The extreme styling statement.
Navigating around the fixed points of the minivan realm has become a standardized procedure; the early wayfarers on these seas worked it all out for those who would come afterward. It's now well known that to be competitive in the class, an entry must have a reasonably powerful V-6 engine of medium displacement, a long wheelbase, dual sliding side doors, a generous amount of passenger and cargo volume, and a reassuring bounty of safety features. These are the equivalents of the North Star and other fixed astronomical points that enable the earth's waters to be crossed.
The question with the 2005 Nissan Quest is this: How could it navigate so competently among the fixed points and yet sell so poorly? It has a 240-horsepower aluminum-alloy V-6 of 3.5 liters, a wheelbase of 124.0 inches, and as much as 148.7 cubic feet of cargo space. An independent front and rear suspension distinguishes it from many other minivans. Side airbags for front-row passengers and side curtains for all three rows are offered, and body side reinforcements deliver a welcome measure of passive safety.
This second-generation Quest, introduced for model year 2004, should have easily steered a course to success. But interference from certain strange traits has instead sent it toward the shoals. For example, look at the instrument display. Instead of being located in the traditional position directly ahead of the steering wheel, it's in a pod in the middle of the dashboard. When we first saw it, we thought it was marvelous. But in practical application, this is a poor place for the speedometer and tachometer. (Also, we found the design of the dials themselves to be less eye-catching than those of other competitors.) Meanwhile, located in the dashboard directly ahead of the steering wheel, a large triangular lid pops up at the touch of a button, revealing a strange, recessed storage pocket. We had no idea what to keep there. Wedges of Brie?
One wag has suggested the Quest's problem is that it's French. While that charge is enough to damn many things in America, it's not literally true. The Quest is assembled in Canton, Mississippi. And of course Nissan is a Japanese company. But Renault is Nissan's global partner, and the Quest does have enough Gallicisms in its design vocabulary, and enough peculiarities in general, to make you think of various Citron automobiles. The rear wheels, in particular, are placed at the very corners of the 204.1-inch-long minivan; no competitor shares this extreme appearance. Additionally, the undulating beltline calls an enormous amount of attention to itself, which is probably not a good thing. And the way some of the body panels are modeled results in oddly colliding planes. You can't take your eyes off the Quest, but that's not necessarily a compliment.
What's ironic here is that driving the Quest is as pleasant as can be. It energetically gets up and moves when the light turns green. A four-speed automatic with overdrive is standard on the base and S models, while the SL and the SE are equipped with a five-speed automatic; our experience showed that the Quest's powertrain compares quite favorably with class leaders from Honda and Toyota. Ride quality on the seventeen-inch wheels of the 4209-pound, top-of-the-line is acceptable, and the handling is athletic, with only a modicum of understeer. (Base, S, and SL models come with sixteen-inch wheels.) Standard four-wheel vented disc brakes with antilock complete the running gear.
There are some interior rattles, yet we've found this thrumming to be typical of nearly every minivan, what with their myriad compartments and gewgaws. Ergonomically, the only issue concerns the instrument panel's unconventional placement; otherwise, switches and controls are right at hand, and learning how to use them is a snap. If there's one obvious shortcoming, it lies with the cupholders. Although there are only eight, it's well known from a television comedy ("Eight Is Enough") that this is sufficient. But the driver must rely on one that's integrated into the base of the seat and folds outward like a kind of expandable purse. We would call it baroque, but it actually worked all right; bizarre is more like it. Meanwhile, Chrysler and Honda beat the heck out of Nissan for smart use of center-cabin storage space and utility.
The SE model we drove comes equipped with leather upholstery (ours came in a medium gray that only a consumer focus group could love) and a startlingly good 10-speaker sound system. Among the other accoutrements were DVD-based navigation (a $2000 option); dual-zone automatic climate control (rear heating and A/C are standard in all models); power driver's seat with position memory that also governs the adjustable pedals and outside mirrors; one-touch front windows; a sunroof; and a full-length rear overhead console with lighting, storage bins, and air vents. Whatever electrical or electronic device is carried on board, whatever media is demanded, the Quest will have a conveniently situated jack or port or player for its operation. The so-called SkyView glass roof panel system with sunshades for second and third-row seats is an exclusive offering on the SE (it reminds us of Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser wagons of the 1960s) and would be quite appealing for those passengers who aren't transfixed by their Game Boys.
Like the Odyssey, the Quest has a storage drawer under the front-passenger seat. Second-row folding seats pitch forward for a nearly flat load surface; while still fixed in the upright position, these chairs also tip up from the base for easier third-row access. The third-row seat-which includes a three-point belt even for the middle passenger-tumbles backward into the cargo well. A right-side power sliding door and a power liftgate are standard with the S and SL; a power left-side door is added to the SE. Power door operation seemed a bit poky, though. The spare tire is stored in a well under the floor just behind the driver's seat. Run-flat tires, available on key competitors, are not yet offered with the Quest. Neither is a backup camera.
The Quest achieves competitive EPA fuel economy ratings of 19/26 mpg (four-speed automatic) and 18/25 mpg (five-speed automatic). Maximum seating accommodates seven persons. Pricing (including handling and destination charges) begins at $24,030 for the base model, increases to $25,140 for the S, $26,930 for the SL, and $32,930 for the SE. A fully equipped SE with navigation, dual-screen DVD entertainment, and the Skyview roof would bust across the $38,000 barrier.
A Nissan spokesman admits that resistance to the Quest's oddities was underestimated and sales haven't met expectations. Mid-product-cycle revisions are "quite possibly being accelerated," the spokesman said. But for the time being, buyers will have to "learn to get used to it" as it is. The way we see it, though, this just isn't in the stars for very many people.