure and mischief, opening the sunroof unbidden when you least expect it and then closing just as mysteriously a few minutes later. I keep waiting for this to happen inside a car wash. To round out the wet weather fun, the left sliding door rattles and squeaks constantly when it rains, but not when it’s dry, and never the right side. Figure that one out.

The moonroof panels have a nifty pull-out shade for when you want protection from the sun. In Houston we call that “daytime.” One day the shade went slack and we heard something round and heavy roll across the roof and down into the side of the body. It never retracted again. Dropping the roof just to estimate the real repair cost is north of $500 at the dealer.

Despite all the little issues, the core strengths of hauling lots of people and lots of stuff (sometimes both!) still shine through. Shortly after buying the Quest I got promoted, which meant I could afford TWICE THE DEBT!! Recently retired from motocross, I no longer needed a truck. I traded my beloved but ailing T100 4×4 on a gently used G35 sedan. The following weekend we realized a backyard playset would make the perfect gift for the first born’s second birthday. I had my doubts about the Quest’s ability to haul several hundred pounds of “some assembly required” backyard fun, but it didn’t break a sweat. Over the years it served quite well as a light truck and cargo hauler. We added a trailer hitch and took the in-laws on vacation with us to South Padre Island, hauling 4 adults, 2 children, and a 4×8 trailer with ease. Life with the van is good!

Victim of changes

August 12, 2012: I’m driving the van back to Houston from Angleton once again. All the hope and optimism from before is gone. Leaving the Brazoria County courthouse, I’m struck by the irony of the judge’s parting words. “I’m glad the two of you worked this out.” I assume he meant to show his gratitude for us settling outside of a trial. This is obviously some strange use of the phrase “worked this out” that I wasn’t previously aware of.

The children, and the Quest, are now my sole responsibility and mode of transportation.

Survival mode

Adapting to life as a single dad while maintaining a demanding career and preparing to move out of a rundown house, the Quest proved itself to be a welcome shelter from the world when I needed one.

I spent a lot of the first year completely exhausted. Fortunately, the Quest is easy to sleep in. The third row is wide enough to curl up on for a quick nap. Need some legroom? Lean the third row back, fold a second row seat down and put your feet up. Want to lay all the way down? Fold the third row and move the second row all the way up and stretch out. Missed a meal? A small Lunchable fits perfectly in the coin tray.

The Bose sound system has plenty of punch if you need a sustained cathartic blast of Iron Maiden or Judas Priest. Still need more stress relief? Flog the mighty 3.5L V6 with reckless abandon on your commute, and stuff it into a freeway turnaround so hard that the back end starts to kick out when you exit at twice the posted speed; even drivers of full sized domestic pickup trucks will give you wide berth.

The Quest continued serving light truck duty while preparing our old house for sale, which suffered from years of deferred maintenance. Tile, paint, fence boards, landscaping, no job was too big. The play set it had hauled home for us new in a box, it hauled once more to the dump after I methodically cut it down with a circular saw. Little pieces of my my sons’ childhood and innocence tumbled down into the landfill with it.

Alas, operating the van during this transitional period wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Days before its inspection was due the check engine light came on. The code indicated catalytic converter replacement, a several thousand dollar repair. I did not have two extra nickels to rub together, so I dumped the biggest bottle of fuel system cleaner I could find into a tank of super unleaded and whipped it like a rented mule for 300 miles. I reset the CEL, and it never came back on.

In the year that followed, I replaced the rear wheel bearings, one CV joint, and the odometer/fuel gauge. One unlucky morning I was attempting my Tokyo Drift freeway turnaround maneuver. At the point of the corner exit where I was expecting an upshift, the transmission slipped instead and the engine soared way past the redline. Before I could back off the throttle, it lost all power with a loud bang. CRAP! I pondered the very expensive options while I limped it to the nearest shop at its new top speed of 20 mph, the engine shaking like a wet dog. Slipped timing chain and bent valves? Did a catalytic converter finally collapse? I was relieved to find it had only popped off a vacuum line downwind from the mass air flow meter; a mercifully cheap fix. Still, there was no denying the van was getting expensive to operate and that I had kept it well past its expiration date.

New beginnings

In June 2013, the Quest brought the boys to see their new home for the first time where we would restart our life in Sugar Land. After years of chronic back pain I did not want my children riding dirt bikes, but my brother had other plans. Waiting for us in the garage was the 1991 Yamaha PW50 that all 3 of his boys learned to ride on, restored and ready for mine. How can I say no to that? We quickly outgrew the little Pee Wee, and got tired of sharing it. Fortunately the Quest is a damn good mini bike hauler.

Dont try this with your RX 350! That’s a Honda CRF50 and CRF70, with the second row seats in place, and the liftgate will still close. You can even use the second row seat brackets to anchor tiedowns, and there’s room for plenty of gear and a ramp down the middle.

Like any addict, part of my mind is constantly whispering to me “Go ahead, Robert. You can ride just a little bit, it won’t hurt you.” Come to think of it, I do need something to follow the boys around on so I can coach them on proper riding techniques.

Join the conversation
3 of 106 comments
  • Zip89123 Zip89123 on Apr 21, 2015

    Great write-up OP. My next vehicle may be my first minivan.

  • Rpn453 Rpn453 on Apr 22, 2015

    How exactly do you get the back end of a FWD minivan to step out on corner exit?

    • Robert Robert on Apr 23, 2015

      By going way too fast :-) It helped that the van is long, even for a minivan, and there was nothing in the back.

  • MaintenanceCosts We need cheaper batteries. This is a difficult proposition at $50k base/$60k as tested but would be pretty compelling at $40k base/$50k as tested.
  • Scott ?Wonder what Toyota will be using when they enter the market?
  • Fred The bigger issue is what happens to the other systems as demand dwindles? Will thet convert or will they just just shut down?
  • Roger hopkins Why do they all have to be 4 door??? Why not a "cab & a half" and a bit longer box. This is just another station wagon of the 21st century. Maybe they should put fake woodgrain on the side lol...
  • Greg Add me to the list: 2017 Sorento EX AWD w/2.0 Turbo GDI 68K miles. Changed oil religiously with only synthetic. Checked oil level before a rare long road trip and Ievel was at least 2 quarts down. That was less than 6 months after the last oil change. I'm now adding a quart of oil every 1000 miles and checking every 500 miles because I read reports that the oil usage gets worse. Too bad, really like the 2023 Tuscon. But I have not seen Hyundai/Kia doing anything new in terms of engine development. Therefore, I have to suspect that I will ony become a victim of a fatally flawed engine development program if I were to a purchase another Kia/Hyundai.