DEL MAR, California - Minivans don't get much respect these days. A quarter-century ago, when Chrysler issued the very first minivans, family-minded shoppers flocked to the new, versatile body style. A few years later, minivans began to develop an image problem. To many suburban mothers, typically and sometimes condescendingly dubbed "soccer moms" by the media, ownership of a minivan signaled someone who had "settled" into the conformity of non-urban life.
Even so, import-brand manufacturers joined the minivan parade, vying against not only Chrysler and Dodge, but the newer minivans from Ford and GM. Nissan's original model was a near-clone of the Mercury Villager, but a redesign for 2004 gave the Quest a uniquely sporty demeanor. Sales never quite took off as hoped, and Nissan abandoned the Quest after the 2009 model year.
Now, for 2011, a different sort of Quest has emerged, focusing clearly and unabashedly on family-transportation values. "Innovation for family" is the new minivan's theme. As explained by John Curl, senior manager for product planning, owning a 2011 Quest can't make you a better parent, but it "can certainly make your job as a parent easier." Their primary motivation: "Be the best parents they can."
Curl admits that there's been a "gradual, steady decline" in minivan sales, noting that a number of manufacturers have left the segment entirely. Still, he wonders if this could be "year of the minivan," in view of the massively reworked Quest, as well as a newly-redesigned Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. "Nothing else can do what a minivan can do," Curl added.
Nissan promises a best-in-class turning radius for the Quest, helping it maintain a high level of maneuverability. Second- and third-row seats fold flat, and the rear storage area contains a permanently hidden space. With all seats raised, storage volume at the rear is 11.4 cubic feet.
Exterior mirrors are taller than usual. Power sliding doors (if installed) offer one-touch operation. Nissan claims they open/close in a smooth, continuous motion, with no jerking.
Built in Japan on Nissan's D-platform - also used by Altima and Maxima sedans, as well as the Murano crossover SUV, the 2011 Quest has a relatively lengthy 118.1-inch wheelbase and measures 200.8 inches long overall. Width is 72.6 inches, and the Quest is 71.5 inches high (2-3 inches taller than rivals). The squared-off rear end translates to a better Cd (coefficient of drag - a measure of aerodynamic slipperiness) as well as improved fuel economy. Nissan estimates 18 mpg in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway, but the EPA has not yet evaluated the Quest for fuel economy.
Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6 engine develops 260 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 240 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. An Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) incorporates adaptive shift control.
On lesser models, 16-inch wheels may be either steel (S) or aluminum alloy (SV). Alloy 18-inch wheels go on upper trim levels, which contain heated leather-appointed seats. Because of their pattern of warming, those seats will "give you the impression of being warmer faster," Curl claimed.
Six airbags are standard, along with Vehicle Dynamic Control and traction control. A Plasmacluster air purifier can detect unpleasant odors outside the vehicle and block their entry.
"This is a fairly large vehicle," said design chief Alfonso Albaisa, whose impression is correct. Obviously, it's a minivan that does just about everything right; but that's nearly a given. Confident handling is a selling point, though it's not necessarily as sporty on the road as Honda's Odyssey.
Tromping on the gas pedal produces a momentary delay, but that's followed by smoothly eager response. Expect plenty of energy for smooth takeoffs and easy merging on Interstates.
Ride comfort is as satisfying as that of any minivan. Yes, you may feel road-surface changes, but few are bothersome. Steering is on the moderately heavy side, yet easy to maneuver, and it doesn't really take much effort to turn the wheel. Seats are almost sublimely comfortable: snug yet loose-feeling, and nearly cocoon-like.
Four trim levels will be offered when sales begin on January 28, 2011. Prices start at $27,750 (plus an $800 destination charge) for the S model, escalating as high as $41,350 for the top-of-the-line LE edition, which includes a navigation system and a 9.3-gigabyte Music Box. An SV with power sliding doors stickers for $30,900, and the SL (which adds leather upholstery, 18-inch alloy wheels, and a power liftgate) commands $34,350. Options include a dual-panel glass moonroof and a blind spot warning system.
Research reveals that the modern minivan "remains a symbol of family commitment," said Chris Woodruff, senior manager for model line marketing. Yet, it's also perceived "as a surrendering of youth and fun." Owning a Quest "can't make parenting easier," Woodruff advised, "but it can make my life as a parent easier."
One particularly interesting feature is Nissan's Tire Pressure Monitoring System with Easy Fill Tire Alert, which reaches well beyond the usual required tire-pressure monitor. Flashers go on as you fill a tire with air, and the horn honks when it's full. There's even a warning if the tire is overfilled. The system had been introduced on the QX56 from Infiniti, Nissan's luxury division.
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