1990 Nissan Axxess SE

George, my friend the TV cameraman, is still driving his 1993 Nissan Axxess and he just can’t bear to part with it. His four-wheel-drive mini-minivan/cum small station wagon is amazingly versatile and so far it hasn’t caused him much pain in the wallet for repairs.

“I really can’t see any reason to part with it,” he says, noting that the Axxess is the right size for hauling around all his camera gear, tripods, light kits and so on. Yet fuel economy is very, very good.

The Axxess went on sale in Canada in 1989 as a 1990 model; Nissan stopped selling it after 1995. If you’re looking for a vehicle like this, keep in mind that the Nissan van is very similar to the Dodge Colt, also sold as the Plymouth Colt, Eagle Summit and, in the United States, the Mitsubishi Expo.

In any case, both vans are relatively comfortable, fuel efficient, versatile cargo carrying city vehicles available with weather-beating all-wheel drive. Their value to owner is reflected in how well prices have held up. A mid-1990s Axxess will still cost you $6,000 or more if it’s indecent shape. Not bad for a van that sold for about $20,000 brand new.

Okay, a little background. The Axxess was introduced in 1989 as a 1990 model. It was the successor to another small van called the Multi, which itself was the first four-door van sold in North America. The Multi and the Axxess were popular in Canada, however they never caught on in the United States, so a North American version went away after ’95. However, for years afterward a global version of the Axxess was sold in dozens of markets around the world under the name “Prairie.”

The Dodge Colt, meanwhile, was no longer sold in Canada after the 1994 model year, and that’s one of the reasons it is something of a bargain on the used vehicle market. In essence, then, the Colt and Axxess were available as new vehicles during about the same time frame.

Now a few words about parts. They’re still available and reasonably priced. In fact, the 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine that powered the Axxess also did service in the last Nissan Stanza and versions of that engine have done service in many other Nissan vehicles. So engine parts, in particular, are not much of a problem.

It’s a similar story for the Colt and its brethren. Generally speaking parts shouldn’t be difficult to locate. Mitsubishi is a huge Japanese company which has had an extensive dealer network in the U.S. for many years. In addition, Mitsubishi has just launched an independent network of retailers in Canada.

In any case, the least expensive Colts came with front-wheel drive and were powered by a fuel-injected 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine with 16 valves operated by a single overhead camshaft: 113-horsepower. Top-of-the-line models had all-wheel drive and under the hood there was a 2.4-litre, 16-valve four that produced 136 horsepower – similar to the 138-hp Axxess.

The appeal of both the Colt and Axxess is pretty straightforward. We’re talking about a practical hybrid-type van (part car, part panel truck) with surprisingly nimble ride and handling.

I’d argue that the Axxess is one of those vehicles that makes perfect sense for a lot of families. And because it was never very expensive in the first place, and Nissan hasn’t sold any new ones for a quite a few years, the Axxess is a pretty good buy in second-hand transportation. The problem is finding a used one. Owners like George tend to hold on to the bitter end.

So, in the case of the Axxess, what exactly will you be buying? A smallish, but not too small four-door van (yes, a sliding door on each side!) with seating for five passengers, seven in older versions. Car-like amenities were always standard.

Where the Axxess did most cars one better was in packaging and winter performance thanks to the availability of all-wheel drive. Trust me, with this thing you could move a kid to college in the dead of winter. (For the record, the base vans had front-wheel drive.)

The all-wheel-drive system on the Axxess had a twin limited-slip differential which automatically transfers torque (acceleration forces) to whichever wheels had traction. Very sophisticated and it works really well in winter’s slush.

On the whole, the Axxess is little gem, very much in the mould of today’s smaller sport-utes such as Honda’s CR-V and Toyota’s RAV4, although the Axxess is less stylish.

As for the Colt, parked side-by-side with the Axxess, you can see the similarities – aside from the Nissan’s sliding door on the driver’s side. Some highlights: a high seating position but a low step-in height; standard four-passenger seating is flexible (it’s possible to fold forward or completely remove the rear seat); a big lift-up tailgate and sliding side door provide easy access.

Both vans have a short wheelbase, so they zip through traffic and are a snap to park. Standard brakes on both vehicles are strong. If you find one with all-wheel-drive, you’ve got a van with grippy takeoffs, even is snowy/icy conditions.

As for interiors, these vans are airy and comfortable, although in both instances you’ll find but some of the switches and controls are tricky to find or are a fair reach.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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