The Nissan Quest began life as minivan by committee, a joint-venture vehicle spawned by Ford and Nissan in 1993. As such, it was limited by compromise — flowing exterior styling with a square, vanilla interior.
The idea was to give its intended young-family buyers a hip-looking people hauler. But the first Quest’s mundane passenger cabin, coupled with a workaday 3-liter V-6 engine (151 horsepower, 174 foot-pounds of torque) and four-speed automatic transmission, betrayed its underlying conservatism.
It was not a bad minivan. But, for many drivers and passengers, once inside its cabin and on the road, it was decidedly drab in comparison with rivals such as the Honda Odyssey, Chrysler Town & Country and Toyota Sienna.
That is no longer the case.
Nissan has been improving the Quest in subsequent iterations, tightening up the minivan’s overall craftsmanship and engineering. It has now given us a fourth-generation sample, represented in this column by the top-of-the-line 2011 Quest LE, truly worthy of the competition.
The once-sexy Quest body has been scrapped in favor of something more formal, more cube-shaped — almost funereal in appearance when presented with the “black amethyst” paint job chosen for the body of the minivan reviewed here.
But the interior is spectacular. It is more luxury sedan than minivan, outfitted with genuinely orthopedic seats covered with supple leather, multiple power-controlled conveniences (including flip-up-and-down third-row seats), and an optional panoramic glass roof that contributes a wonderful lightness of being to being inside the minivan.
The new Quest seats seven bottoms instead of the eight accommodated by most of its rivals. Some critics see that as a demerit. I am not one of them. I never liked being a bus passenger. Driving a bus never held much appeal for me, either.
I would have preferred the Quest without its third-row seats, which is why I kept them folded down the entire week I had the vehicle. The flipped-down position created a flat, useful cargo floor and eliminated any worry about third-row passengers being hurt, or worse, in a rear-end collision.
(Could we please have a definitive study on the rear-crash safety of third-row seats in crossover-utility vehicles, sport-utility vehicles and minivans? Too many of them seem too close to rear hatches and liftgates, as is the case with the new Quest. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are studying this matter, according to sources in both places. Here’s hoping that we hear from them, soon.)
The new Quest is a very pleasant driver, which is proof that Nissan has come far in improving its technology for a continuously variable transmission.
CVTs eschew fixed gear ratios in favor of a pulley-like transmission system that automatically, continually adjusts power transfer to drive wheels — the front wheels, in the case of the new Quest. Early CVTs, including those in Nissan cars and minivans, felt as though engine power was being transmitted via unpredictably jerky rubber bands. But power transmission in the 2011 Quest LE is super-smooth, precise.
And there is more power to transmit in the 2011 Quest. The gasoline engine has been upgraded to a 3.5-liter V-6 (260 horsepower, 240 foot-pounds of torque). But the minivan’s mileage, 19 miles per gallon in the city and 24 miles per gallon on the highway, is not much to get excited about. Luckily, there is a 20-gallon fuel tank to help provide sufficient range (nearly 480 miles, according to federal fuel-economy estimates), and it runs on regular-grade fuel.
At today’s gasoline prices, at least in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, you can fill the tank on this one for $50. At least that is what it cost me and my wife, Mary Anne, at the Maryland House rest stop near Baltimore.