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CANTON, Miss. — Just because the vehicle you drive has sliding doors doesn’t mean you have no style. It just looks like you don’t. The minivan. So practical, so roomy, but oh so dull to look at. It’s the automotive equivalent of a housedress.
Most moms do have style, and a life outside the home, and Nissan thinks they deserve a family-hauler that’s as stylish and multi-dimensional as they are.
Enter the 2004 Quest, Nissan’s radically redesigned minivan, which began rolling off the line at Nissan’s new $1.4 billion assembly plant in Canton, Miss., May 27. Nissan invited a bunch of us automotive journalists to tour the Canton plant and test drive its first offspring. But before setting us free in the Quests, Nissan engineers and marketers provided an overview of their new people mover.
Nuts and bolts
Designed by Nissan Design America in San Diego, Calif., the Quest is powered by the same great 3.5-liter V-6 found in at least six other Nissan/Infiniti vehicles, giving it more oomph (240 hp, 242 lb-ft of torque) than most owners will ever ask of it. It rides on the same FF-L platform found in the Altima, Murano, and Maxima.
Nissan hopes to lure 85,000 buyers per year into Quests, which is quite a leap from the 52,000 Quests purchased in 1995, its best-selling year ever. That’s a lot of 35- to 45-year-old mothers.
To be specific, Nissan is targeting the Quest at 35- to 45-year-old college-educated, professional, stylish, and sophisticated married women with young children. (There was no mention of empty nesters, a key minivan-buying segment.) According to Nissan’s research, these women don’t just want practical, roomy, and safe, they want stylish, too.
To inspire and guide them in their Quest (sorry) to design the mom-mobile of the future, Nissan designers tacked words like “funky,” “modern,” “sexy,” “urban,” and “artistic” on their bulletin boards. I don’t know if I’d call the resulting vehicle “sexy,” but it is sleek and stylish — with a swoopy window line and windswept profile — which is about as sexy as a one-box vehicle can get. The Quest’s silhouette would be easy to pick out of a minivan lineup: it’s long and low, with a hard-edged nose and a gracefully arching roofline. The profile is so un-minivan-like, Nissan could’ve called it something else — a “sports tourer,” perhaps — like Chrysler did with the Pacifica. Only the Quest’s sliding doors would give it away.
Speaking of sliding doors, the Quest has the longest, widest-opening doors in its class, which makes getting to and from the third-row seat a cinch. Back-seat access is further simplified by the trick second-row bucket seats, which tilt up and forward (seat cushion and all), much like the front seats do in the VW Beetle. The second-row seats fold flat, and the third-row bench folds flat into the floor for maximum cargo-carrying capacity. Interior volume has increased 44 cubic feet over the previous Quest, placing it among the roomiest front-wheel-drive minivans.
Inside the feeling is open, spacious and modern, with furniture-style seats, ample walk-through space and bold interior colors. “Urban loft” is the how Nissan design director Alfonso Albaisa described the feeling they were trying to evoke. Up front, the shift lever, A/C and audio controls are clustered on a round, table-top-like console that projects up from the floor like a barrel. The instrument panel and information/navigation display screen is located above the console. For the driver, there’s a covered storage bin on the dashboard behind the steering wheel and a steering-column clip for securing a grocery list, photo, or directions to Aunt Betty’s house.
2004 Nissan QuestEnlarge Photo
Driving it home
After climbing in and out of a display model, we jumped into pre-production Quests for a test drive. I (a multi-faceted, stylish mother myself) was teamed with a Texas writer with a penchant for loud country music. No sooner had he turned the ignition key than one of his country CDs was blasting through the ten-speaker Bose stereo system at full tilt. I exaggerate. But the music — which sounded pretty good on the first-ever Bose system developed for a minivan — precluded meaningful conversation. So I occupied myself reading the map and fiddling with knobs and compartment doors.
