In our youth-obsessed culture, nobody wants to be seen in a minivan, which represents the responsibilities of middle age. But to a past generation, the Volkswagen bus became iconic as a vehicle embodying the freedom of the open road. Can the 2011 Nissan Quest take a similar place in our cultural panoply, making the minivan cool?
Despite its name, which puts one in mind of far-ranging adventures that might include golden chalices and desperate damsels, the Quest lacks the quality of uniqueness enjoyed by that earlier Volkswagen bus. It sits in a crowded field occupied by the, , and , which all draw from a similar feature set.
Similar to its brethren, the Quest is a lumbering box on wheels, but it does manage a win on design. From how the headlight casings and grille fit together with jigsaw precision to a clean line down the side, ending up at the massive refrigeratorlike rear, the Quest employs a cohesive look. Every part seems to belong to the same car.
These uniquely shaped headlights dovetail with the grille on the new Quest.
Power sliding doors are an upscale minivan standard, and found on the Quest in its SL trim. Middle-row captain's chairs are suitable for adults, with a wide bench in the third row for the kids. And the cargo area looks like it can take the biggest square carton you can wheel out of Wal-Mart. Add to that a sizable well hidden under the cargo floor, a smuggler's hole if you like, and the Quest does not lack for carrying capacity.
Keeping kids quiet
Minivans put as much focus on rear-seat comfort as a stretch limousine, in order to keep the kids quiet on long trips. Here the Quest struggles to keep up with the competition. The dual sunroof is a very nice touch, with its second panel of retractable glass over the middle row. But that sort of feature won't have the kids dropping video game controllers to rush into the minivan. It also lacks a switch in front to open and close it.
The rear-seat screen does not have the dual capability featured in the Odyssey and Sienna.
The rear-seat entertainment system is the backbone of the modern minivan, but the Quest's remains in the previous decade. Where the Sienna and Odyssey both went to dual screens, the Odyssey even adding an HDMI input, the Quest only has a single 11-inch screen. The kids will still have to compromise over what to watch or play.
The DVD system checks off other boxes, such as having wireless headphones, a remote, and jacks for external devices. But it lacks separate source control, meaning parents will be stuck listening to the latest cartoon inanity or driving in silence while the kids use the headphones.
Audio dribbles out through a six-speaker system barely capable of projecting into the farthest reaches of the Quest, at least with any clarity, or an optional 12-speaker Bose system. Our review vehicle did not include the Bose option, and we missed it. Anything must be better than the base system, which produced muted, compressed sound.
The DVD player for this system sits in the lower part of the center stack. Above it sits a set of classic radio controls, and farther up is an LCD, which would normally show navigation information. However, Nissan only makes navigation available in the top trim, LE, where it comes standard. You cannot option navigation in the lower-trim Quests.
Audio functions can be controlled on the screen or on the lower set of radio controls.
As such, the LCD in the stack only shows fuel economy and entertainment information, and there is poor integration between the radio controls, down low, and that upper LCD. You can make some selections from either interface, but the upper one is required for iPod music selection. Radio band selection is only possible from the radio controls. Nissan would have done better to integrate all these functions into the LCD, and leave out the lower radio controls.
The LCD also shows the display for a full-featured backup camera, along with Bluetooth phone system functions. Using voice command, you can place calls by name from a paired phone.
Minivans are not known for their driving character, but there are a few things to mention about the Quest. The high point of its drivetrain is the continuously variable transmission (CVT), something Nissan does better than any other car company.
This CVT helps greatly in making the Quest an uncomplicated driver, a car you can just jump in and go with as little fuss as possible. The size of the beast may throw you off somewhat, but the smooth acceleration and easy creeping afforded by the CVT is an asset when negotiating vast mall parking lots beset with hazards.
A rear cargo well affords plenty of space underneath the load floor panels.
Likewise, Nissan built in excellent turning radius. With the wheel cranked to lock, the front of the Quest feels like it is going sideways, contributing greatly to its maneuverability. Although well-boosted, the steering offers enough resistance to make it feel like you are putting in a little effort when turning it. But it does not produce much road feel, reasonable for a minivan.
The Quest's ride quality seemed like it could be smoother. The jolts from rough pavement and potholes were felt strongly in the cabin. However, there was not much oscillation on the shocks. And the engine does not make the Quest vibrate much when it's running.
Driving the Quest is Nissan's tried and true 3.5-liter V-6, optimized for minivan duty. In this application, it produces 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque. Combined with the CVT, it turned in acceleration strong enough not to cause any panic moments when merging onto the freeway. And when passing at speed, the CVT showed its worth by quickly stepping down to a more powerful ratio.
Nissan's V-6 is not the most advanced engine on the market but, combined with the CVT, it turns in 19 mpg city and 24 mpg highway in EPA testing. We never quite saw the 20 mpg mark, ultimately turning in 19.5 mpg in our driving. While far from stellar, these are good numbers for a vehicle that can carry seven plus a lot of cargo.
The 2011 Nissan Quest does not stand out as a breakout hit, looking more like an also-ran when compared with the Odyssey and Sienna. Both of those vehicles push their entertainment offerings into the new decade, while the Quest lags with older technology.
We were also baffled by Nissan's choice not to offer navigation in any but the LE trim. The SE starts at almost $35K, a high price for a vehicle with little tech content. Navigation should at least be an option at that level.
The CVT is an excellent piece of technology that serves the Quest well, but other driving components keep up baseline performance without reaching for excellence. That said, its driving character is easy enough, and should be comfortable for a wide range of drivers.
|Model||2011 Nissan Quest|
|Power train||3.5-liter V-6, continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||19 mpg city/24 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Not available on SL trim|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, with voice command and phone book|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD/DVD player|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, USB drive, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||Six-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Backup camera|
|Price as tested||$38,640|