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.

2011 Nissan Quest: Utility and Comfort

The Quest suffers the most in the space it offers for people and for cargo. It's the smallest minivan of all, by a good amount, and nearly the size now of the old short-wheelbase minivans that Chrysler and Kia used to sell.

With a 118.1-inch wheelbase and an overall length of 200.8 inches, the Quest doesn't seem too far off the big numbers posted by the other minivans. It's important to point out here that the new Quest has lost the fold-in-the-floor seats of the last model--in fact, the Quest's seats can't be removed at all, which shaves valuable cubic feet off its official specifications.

At most, its wheelbase is only 3.1 inches shorter than the vehicles in the class with the longest wheelbases, in the Chrysler minivans. The Quest has 36.7 inches of second-row legroom--that number shows whether four adults will be comfortable in any minivan--while the Chryslers are a fraction smaller, and everything else at least a couple of inches more spacious. Dual sliding side doors are standard, but the openings are considerably more narrow than on any other minivan on the market, making it much more difficult to get in and out than in other vans.

When it comes to cargo volume, the Quest is far in back of the pack, with about 35 cubic feet behind its third-row seats, 64 cubic feet with the third row folded, and 108 cubic feet with the second row folded. The next-smallest Sedona, with similar folding second-row seats, offers up 32 cubic feet, 80 cubic feet, and 142 cubic feet of space. The Chryslers, with their space-saving fold-in-the-floor seats, offer up 33 cubic feet, 83 cubic feet and 144 cubic feet, respectively. The humongous Sienna has 39 cubic feet, 87 cubic feet, and as much as 150 cubic feet of space with the second-row seats folded up and the third row tucked away, respectively. The Odyssey has 38 cubic feet, a vast 93 cubic feet, and 149 cubic feet of space behind the respective rows.

The less efficient interior just feels smaller, and the higher load floor and fixed seats are the reason. Nissan says it's satisfied with its non-removable seats as a cargo solution, even though the last-generation Quest matched the Chrysler's functionality with fold-in-the-floor seats. Since the Quest now shares its basics with the Japanese-market Elgrand minivan, it's easy to see how economies of scale have made the new Quest more affordable to engineer, but the result sacrifices space and utility. The seats do fold easily, thanks to levers and pull straps, though on some models, the power assist for the third-row seat stops short of raising the seat all the way. Oddly, it gives up at the vertical position, leaving owners to use a cloth strap to finish the job.

Other compromises are less significant. The Quest does without an eighth seating position, like the ones found in the Odyssey and Sienna. It also omits a telescoping steering wheel, though the driver's close, high seating position makes up for it, mostly. It offers up 16 cup and bottle holders, though the pop-out pair under the radio are big enough only for cans.

2011 Nissan Quest: Safety

Every 2011 Quest has a big array of safety equipment. Dual front, side and curtain airbags are standard; so are anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control. Nissan's tire-pressure monitors are standard as well, and beep a warning when a tire is low.

On models with power sliding side doors, a periodic beep signals the doors' closing. A rearview camera is standard on the top three trim levels, but unavailable on the base Quest.

The top Quest model also has a blind-spot warning system.

2011 Nissan Quest: Features

The 2011 Quest's key features and infotainment options aren't cutting-edge, but should satisfy most owners--at least those who pay for the pricier trim levels.

The base Quest S carries a sticker price of $28,550, and comes with a standard removable second-row console, between second-row bucket seats; pushbutton start is also included, with power windows/locks/mirrors, and a six-CD changer. Bluetooth isn't standard on this Quest; it isn't even offered, and neither are satellite radio, nor a rearview camera.

Moving up to the $31,700 Quest SV earns the family chauffer some nicer surroundings, including power sliding side doors; automatic climate control; a conversation mirror, to keep the third-row kids in sight; a USB port and Bluetooth for modern connectivity; the rearview camera; and a 4.3-inch LCD audio display, which bundles a set of buttons beneath it, separated from the standard audio controls. It's a recipe for confusion: you'll scroll through audio functions atop the dash, while radio presets and volume functions sit far below your sight lines--or worse, tucked out of sight behind the shift lever.

Opt for the $35,150 Quest SL and leather upholstery makes an appearance; so do 18-inch wheels; a power passenger front seat and power tailgate; heated front seats and heated mirrors; and automatic headlights. The $42,150 Quest LE tops things off with a navigation system; satellite radio; power assist for the third-row seat; a DVD entertainment system with a sharp 11-inch screen; blind-spot detectors; and xenon headlights.

The options list is slim: the DVD player can be ordered on the Quest SL, as can Bose speakers; dual sunroofs are available on the SL and LE models. Nissan doesn't have plans now to incorporate USB ports for 3G-to-WiFi connectivity, and doesn't offer iPad mounting kits for back-seat passengers.

As it's pulled back from the edge of the styling ice, the Quest has grown more handsome. But it's also itty-bitty by the modern minivan yardstick, and the interior's just not as talented as it used to be. Not every family needs gargantuan elbow room and Transformers interiors, and maybe some of them aren't frightened of a mile per gallon more, here and there.

There are fewer and fewer of those who will settle for less each year, though. The last Quest was a gutsy stretch for Nissan, and an utter sales flop. It's tough to imagine how a less capable, less efficient Quest will change the course of minivan history when the Sienna, the Odyssey, and some superior crossovers like the Ford Flex make high-tech convenience look much too easy.
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