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Review and photos by Chris Chase
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There’s a black sheep in every family, or in the case of the automotive industry, every new-vehicle market segment. It doesn’t matter what kind of vehicle you’re considering – sports car, family sedan, pickup truck or SUV – there’s always at least one model that stands out in the crowd. Not even the minivan segment, that last bastion of homogeneity, is immune.
Case in point: the Nissan Quest. Until 2002, the Quest (and its Mercury Villager clone) was built in one smallish size, to compete with the short-wheelbase versions of big-selling minivans from companies like DaimlerChrysler and General Motors. Then the Quest took 2003 off, apparently to spend some time at the gym, if its return as a larger-than-life family hauler in 2004 was any indication.
Indeed, if exterior dimensions were the be-all and end-all for minivans, the Quest would have the market nailed. Its wheelbase stretches 150 mm (6 in.) longer than that of the Honda Odyssey; it’s 105 mm (about 4 in.) longer than Toyota’s Sienna and it stands about 75 mm (just under 3 in.) taller than either.
But what really sets this van apart is its looks. Love it or hate it, the Quest’s appearance makes it stick out like a clown at a funeral. Many find the interior to be equally hard to digest, with its controversial centre-mounted gauges, and audio and climate controls located atop the massive column that rises between the front seats.
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So where did that wacky styling come from? Well, if you follow the who-owns-who soap opera that is the auto industry, you may recall that French automaker Renault rescued Nissan from the brink of financial ruin a few years ago. Park a Quest next to Renault’s Espace seven-seater (that is, if you could get one to North America) and the similarity – at least in the front-end styling – is uncanny. Aside from its decidedly North American size (the Quest is far too big for Europe’s crowded roads) the Nissan wouldn’t look out of place in France, or the rest of Europe, for that matter.
For many here, however, banal is better, which probably explains why Nissan sold just 2,495 Quests to Canadians in 2005. That’s an awfully small chunk of what is one of the most lucrative segments of the new car market: minivan sales totalled about 171,000 last year in Canada. Out of that number, Toyota sold about 13,600 Siennas, Honda moved about 12,600 Odysseys and DaimlerChrysler outright owned the segment, selling about 65,000 copies of its Dodge Caravan.
The Quest’s oddball styling is likely one reason for its poor sales, but not-so-great reliability since the 2004 redesign is another possible reason. Whatever the cause, it’s a shame that Nissan hasn’t been able to convince more buyers to choose the Quest, because it’s actually quite a capable vehicle with few glaring faults.
Regardless of whether you like the dashboard, most of it actually works pretty well. A main gripe has to do with that column-like centre stack. In my tester, the top panel didn’t sit flush on top of the stack – the bottom edge of it feels almost sharp enough to slice open a finger – and the handle on the shift lever felt like it wasn’t fastened tightly enough. While those are little things, they took away from what was otherwise a generally well-screwed-together interior.
The gauges, while a little small compared to what you’ll find in most of the Quest’s competition, are easy enough to read, once you get used to where they are. Proper fuel and temperature gauges with needles would be preferable to the digital readouts tucked into the bottom of the speedometer. To the right of the gauges is an easy-to-read screen that serves as the display for the sound and ventilation systems. My tester was a Special Edition model, which had a DVD player, six-CD changer and eight-speaker stereo, rear parking assist, and power liftgate and right-side sliding door, all of which are otherwise optional on the base 3.5S model.
My tester’s cloth seats were comfortable enough, though the bottom cushions of the front buckets have a weird shape that requires some time for your rear to get used to. Comfort in the other five seats – in this case two captain’s chairs in the second row and a three-place bench out back – is good, as is space. The middle-row seats collapse almost flush with the floor, and the rear bench folds into a cavity in the floor. The result isn’t a perfectly flat load floor, but there’s still a ton of space when all the seats are stowed away. For little items, there are lots of storage cubbies throughout the interior. While Nissan provides a handy bag for stowing rear-seat headrests when the seats are folded, a cargo net to secure loose items in the back would be appreciated.
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The Quest’s powerplant is the ubiquitous 3.5-litre V6 that does duty in a wide variety of Nissan and Infiniti vehicles ranging from sports cars to family haulers, and is well-suited to the task here. My 3.5S tester had a four-speed automatic, and while every other Quest model gets a five-speed, the four-cog gearbox does just fine both in the city and on the highway. The engine has plenty of power to move the van’s 1,831 kg curb weight, but Nissan still hasn’t figured out how to route a lot of power through the front wheels without tons of torque steer.
Nissan doesn’t offer an all-wheel-drive option as a handful of its competitors do, but equipped as it was with Toyo winter tires and standard traction control, the Quest handled snowy road conditions with little drama; an Ottawa-to-Montreal day trip in the middle of a significant snowfall posed no problem.
The Quest’s suspension feels a little on the firm side for a minivan, but it absorbs bumps nicely. The body structure is suitably stiff, remaining quiver-free over the worst that Ottawa and Montreal’s potholed roads had to offer. However, there was a rogue rattle emanating from somewhere in the back, the source of which was never revealed.
Taken on its own, the Quest is good at everything. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer much that can’t be found elsewhere in the segment at a similar – or lower – price. Throw in the Quest’s polarizing styling and its less-than-perfect reliability (remember, the nearly-bulletproof Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey are key competitors) and you may have found this van’s Achilles heel. It’s those characteristics that will likely prevent this black sheep from capturing more of a lucrative market segment, though a mid-cycle styling update inside and out for the 2007 model may help move this minivan closer to the mainstream and increase its appeal with more conservative buyers.
Technical Data: 2006 Nissan Quest 3.5S Special Edition
|Options||$3,800 (DVD entertainment system $2,000; Special Edition package $1,800)|
|Price as tested||$37,245 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||5-door, 7-passenger minivan|
|Layout||Transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.5-litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves|
|Horsepower||240 @ 5800 rpm|
|Torque||242 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm|
|Tires||P225/65R16 Goodyear Eagle|
|Curb weight||1831 kg (4036 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||3150 mm (124.0 in.)|
|Length||5185 mm (204.1 in.)|
|Width||1971 mm (77.6 in.)|
|Height||1826 mm (71.9 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||926 litres (32.7 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 12.4 L/100 km (23 mpg Imp)|
|Hwy: 8.3 L/100 km (34 mpg Imp)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/ 60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|