2011 Nissan Quest: First Drive

December 12, 2010

If you've been shopping for a new family minivan this year, you're probably confused--and you're forgiven.

With changes to every minivan offered in the U.S. this year, shoppers are faced with completely new versions of the 2011 Toyota Sienna and 2011 Honda Odyssey, the highest-rated minivans at TheCarConnection.com. There's also a pair of revamped Chrysler minivans, the 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country, with new interiors and new powertrains. Even the Kia Sedona gets a new grille and a new drivetrain this year.

Nothing's been overhauled more dramatically than the 2011 Nissan Quest, however. And while it's more attractive and more nimble--maybe the best minivan in America, in both respects--the new Quest also is now the smallest, least flexible and least fuel-efficient minivan, when it once trumped almost all comers in all those ways.

Does it do what your family needs it to do? Let's take a closer look at the basics before you decide.

2011 Nissan Quest: Styling

There's no mistaking the Quest's smaller, taller packaging, and how it plays on a new riff for the new model year. The Quest drops the droopy shoulders of the old American-made version (this new one's built in Japan), and goes crisp and angular as often as it can. In front the new Nissan family face pits acute and obtuse angles against each other for a look that reminds us mostly of the new Ford Focus lineup. Big shoulders rise on its side panels, and darkened glass minus the usual body-color pillars give the roof the visual ability to float. Ford does the same thing with the clever Flex crossover, too--and Nissan even apes the Flex's big chrome trim pieces atop the glass. The Quest's rear is studded with big taillamps all its own, and pronounced for aerodynamics.

The dash and cabin don't stray as far from the minivan mold. A wide swath of woodgrain trim sketches an avian shape across the interior, and the faux trim isn't too objectionable--but the shiny gray plastic surrounding the utilitarian-looking climate and audio controls feels like more of a compromise, like the similar pieces in the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. The transmission lever lines up vertically next to those same controls, and it blocks the driver's view of some knobs and buttons.

Atop these, an LCD screen slots into the dash cap on some versions. It's as small as 4.3 inches on the middle trim levels, and 8 inches on top models. A deck of controls sits at its feet, piano-key style. If you're not accustomed to playing, you'll wish you'd studied, as you figure out the Quest's audio controls.

2011 Nissan Quest: Performance

The Quest's V-6 power is stronger in its new form, though the 3.5-liter six is essentially the same powerplant as before. It's rated at 260 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, and in the Quest it's significantly more tame in terms of noise and vibration than in some other applications.

This time it's offered only with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), however, which poses the same familiarity questions as the CVT does in other Nissans, like the Altima, Sentra, Maxima and Murano. The gearless gearbox uses pulleys to approximate gears: it's often more efficient than a geared automatic transmission, but can suffer from rubbery, laggy driving feel. Nissan's worked diligently on its CVTs and across its lineup, they're among the best ever offered in any vehicle. In a minivan, it's easy to forgive the minor tremors through the drivetrain when you floor the gas--and as the pulleys modulate and catch up with your acceleration needs. With 260 hp on tap, the Quest never feels strained, and with some preset shift points in the CVT's driving range, it feels nearly as natural as a well-geared five- or six-speed automatic.

With an independent suspension at all four corners, the Quest benefits from a smaller footprint than other minivans. It feels the most nimble of all its competitors, and in big part, that's due to the electrohydraulic steering. Using signals to direct the power steering's hydraulic pump instead of a belt, the Quest delivers the most natural steering feel of its class--though the electronic power steering in the Toyota Sienna is quite good, it doesn't rebound from inputs with the same relaxed feel. The Quest doesn't bound over long bumps like the Chrysler minivans, since its nearly equal weight seems to be damped more effectively.

The Quest lags nearly all its competition, and ties the Sienna at 18/24 mpg for the lowest highway fuel economy of any front-drive, V-6-powered minivan (the Sienna with all-wheel drive drops lower, to 16/22 mpg). The Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan have lower city numbers, but earn an EPA-rated 17/25 mpg overall.

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