By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Minivans — traditional minivans — are becoming scarce. GM and Ford don’t even make them anymore. That leaves Chrysler (Town & County — and its lower-rent Dodge sibling, the Caravan — which is also re-sold by VW as the Routan), the Honda Odyssey, Toyota’s Sienna — and the Nissan Quest, subject of this write-up.
Well, what’s it got that the others don’t have?
And does it lack stuff the others have got?
WHAT IT IS
The Quest is a full-size traditional minivan.
It’s not quite as much of a bus as competitors like the larger (and eight-passenger-capable) Toyota Sienna — and it’s much less expensive (at least to start) than the Chrysler Town & Country, which has a base price of $30,530.
And it’s the only one in which — if you listen really hard — you might just be able to hear the keening cry of a 370Z trapped somewhere deep down, desperate to escape.
Prices begin at $25,990 for the base S trim and run all the way to $42,640 for the LE.
The changes for 2013 are mostly minor — however, you can now get the DVD entertainment system in base trims. Last year, you had to move higher up the food chain before you could even order it. Nissan’s neat-o Around View camera system is now available, too. It shows you the entire perimeter of the vehicle — not just the area behind you.
Still affordable — base trims, at least.
Not too big.
Looks pretty cool — for a minivan.
It can hustle — and not just in a straight line.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Might be too small — if you need room for eight (or more room for cargo).
Third row folds forward and down — but not into the floor.
No AWD (Toyota Sienna still offers this).
UNDER THE HOOD
Yes, it’s a minivan — but wait. Under that minivan hood, you’ll find not just a V-6 — but the same basic V-6 used in the last generation Z car. It displaces 3.5 liters (vs. 3.7 liters in the current Z car) and though it only makes 260 hp (vs. 332 in the ’13 Z) it is, nonetheless, possessed of the same well-bred lineage — and so, displays some of the same characteristics. It revs freely — and fairly ferociously through the also-standard continuously variable (CVT) transmission.
You will be surprised — and hopefully, delighted — by this.
Zero to 60 takes about 7.9 seconds — a feat no K-Car based original-era minivan could come close to managing, unless you dropped it off the observation deck of the Sears Tower.
The Toyota Sienna — which comes with a 3.5 liter, 266 hp V-6, is slightly quicker. But not by much (7.6 seconds) and whatever advantage it has in a straight line, it loses when the road isn’t straight (more on this below).
The Chrysler T&C is stronger — 3.6 liter, 283 hp V-6 — but is (strangely) the least-quick of the bunch: Zero to 60 takes 8.3-8.4 seconds.
Honda’s Odyssey splits the difference — with a not-as-strong 248 hp 3.5 liter V-6, but a not-half-bad 7.9 second 0 to 60 run.
Mileage-wise, the Quest is also Z-car like: 19 city, 25 highway. But to be fair, the competition’s no better — and some are worse.
The T&C, for example, laps it up at the rate of 17 city, 25 highway. And the AWD-equipped Sienna (the only traditional minivan that’s still available with AWD) tilts the barrel all the way back and drains the entire thing down its gullet at the astonishing rate of of 16 city, 23 highway. (The FWD Sienna does better: 18 city, 25 highway).
Honda’s Odyssey again splits the difference — with a decent (relative to the others) 19 city, 28 highway . . . if you buy the extra cost six-speed automatic transmission. The standard-issue Odyssey with the less efficient five-speed registers 18 city, 27 highway.
Bottom line, they’re all pigs. Mileage not far off the return you’d get in a V-8 powered SUV.
It’s strange, when you stop to think about it, that none of the car companies have produced or even thought about producing a hybrid minivan. The platform is ideally suited to it (plenty of room for batteries and electric motors) and these not-so-mini-vans are in desperate need of more fuel-efficient drivetrains.
A diesel engine would be even better.
Uncle Sam’s 35.5 MPG CAFE requirement is literally almost upon us. The current crop of minivans is not even in the same solar system as far as compliance with that. If the car companies don’t do something dramatic between Now and Then (2016) traditional minivans are either going to get a lot more expensive — via “gas guzzler” fines.
