Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
While we wouldn't call it a clean-sheet redesign, the 2011 Nissan Quest certainly looks like it's all new. The polarizing styling of the previous Quest didn't do it any favors, though, so this time around Nissan went with more traditional styling while the rest of the product development team concentrated on how to best serve the needs of young families.
Offered in base S, SV, SL and top-level LE models, ranging in price from $28,550-$42,150, the Quest offers features like Bluetooth connectivity, a DVD player and hard-drive music server/navigation, plus a few elements that will have the folks at Honda and Toyota muttering.
How about one-touch power-sliding doors? Or a hatch that doesn't even require you to tug on a handle? Maybe an intelligent key that operates door locks and ignition? Oh, and it doesn't drive half bad either.
The New Facade
The Quest's bold grille and thick front bumper seem to mimic those of its competitors, even as they blend into the sculpted side of the minivan. While there are seven colors with which buyers can differentiate their family hauler, apparently, there's only so much style even the best team can apply to the shape of a boxy minivan — and look what happened the last time Nissan tried to think outside the box with the Quest in 2004.
Depending on which direction the 2011 Nissan Quest is pointed, it can resemble either the more angular 2011 Honda Odyssey or the more flowing 2011 Toyota Sienna. The more we drove the Nissan Quest, we kept coming back to this same "right in the middle" assessment when compared to the headline-grabbing Odyssey and Sienna minivans.
While we're comparing, the footprints of all three minivans are within an inch of each other, and the smallest turning circle is shared by both the Quest and the Odyssey at 36.7 feet.
The New Great Room
Nissan describes the interior of its new Quest as a "great room" that offers a rich, warm atmosphere. Regular shapes, fairly convincing faux wood and available leather seating combine in a traditional manner throughout the cabin. Unlike in the previous Quest, there's not a single unorthodox bit of design inside this new one.
The center stack has a conventional layout, with equipment and buttons grouped logically by function. Unlike with one competitor's layout, the Quest's driver doesn't need to lean out of his seat to reach the far right side of the dash to press a button.
The shifter is on the dashboard, which was at one time pretty outrageous, but now seems pretty natural to us. The instrument panel is also intuitively laid out and styled with crisp, white gauges on a black background.
Seating That Stays Put
The 2011 Nissan Quest deviates from the minivan norm when it comes to seating. Unlike Honda and Toyota, which both offer semi-comfortable, eight-passenger configurations, Nissan sticks with seven generously sized seats. And while they both glide fore and aft on runners, neither second-row seat in the Quest slides side to side. The third-row seats do not tumble into a deep well at the rear, yet the well is still there for storage.
Instead of disappearing seats, Nissan built both rows of carpet-backed seats to squish slightly and fold completely flat to provide a flat floor without any seat removal. Sure, the distance between floor and ceiling is reduced by the thickness of folded seats, but who really loads a minivan all the way up to the felt?
By the way, even if you want to, you cannot remove the seats in the 2011 Nissan Quest — without the service manual and probably some bloody knuckles. On the plus side, stowing and elevating said seats is exceptionally easy with obvious and uncomplicated tethers, levers, or in the case of the top-level LE, power return for the third row.
We couldn't help but wonder what all those permanently fixed seats (second row slides on tracks) did to interior volume figures of the 2011 Nissan Quest. It turns out, quite a lot.
Compared to the statistics provided by each manufacturer, the cargo volume behind the first row of seats in the Quest measures some 41.6 cubic feet smaller than a 2011 Sienna and 40 cubic feet smaller than a 2011 Odyssey. Similarly, maximum cubes behind the second-row seats in the Quest fall short by 23.5 to the Sienna and 29.5 to the Odyssey. Where we discovered parity was room behind the third rows, which varied by between 3.3 and 4 cubic feet. Another difference is that the cargo well in the Quest is always accessible (never filled with a third-row seat) and has a carpeted cover.
Still Has Plenty of Motor
Recently released figures from Nissan showed that the initial output numbers of the 2011 Nissan Quest's 3.5-liter V6 were preliminarily low. Just this week, we learned that the official output is now 260 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 240 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm, both competitive.
Nissan reckons the EPA will validate its own 18 city/24 highway mpg estimates. When we asked if an 8-second run to 60 mph was a fair estimate based on our quick drive in a Quest SL, a Nissan representative said, "Sure, that's about right."
These fuel consumption and performance estimates are comparable to the competition and that's without the benefit of cylinder deactivation as in the Odyssey, or a six-speed transmission as in the Sienna. And we wouldn't be surprised if the Quest's track performances fell between a 266-hp Sienna with its non-defeat traction/stability control and a nanny-free 248-hp Odyssey.
We've had good things to say about Nissan's use of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) paired to a V6 in the Altima, but were a little suspect of how a heavier minivan would fare with a belt-and-pulley transmission.
We're happy to report, just fine unless you live at the bottom of "Hill Street." The logic and execution of its CVT is actually better than the traditional stepped gear-driven transmission in either the Odyssey or Sienna, six-speed or not. We only caught it once on its heels when we pointed the Quest up a very, very steep hill that probably would have challenged any minivan.
Handles Well for a Box
The steering system in the 2011 Nissan Quest is neither pure electric- nor hydraulic-assist. Rather than a parasitic mechanical pulley, an efficient electric motor drives the hydraulic pump for power assist. The benefit is friction-free but largely natural-feeling steering that isn't artificially weighted, artificially light, but precise and confident. Again, the Quest manages to find a sweet spot between the Odyssey's obviously hydraulic steering and the Sienna's equally obvious electric steering.
Suspension hardware and tuning in the 2011 Nissan Quest are traditional, with MacPherson struts up front and cleverly packaged multilink in the rear — no twist-beam or multi-valve shocks. Together, the Quest provides a well-damped and never-floaty ride on every surface we could find. Unlike the Sienna, our Quest SL settled quickly after hitting road imperfections. At the same time, we noticed how quiet the cabin remained throughout our drive.
The Minivan Nissan Needed
There was a time when minivan sales were over a million units a year. In order to stand out, Nissan tried to use styling as its trump card. It didn't work.
Today, minivans are selling at about half the rate they did at their peak, so getting it right is more important now than ever. With the 2011 Nissan Quest, the carmaker seems to have come up with a rational and competitive package rather than a risky one.
In the end, if families act equally rational, and resist the temptation of less useful three-row crossovers, they will find the 2011 Nissan Quest a solid contender compared with the segment leaders like the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. It will take some additional seat time to see if it's actually better than its rivals, but at least it won't be battling its own styling this time around. And that might be enough to make the difference.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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