2011 Nissan Quest 3.5 LE: In the minivan mainstream

March 4, 2011, 4:00 PM UTC

Without doubt, the minivan has the least-malleable image of any product segment.

Lowly sub-compacts sparkle when recast as adorable playthings — the Mini Cooper — or hot hatches — the MazdaSpeed3. Workaday pickup trucks can be easily linked to weekend recreation or made surrogates for Craftsman series racers.

But minivans remain forever tied to the iconic soccer mom and her world of child safety seats, juice box holders, and car pools. It is the ultimate life-stage vehicle; nobody wants another minivan after the kids grow up. Product planners call it a “need” car, not a “want” car.

It isn’t that generations of marketers haven’t tried to broaden the van’s appeal. Pontiac tried advertising its Montana by showing cowboys instead of moms and their kids. You can judge its success by the fact that the Montana died a year before Pontiac did.

They keep trying. For 2011, Toyota produced a video showing a family of four rapping about the merits of their Sequoia “swagger wagon.” One critic called it, “pretty much a reverse psychology admission of uncoolness.”

Not to be outdone, Chrysler christened its 2011 Dodge Caravan R/T the “man van.” “When you sit behind the steering wheel you will feel you are driving a sports car,” the Wall Street Journal quoted a Chrysler rep as saying. “As long as you don’t look behind you, you forget you are driving a minivan.”

I beg to differ. Nobody ever confused a minivan with a sports car or forgot they were driving one.

Nissan has been down this road too. In 2004, it introduced an all-new Quest with a Star Trek instrument panel, swoopy roof, and even swoopier beltline that it called the “sexy mom” minivan. Though the interior was quickly cleaned up and the pillar-style center stack removed, the Quest was saddled with poor quality coming out of Nissan’s new assembly plant in Mississippi, and sales sank throughout is production. Nissan sold only 8,564 Quests in 2009 and then put it on hiatus for 2010.

The new 2011 Quest is more sensible and straightforward. Instead of avoiding the stereotyped minivan image, Nissan embraced it. “Our research showed some buyers think of the minivan as a surrender to their youth and fun, but our feeling is it doesn’t have to be that way,” says a Nissan executive. “The other way of looking at it is that it’s a commitment to family life and to being with them and having fun.”

In design, the new Quest is the polar opposite of the old one. Straight lines and right-angled corners have replaced curves, and elegant colors like my dark mahogany test vehicle have succeeded the pastels of the old one. The only drawbacks are the flat roof and a rear hatch area that bears a close resemblance to that of the underachieving Ford Flex.

Since style, performance and status aren’t on the minivan shopping list, they have to shine in less glamorous areas: safety, utility, and options. Here the 2011 Quest is smartly competitive.

It has eliminated the bench seat for the second row, which improves seating comfort. The second and third row seats can’t be removed, which is fine with me — as anyone who has tried to remove heavy, bulky minivan seats will understand. Nor do they fold into the floor, but they do fold flat, and the Quest can accommodate a four-foot by eight-foot plywood sheet, albeit with the tailgate ajar.
Helpful new options include door handles that open with the touch of a button, great for those with a lot of dunnage. Difficult rear-seat passengers can be observed through the conversation mirror and accessed via the removable second-row console.

Safety features include frontal, side impact, and side curtain airbags. No crash data is yet available. Power is provided by a 3.5 liter six-cylinder engine with CVT transmission producing 260 horsepower. Fuel economy is an unimpressive 19 miles per gallon city/24 mpg highway.

There are a few oddities. As tested, the Quest stickered at $43,740, a price that included so-called “manufacturer options,” such as a moon roof and floor mats. Idle thought: If manufacturer options are automatically included, why doesn’t that make them the same as standard equipment? The price tag for the cargo net was $60. At that price, it must have been made out of spun gold.

The 2011 Quest doesn’t set many new benchmarks, but at least it gets Nissan back in the minivan mainstream. And give it credit for honesty in advertising. Minivans for families — what a concept!