Or they are going to be disappeared, just like Hummers — and for the same reason.
ON THE ROAD
If Lambo Diablos and 911 turbos are on the far right of the spectrum, then minivans as a class are on the far left. Practicality, versatility — common sense. Everything that Lambos and Porsche 911s aren’t. But, where’s the fun? Where’s the style?
Where’s the psychological return for that $40k I just laid down?
Ah, the minivan dilemma.
Nissan understands. Because the Quest at least tries to be a little bit fun — and even somewhat stylish, too (more on that below).
The first thing you notice once you close the door is that no electronic ghost of Marge Schott starts banging pots and pans together, demanding you buckle-up for safety . . . now! Nissan is the only major automaker whose new cars do not come with a can’t-be-turned-off “belt-minder” buzzer. Just a light — which is happily very easy to ignore. Unlike the BBs pelting your genitals Ding! Ding! Ding! of that blankety-blank buzzer.
This pleasant prelude of peace and quiet is itself almost enough reason to buy this van — if you must buy a minivan.
But the rest of it is all right, too.
The 3.5 liter V-6 — unlike the typical minivan six — is sourced directly from sports cars and sport sedans. It may have been down-tuned some for Quest duty, but it is still the same DOHC V-6 the entire automotive press rightly cheers when it’s under the hood of a Maxima or Altima — or Z car. And this alive engine is teamed with an excellent CVT transmission that is both smooth and quiet and angry, when called upon by your right foot to translate the engine’s output into forward thrust.
The Quest lopes along in a family-friendly way — until you punch it. Then, the Z-descended V-6 lights off, afterburners glowing — cams spinning and pistons pumping all the way to the 6,500 RPM redline. Which with this engine (and this CVT) feels good — and sounds good, too. The Quest’s roll-on power and mid-range pull are both excellent. If you want to get a handle on how unlike the original K car-era vans a modern minivan is, take a new Quest up to about 75 MPH — not far off the top speed of a circa ’84 Aries K van — and then floor it. As the white lines get closer and closer together, it is very easy to forget you’re driving a minivan.
Now, the other vans pull strongly, too — especially the Sienna. And the Honda Odyssey’s V-6 is also a jewel (and shared with sporty cars like the Accord). However, all of the Quest’s competition feels lunky-clumsy in the corners — especially the softly-sprung Sienna and even more so the utterly ungainly Chrysler T&C. Body roll is their business. So is over-boosted/too-light steering. That may be just the ticket for one-handed moving into and out of tight spaces at the shopping mall — but the Quest’s higher-effort steering is better once you’re moving at faster-than-school-zone speed.
You will not feel the need for speed in the Quest’s competition. Which, of course, the typical minivan buyer isn’t looking for anyhow.
But if you’re one of the few who wants what the minivan is there for — including a posh ride — but sometimes wouldn’t mind having a vehicle that can take a freeway off ramp above the recommended maximum without hurling your passengers centrifugally outward (and possibly causing them to hurl their lunches in the process) then you simply must try the Quest.
It’s like having a flask in church.
AT THE CURB
The Quest is the only big van of the Big Four that doesn’t offer a second row-bench and thus, eight-passenger seating. The second row consists of a pair of captain’s chairs — period.
The plus side to this is RV-esque accommodations for four (driver, front seat passenger and two adults in the second row) plus adequate accommodations for a couple of older kids/teenagers in the third row. Front row legroom (43.8 inches) is almost three inches more than in the Sienna and Odyssey and T&C (40.5 inches, 40.9 inches and 40.7 inches, respectively). On the other hand, if you need to carry around a gaggle of 12-year-olds, the Quest may not be accommodating enough and — frankly — it’s just too darn nice for that anyhow (more on that in a moment).
Also, the third row doesn’t disappear into the floor as in vans like the T&C and Honda Odyssey. They do fold forward and down, which leaves 108.4 cubes for stuff — but this is not even close to the Sienna’s container ship-esque 150 cubes, the T&C’s 143.8 cubes or the Odyssey’s 148.5 cubes.
It’s still a lot of cubes, though.