This being the hot and humid Deep South, I fiddled with the A/C knobs first. Talk about confusing. After I inadvertently turned the driver’s side temperature to arctic freeze, Tex gave it a try. He nearly ran off the road in the process. After much finagling, we figured it out, but it wasn’t easy. The A/C knobs themselves felt flimsy and temporary, as if they’d spring off at any minute. Twenty minutes later, we almost went off the road again when Tex tried to reload the CD changer, which is located out of driver’s sight beneath the control console.
Had we actually run off the road and crashed into something, we would have been protected by the Nissan Advanced Air Bag System, which uses crash zone and occupant weight sensors to control airbag deployment. Had we rolled, we would have kept our heads, as all Quests come standard with head-protection curtain airbags for all three rows (a minivan first).
The Quest is offered in three trim levels: 3.5 S, 3.5 SL, and 3.5 SE. We were driving the top-drawer SE model, which features a Skyview Roof — four skylights extending over the second and third rows. Running between the skylights is an airline-style overhead console with reading lights, storage compartments, and two optional DVD screens (so kids in the third row don’t get feel deprived).
When it was my turn in the driver’s seat, I used the steering wheel–mounted volume controls to discreetly turn down that damned country music. But the pesky navigation screen, which displays the volume level whenever you adjust it, kept busting me. Tex would lean over and turn the music up (no Dixie Chicks) again. We were in a power struggle. It was time for lunch.
Torpor on the road
After feasting on seafood gumbo and fried-chicken salad at a used-to-be real-life southern plantation, we switched into an SL model Quest and headed back to Jackson. Torpor set in. Tex removed his six CDs from the changer, and we drove in silence. The Quest was pretty quiet; hardly any wind or road noise crept in. I moved to the third-row seat and had Tex talk to me in a normal voice, and I could almost understand what he said.
On the roomy comfort front, the Quest is about as good as they get. Sitting in the third-row seat with the second-row seat pulled back as far as it would go, I still had two inches between my knees and the seatback. I reclined in the second seat, slid it back three notches, and had miles of legroom. It was so comfortable I would have fallen asleep. But first I had to inspect the rear audio controls (available with wireless headphones), A/C controls, and power outlets (two in front, two in back). The two rear outlets are oddly located. To use them, a second-seat occupant would have to stretch a cord back to the third row, and with that outlet in use, a third-row passenger would have to stretch the cord to the baggage area.
2004 Nissan QuestEnlarge Photo
The Quest goes on sale in July, with base prices ranging from $24,600 to $33,000. About 80 percent of buyers will opt for the 3.5 S and 3.5 SL models, putting the average transaction price below $30,000. Sure, the Quest lacks a few amenities offered by its competitors (e.g., roll-down rear windows, second-row bench, available AWD), and it has a couple of little glitches in the cabin. But the Quest more than makes up for its minor deficits with breakthrough styling, there’s-no-place-like-home comfort, and a world-class engine. Most important of all, thanks to the Quest, “good-looking minivan” is no longer an oxymoron.
About 20 miles ahead
of schedule, Tex pulled over and asked me to take the wheel. He settled into a
second-row seat, I adjusted the electronically adjustable pedals, and we were
off. I swerved a little to check the steering feel, which was a little soft but
responsive, like a big car. After ten minutes I looked in the rearview mirror
and saw that Tex had fallen asleep. For the next 50 miles I drove real smooth
and careful so as not to wake him. I felt just like a mom.
2004 Nissan Quest
Base Price Range: $24,600 - $33,000
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6 producing 240 hp, 242 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Four- or five-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 124.0 in
Length x width x height : 204.1 x 77.6 x 70.0 in
Weight : 4012 lb
Fuel economy (estimated): 19/26 (four-speed), 18/25 (five-speed)
Standard safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, brake assist, dual front airbags, head-protection curtain airbags for all three rows, LATCH child seat system, three-point seat belts and adjustable head restraints for all seating positions, child safety rear door locks.
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles