The 2011 Nissan Quest is the biggest departure from a previous model seen in recent van developments. Styling inside and out is neither controversial nor conventional, it feels more expensive without being more expensive feature-for-feature, and it merges performance and efficiency quite well.
Although many of the component parts have been proven in other Nissan and Infiniti products and Nissan has used the Quest name on vans before, consider the 2011 Quest a new model and not a new-face-and-bumpers update.
Four versions of the Quest are available, the range covering everything from steel wheels and air conditioning to piped leather, a host of electronic conveniences, and a screen as large as some laptops. With options limited, your most difficult decision may well be paint color.
In terms of what you can't see, envision the Quest as a three-row version of the Nissan Murano crossover. A 253-hp V6 has bones shared with everything from a Z-car to an Xterra four-wheel drive. The continuously variable transmission is one of the most efficient automatics around, as Nissan excels in CVT technology. And the suspension, steering and brakes hint at Nissan's more-sporty-than-average philosophy.
Beyond any cosmetic considerations what strikes you most about the Quest is the concession to sizing the arrangement to families with children who aren't ready to drive themselves. The third row is smaller than most but more than adequate for rug rats and yard apes, and the forward four seats are genuinely adult roomy; there is no eight-passenger, middle-row-bench-seat version. And the cargo area has a trunk beneath a floor level with the hatch opening that will be appreciated by anyone who's had to lift an expedition-size suitcase or big-box store case of drinks out of an 18-inch-deep well.
Quest and its competitors (Chrysler Town & Country, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Volkswagen Routan) are no longer minivans and have not been for quite some time. Roughly the same outside dimensions as full-size SUVs or crossovers (Chevrolet Tahoe and Traverse, Ford Expedition and Flex, as respective examples) the vans are generally superior people movers and only a moderate-to-heavy trailer or a need for low-gear four-wheel drive tilts the decision toward the others.
We think the Quest is a good choice for those who enjoy driving but have lots of passenger-ferrying requirements or more than two offspring who enjoy road trips.
Nissan Quest S ($27,750); Quest SV ($30,900); Quest SL ($34,350); Quest LE ($41,350)
By design, vans are box-like with smoothed front ends to improve aerodynamics and driver visibility, and the Quest fits the mold. Roughly the same size as other midivans, it's within inches of the competition in virtually every measure. Nissan calls the styling fluid sculpture.
Quest is built on a lengthened structure that shares basics with the Murano crossover and Maxima and Altima sedans. However, on standard wheels the Quest needs no more space than an Altima to make a U-turn, and since it's less than six feet to the top of the roof the center of gravity isn't substantially higher than that of the Murano.
The front is smooth and clean, with a wide bumper section that cants upward at the edges below the headlights. All front lights except the fog lights are in the same housing, chrome is liberal, and the LE gets HID low-beam headlights. The front of the Quest is its most generic aspect, and like other vans could easily be confused with another were it not for the Nissan target front and center.
In side view the simple lines continue, the only trim piece used along the bottom of the doors. The window line dips down from the windshield to a low point behind the useful side mirrors, then sweeps upward and tapers to near horizontal at its aft edge. A character line beginning atop the front tire then approaches the window line, ending at the taillight, giving as much wedge as possible in a box.
What sets Quest apart most is the nearly vertical tail that maximizes cabin volume and dark pillars everywhere but the windshield. Combined with the tinted glass the windows appear as a black band all around the car with the roof almost floating on top of it, much like a Mini Clubman or Ford Flex with the alternate roof color. Dark colors don't show it off as well, but they hide the sliding door track in the rear quarter panels better. On models with the power sliding side doors they operate comparably quickly yet without the jerky stop/start of some.
The rear end bears strong resemblance to sister-division Infiniti's big QX56 utility and gets its fair share of chromium; the deep bumper also reminds of smaller boxes like Nissan's Cube or the original Scion xB. The big hatch cinches itself shut on all models, is powered open and close on some, but the top of the bumper (like most vans) has no protection to prevent scratching from hauling cargo in and out.
Optional dual moonroofs open independently; three small curb-like protuberances on the closed front moonroof aid airflow over the open rear moonroof to avoid any fuel economy penalty. The rear switch for the rear moonroof is disabled by the window lock on the driver's door.
Quest's cabin is a major advance from the previous version, primarily because it appears more car-like, even luxurious on upper models, where the previous Quest seemed to stop at fully functional. Apart from the Nissan logo we couldn't find a single part or finish that didn't speak better quality than before.
Seven-seat is the only configuration offered on the Quest, with two individual seats in the first two rows and a three-seat arrangement for kids in the last row. The Quest feels very open and is quite roomy if used this way, the generous 204 cubic feet of volume tilted in favor of adult comfort; if you frequently put adults in the third row the Honda Odyssey is better. But who does that?
The four forward seats are very comfortable, have good-to-best competitive dimensions and are just as good for short jaunts in the school Grand Prix or interstate cruising. We spent as much time hollering, Are we there yet? from the middle row as sitting in front and, apart from adjustments and the middle seats folding, didn't note a significant change in support in either; the middle-row chairs one-up the front with an individual armrest on each side. Standard cloth upholstery on the lower two trims gives way to heated leather on upper trims, and the leather is piped for the high-end look.
Sliding side doors are typical but there is a step just inside them so there's less climbing or halfway-in kids falling back out. It also tends to keep that accumulation of junk on shoes from dirtying the carpet as quickly. Rear-seat entry/exit is decent and the second-row console is easily removed (cupholders remain nearby) for walk-through access.
The third row is split 40/60 with the wide side curbside. It partially reclines, moving the cushion slightly in the process and you could two adults back there for short trips. Most models have three-zone climate control with overhead vents outboard and the LE has four side-window shades.
But it's behind the seat that Quest defies the norm. Rather than the fold-into-floor last row there is a cargo floor level with the opening at the back. A cover on each side is rated for 220 pounds per, so fertilizer and backpacks can be tossed in but cement or masonry treated more gently. Beneath this cargo floor is open space about the size of a midsize car's trunk, and with the covers out a 35-cubic-foot area behind the third row. With the back two seat rows folded flat, maximum cargo height or volume isn't as much as most competitors but you can still get the ubiquitous 4x8 sheet of plywood inside and keep the concealed cubic-footage under the back. The spare tire is underneath where it has no effect on cargo loading, or unloading to change a flat.
The instrument panel has dropped the center-mounted gauges for a more conventional, clearly Nissan layout, but it would be easy for some to mistake an SL or LE dash as from an Infiniti. Gauges are lit white while all controls and console ambient lighting are amber. There is a mood-light option with different colors and highlights (cupholders, footwells, etc.) though we have not experienced one in the dark.
Analog gauges give the usual information, framed by controls on its ears for dash lighting and trip computer. Power side-door controls are up high driver's left with other vehicle controls below. Steering wheel stalks handle lights and wipers (front and rear) and the wheel itself has redundant controls for the audio system. The key can stay in your pocket because every Quest is pushbutton start. We prefer a traditional key, but that's not an option.
Everyone has a good view out and the driver has few blind spots; a warning system is optional and effective but no substitute for an over-the-shoulder glance. As is often the case, the small triangular front side windows are more useful on the far side.
The shifter is on the left side of the center panel abutment but unlike that in the Odyssey it doesn't impinge on taller drivers' right knee space. The audio system and climate controls are to the right of it, controls for the navigation and such at about 45-degrees to horizontal above the shifter, and everything works as you'd expect. On the lower face are seat heater controls, two beverage holders and a disc-drive below; the drive is recessed so your Big Gulp might not immediately become a big glitch but you'd still have to reach under the cupholders to load it.
Quest forgoes the ultra-wide screen rear entertainment in favor of an 11-inch screen, the largest 16:9 perspective screen in the business; and somehow they did it without the driver losing rear view when the screen is being used. There are only a couple of features the competition offer the Quest does not: The widescreen/dual-image arrangement, ventilated front seats, middle-row lounge chairs, and a coolbox. Quest does have an audio-mute button for addressing unruly passengers. Attention, Munchkins! Also, when refilling the tires the pressure monitor system will chirp the horn when the pressure is correct.
Nissan derived the Quest from sporty sedans and a sporty crossover and that paid dividends in driving characteristics. The Quest comes across as relatively light on its feet. It isn't light by any stretch, though it's among the lighter in vans and feels and drives smaller than it is.
Nissan's superb V6 engine has been proven in a variety of sizes; Quest uses the 3.5-liter size. Rated at 253 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque (using regular unleaded fuel) it is the mildest 3.5-liter Nissan makes, but don't equate that to slow. A Sienna V6 has 266 hp and Chrysler's newest Town & Country 283 but both use a conventional 6-speed automatic transmission; Honda's Odyssey has 248 hp and more torque but uses conventional 5- and 6-speed automatics.
The Quest uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT), dubbed Xtronic, proven in other Nissan V6 products. Rather than six gears to choose from it has an infinite range and can therefore ideally match performance and efficiency parameters for any demand. Floor the pedal at an on-ramp and the engine speed will rise near 5000 rpm, where the engine makes peak power, and stay there until you lift off the gas pedal or reach maximum speed. It's much like a powerboat getting on plane, but instead of the prop slipping the transmission is constantly changing its ratio.
Conversely, around town the CVT uses only the minimum engine revs needed to get the job done. At highway speeds it lopes along barely 2000 rpm showing at 75 mph and if you need to accelerate there is no gear change felt. The CVT has an Overdrive Off switch but that only locks out the highest range for more sprightly response or controlling speed on long downgrades. If you select Low, the transmission uses engine braking to slow the Quest better than virtually any other van. On the minus side the CVT is very loose at idle and it will not hold the van on a hill without using the brake pedal.
EPA ratings are 18/24 mpg City/Highway for the Quest, matching the Sienna V6. Town & Country gets 17/25, and the Odyssey rates a bit higher at 18/27 mpg (19/28 with the top-line 6-speed model). However, it's been our experience with Nissan and other CVTs that their real-world mileage is often better than EPA calculations, and we expect the Quest to be fully competitive in this regard. Our trip computer showed 22.4 mpg average after a couple of hours of primarily urban driving.
Electric-assist steering is used on the Quest and the feel and operation are on par with conventional systems. Quest is quite maneuverable and requires less than 37 feet to make a U-turn. A three-row SUV or crossover with roughly the same exterior dimensions, smaller cabin and cargo space, and only half-an-inch more ground clearance needs more than 40 feet.
Ride quality is very nice, regardless of what row you're sitting in. Although the Sienna is the only van rated to carry more weight, the Quest doesn't feel overly stiff with just one occupant nor like a tub of Jell-O when it's loaded down. A sporty Sienna SE or Odyssey Touring might handle better than the Quest, but we like the blend of ride comfort, grip, and directional stability Nissan's calibrated here.
We made no observations on braking, which means pedal feel and the van's reaction are both appropriate. With the CVT's ability to control or retard downhill speed, we expect Quest would be the least likely van to have brake issues.
In terms of performance, the upper models enjoy only the slightest, often immeasurable, advantage in steering crispness, minimum braking distance and cornering speeds because they have one-size wider 18-inch wheels but weigh more. On the other hand, the 16-inch wheels will be less-expensive to replace tires, could be used for a set of winter tires if you upgrade, and might make chain-fitting easier. Ride quality should be a little better with the taller sidewalls of the 16-inch tires, also.
A Quest may be configured to tow 3500 pounds maximum, right in line with other vans. The tow limit is one reason you'd have to step up to an SUV and take a fuel economy hit; the other is if you need four-wheel drive for trail adventures. Otherwise, the van makes more sense than an SUV.
The 2011 Nissan Quest does everything a family-transport van should with no shortcomings in performance, efficiency, comfort or environmental features. The styling differentiation among SUVs, vans and crossovers is getting smaller all the time and there's nothing mini about this van, so avoid any minivan connotations by calling it a Quest and letting actions speak louder than words.
G.R. Whale filed this NewCarTestDrive.com reporter after his test drive of the Quest around Del Mar, California.