Driven: 2011 Nissan Quest

Nissan has not had an easy time of it in the U.S. minivan market. The original Quest, codeveloped with Ford and sold also as the Mercury Villager, was undersized. Nissan's next Quest was a solo effort that featured avant-garde design -- too avant-garde, as it turned out -- and which was built at the company's brand-new U.S. factory in Mississippi. That Quest was dogged by quality problems, and sales were disappointing. Nissan has now given up engineering a minivan specifically for the American market, and its latest Quest is instead an adaptation of the Japanese-market Elgrand minivan, and is imported from Japan.

The styling of the new Quest is 180-degrees out from the previous one. Where the last Quest was all wavy and swoopy, the new one flaunts its slab-sided boxyness. The oddball interior of the previous Quest is only a fading memory, as the new model is conventionally configured. My test example was leather-lined and nicely padded just about everywhere -- as well it might be for $43,750. That's for the top-spec LE, optioned up with dual, opening sunroofs (the kids can control their own). Otherwise, the LE comes with pretty much everything, including navigation, a backup camera, the aforementioned leather, and a rear-seat DVD player. Kids loved the wide (11-inch diagonal) flip-down video screen, which powers open at a touch of the button on the remote. It's standard on the LE and optional on the SL. In addition to DVDs, the system can play movies or other media contained on a flash drive, which you can plug into a USB port.

This big box feels huge from the inside. The second row has plenty of space, but accommodations in the third row are somewhat dependent on the generosity of those in the second-row seats, which can slide fore and aft and which also recline. If spiteful older siblings are in row two, the third row can be tight; with more magnanimous passengers in the middle seats, the third row can be fine, even for adults. Cargo space behind the third seat -- in important measure for families that often travel full-up -- is 37 cubic feet, including the extra-large well beneath the two removable floor panels.

From the driver's seat, the Quest feels dead conventional. The ride is fairly comfortable, and the chassis does nothing to encourage high-speed cornering through the subdivision. The steering earns points for being reasonably direct and not overboosted. Nissan's 3.5-liter V-6 has been much maligned for its coarse nature, but it's barely audible here, and it's certainly powerful enough to get the team to soccer practice on time. It plays well with the continuously variable automatic transmission, as it's torque arrives low enough in the rev range that there's none of the rubber-band throttle response you get when a CVT is paired with the small four-cylinder engines more typically used with this type of transmission. Fuel economy is quite good in the city (19 mpg) but the highway figure (24 mpg) can't match the class-leading Honda Odyssey. [A side thought: Shouldn't the EPA come up with a new test cycle, suburb, for minivans?]

So, the grown-ups' verdict is that the Quest has finally achieved the normalcy that should enable it to grab a decent slice of the minivan market. But what's the kids' point of view? Well, we asked one young lad who is a keen -- bordering on obsessive -- observer of cars. His parents just bought a Toyota Sienna minivan, but upon seeing the Quest, young Johnny was smitten. "I love your Quest," said the boy, who is 5. "I'm going to buy one tomorrow."

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