Despite the growing popularity of SUVs over the last five years, minivans continue to be a viable and lucrative segment of the automotive market. With 1.2 million units expected to sell in 1999, the minivan wars are being waged with ever-improving models from the likes of Chrysler, Ford, and, of course, Nissan.
The latest volley in this battle over parental (and shuttle fleet manager) dollars comes from Nissan in the form of its highly revised Quest model line. The Quest, which was introduced by Nissan in 1993, has been given more of everything (power, interior room, doors) for '99. The all-new body is 4.6-inches longer, 1.2-inches wider and 180 pounds lighter. By redesigning the frame, Nissan was able to improve torsional rigidity by 15 percent while giving the Quest better sound deadening for a more tranquil ride.
Inside is a larger cabin area (9.6 more cubic feet) than last year's model. To give a place for everything and to put everything in its place, the Quest boasts 31 storage areas including an innovative storage shelf system, located behind the third seat. Called the "Smart Shelf," this feature allows hard and soft items, like a baby stroller and grocery bags, to be stacked behind the third seat for increased and convenient cargo carrying. The shelf can be placed in one of three positions and it will hold up to 30 pounds.
Additional features like dual sliding doors, a third row "limousine" seating position and air conditioning round out the Quest's standard creature comforts. On SE and GLE models, options like a two position memory driver's seat, a six-disc center console-mounted CD player, and a second-row 12-volt outlet help make things easier on drivers and passengers. And even though they've been around for over a decade on Chrysler minivans, we're still impressed with the power rear-quarter windows that swing out at the touch of a button.
A new 3.3-liter V6 replaces last year's 3.0-liter engine. It produces 170 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque which makes driving the Quest about as fun as driving a minivan can be. It certainly isn't an underpowered vehicle and, even loaded with kids and stuff, the new V6 should keep you out of the truck lane when climbing mountain passes. All models benefit from an updated suspension and second-generation antilock brakes. On SE models, a rear stabilizer bar and 16-inch wheels make the Quest almost sporty ... almost.
Seated behind the driver's seat, Nissan's effort to improve ergonomics can be seen in the positioning of the steering wheel and the easy reach to most of the interior switches/knobs. The audio controls are located above the heating and air conditioning unit because, according to Nissan, the radio gets more attention then the climate control center. We agree, but one problem area still exists. When you tilt the steering wheel all the way up (as taller drivers will do) the column shifter effectively blocks the rear window switchgear (defrost, wiper) when in the "DRIVE" position. So, unless you want to stop and put the Quest in "PARK," you'll have to hope the rear window never fogs (or that you aren't over 6 feet tall).
We could also do without the "Push to Release" emergency brake. Besides the inevitable, "Where's the brake release lever?" that everyone goes through when first driving the car, it is counter-intuitive. Push harder on the brake to release it? No thanks, just give me an easy-to-reach lever.
Overall, the Quest makes a compelling argument for the vehicle shopper looking to transport people in comfort, but not necessarily style. The revised body, with its easy-to-use dual sliding doors, is, uh, unique. Yeah, that's the word we'll use for now, unique. Unfortunately for Nissan, the always-strong Grand Caravan and the newly revised Windstar make the minivan conflict an ever-raging battle, with little chance of the new Quest winning the war.