I put 20 50 pound bags of landscaping rocks in the back — and could have put another 20 back there plus stuff on top of that if I hadn’t been worried about what the weight of all those rocks was going to do to the not-my-Quest’s rear suspension. My job is to evaluate the thing — not hurt it. The second row center console can be removed, too — allowing you to carry some 2x4s home with the rear gate closed.
Here’s the deal as I see it: You may not need the 40-ish additional cubes of space you’d find in the other vans — or the theoretical eight passenger capacity. I put that in italic for a reason. Yes, you could theoretically cram eight people into a Sienna or Odyssey or T&C. But that second row bench is strictly coach-class. Fine for small kids and younger teenagers; too-close-for-comfort for adults. The third row even more so. The Quest — to Nissan’s credit — isn’t built in such a way as to comply with a technicality for PR purposes — “Hey, look! Eight passenger seating!” — but instead honestly touts and delivers realistic room for seven.
Further evidence of the Quest’s more adult-touring mien: The absence of square juice-box-shaped holders peppered all over. Instead, there are a relative handful of large, round cupholders — made for adult beverages. Er, you know . . . Starbucks coffee and such. The optional DVD player has a single large LCD screen — not multiple small ones to keep multiple small kids distracted and out of your hair.
And, there’s that 160 MPH speedo.
In a minivan.
The Odyssey’s only reads to 140. The T&C runs out at 120. And the Sienna registers no more than 110. All for good reason. It correlates with the diminishing sportiness of these vans — in exactly that descending order. It’s a very interesting “tell” — as my friends in Vegas might put it.
Now look at the Quest’s bodywork. It’s the most interesting-looking van since the GM dust-busters of the ’90s (e.g., Pontiac Trans Sport). It’s also the most distinctive van on the market. You could take the Honda badges off an Odyssey and swap them onto a Sienna — and put Sienna badges on a Town & Country — and most people would never know the difference. Same generic minivan shape. But there’s no mistaking the Quest’s boldly angular look — especially its virtually vertical drop-off at the rear. You could stand the Quest on its end and it would not topple over. All the others — being rounded-off — would.
At 200.8 inches long overall, the Quest is also about two inches stubbier than the Odyssey (202.9 inches) and T&C (202.8 inches). Two inches either way may not seem like much to quibble about — but I strongly recommend that you take any minivan you’re thinking about buying home before you buy it. To see whether it will fit in your garage first. It might — but with the door down, you might also not be able to walk between it and the closed door.
That’s when two less (or more) inches matters.
Only two things annoyed me about this van — and one of them isn’t Nissan’s fault. That one would be the gimpy-granny pace of the electric-closing rear liftgate — which also dings (for “safety”) as it opens and closes. If you get exasperated and try to heave the thing shut (or pull it open) yourself, it will fight you.
Blame the lawyers, though. If it closed “too fast” someone might sue. I’m just grateful red cones don’t spew out to create a perimeter — and that there’s no flashing strobe light to accompany the auto-opening sequence.
The other thing — the one that Nissan could/should fix: Seat heaters that don’t heat much — and turn off too soon. The seats themselves are wonderfully cushy. But the heaters within are mediocre.
I averaged 19.3 MPG in mixed-use (city/highway) driving during my week with the Quest. This is par for the course. I got about the same out of the Odyssey, Sienna and T&C. Don’t kid yourself about these kid-mobiles. They are among the most consumptive things on wheels. Arguably, their atrocious gas mileage is the least family-friendly thing about them.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Like the others in this segment, I think the Quest is too nice a van for screeching, jam-smearing, snot-spewing, muddy feet kicking seven-year-olds. You could use it for that, of course. Just as you could take a new Range Rover and sink it in three feet of mud. But — why? There are jacked-up ’78 Jeep CJs for that. And there are other vans better suited for the role of kid-carter, such as the Dodge Caravan or the rebadged Routan. All the vans in this category are potential min-Madden mobiles, available with many bells and whistles, swaddled in the hides of numerous cows. Each can approach or even pass the $45k mark, fully dressed out. But of all of them, the Quest just seems to me to be even less of a suburbanite kid-schlepper — perhaps because it tries so hard to be something more.