We just got back from a first drive in the 2006 Nissan Quest 3.5 SE, the latest version of the Japanese automaker's American-designed minivan/school bus/spaceship on wheels. The Quest is a big car--it measures 204 inches nose to stern--with most of its mass converted into useful interior space. From the outside, the '06 Quest retains the styling from the second-generation 2004 model, which raised eyebrows when it was released for what some lauded as its daringly different ergonomic design and others called its downright ugly bulk.
Powered by a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 engine, the Quest is remarkably fleet for a car its size. Admittedly, we didn't drive it loaded to capacity with screaming kids and a week's worth of camping gear, but the awkward-looking people carrier displayed an eagerness to respond when called into action.
The 2006 Quest comes equipped with lots of useful cabin tech. Along with standard front dual-zone climate control, a rear heating and air-conditioning (HVAC) system, power-sliding side doors, a power liftgate, and a rearview camera, our test model was fully loaded with options. These included navigation, XM Satellite Radio, and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, complete with wireless headphones and a remote control.
The voice-guidance-enabled navigation system was straightforward to program, but the lack of a touch screen means that data must be entered via a joystick, which doubles as a selection button--a recipe for frustration. Maps and navigation options are displayed on a 7-inch color LCD set into a pod in the center of the dash.
In place of a center stack, the Quest makes use of an oval-shaped console between driver and passenger, into which is set the gear shifter and controls for the front HVAC and audio systems. While its appearance may strike the first-time driver as bizarre and Jetson-esque, the console does its job well, with all controls within easy reach and straightforward to operate. This is more than can be said for the design and the location of the speedometer and tach; rather than being in the driver's line of sight behind the steering wheel, the two dials are situated on the left-hand side of the pod that houses the LCD, which led to us constantly looking down--then across to check our speed. Additionally, the two dials partially overlap (presumably for stylistic purposes), which makes them even more difficult to read.
As the top-of-the-range model, the 2006 Quest SE comes standard with a 10-speaker, 265-watt Bose sound system. Sadly, the six-disc changer supports only standard RedBook CDs and has no idea what to do with an MP3 or WMA disc. Also, there is no auxiliary input jack to be found on the Quest, although Nissan does offer the proprietary iPod Interface System--a glove box-mounted dock/charger--as an option.
For the limited number of audio sources it does support, the Bose system's sound quality is impressive, and controls situated in the Quest's vehicle-information center and in front of the second-row seats give driver and passengers the option to concentrate sound where they want it by activating and deactivating the rear speakers.
Rear seating in the Quest is a distinctly two-tier system. Those in the second-row captain's chairs get plenty of legroom and can stretch out into the center of the cabin, while those relegated to the third row have far less room on all sides; three adults in the backseat will have a very cozy ride. Both classes of rear passenger get a good look at one of the two ceiling-mounted DVD screens, which can be controlled by remote control or by toggle switches in a second-row control panel.
Aside from its testy acceleration, which we found useful for merging on the freeway, the Quest handles pretty much how you'd expect for a car of its size, with some noticeable body roll in spirited cornering and some frontal dive when pulling up short. A major selling point for the Quest will be its raft of standard safety features, which include vehicle dynamic control, a tire-pressure-monitoring system (our SE came with the optional Michelin Pax run-flat tires), and side air bags for all three rows.