What's happened to Canada's love affair with the minivan?
In 2005, 170,000 Canadians bought a minivan, or more than one in 10 new-vehicle buyers went for a useful and relatively affordable box on wheels. Then the love started to fade. Last year, Canadians bought some 80,000 minivans. This makes no sense at all.
Image issues aside, you cannot buy a more sensible vehicle than a minivan. Moreover, even though Ford and General Motors have abandoned the segment altogether, buyers still have plenty of good choices. Chrysler has its updated Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda has introduced an all-new Odyssey and last year Toyota launched a reinvented version of the Sienna - the only minivan sold in Canada offered with an all-wheel drive option.
Into this mix comes Nissan's 2011 Quest. The marketing spin: the Quest is Nissan's "innovative" transportation solution for active parents who want "to be the best parents they can be." Yeah, right.
Nissan says the Quest ($29,998-$48,498) has the best handling, braking and turning radius of any minivan. Quality and reliability are both first-rate, all the changes and improvements for 2011 are the product of a major commitment to excellent workmanship, and the value story just can't be overlooked. That's the Nissan pitch.
There is a lot of truth in all of it. The cabin is more refined than the last Quest, which went away for 2010. Even the starter model has soft-touch materials all around and a nice mix of colours and textures. The exterior design is your basic two-box shape, but there are some nice bends and bulges and creases in the sheet metal.
Most important, though, the design maximizes interior space. Nissan's designers ran with that idea, too. Passengers in the second row have room to stretch out and even the third row is livable. The Quest's third row actually has more leg room than the second and can seat two adults comfortably. Both back rows are tiered theatre-style to improve outward visibility.
If you want to turn your Quest into a panel van, the second and third rows easily fold flat, though you cannot completely remove the seats. With those rear seats down, the interior storage volume exceeds all the space in a typical mid-size sedan.
What's admirable about the Quest remake is this: Nissan has embraced "minivan-ness" with this fourth-generation remake. The Quest isn't perfect, but if you're shopping for a minivan you'd be nuts to overlook it. If you're shopping, remember that Nissan does not offer a four-cylinder version (unlike Toyota with the Sienna) and Chrysler's vans are still the price leaders. I'd argue the Odyssey remains the most refined minivan on the market, but it's also - feature for feature - the priciest.
The Quest is somewhere in the middle of the pack on just about all fronts. It is a giant box with headlights, endless cup holders and storage holds, good seats and has all sorts of high-tech features available. For instance, if someone is in your blind spot as you talk on the phone - the stereo's volume automatically mutes without you ever taking your hands off the wheel. There is a conversation mirror to check the kids in back without turning your head and everyone on board breathes filtered air from the Plasmacluster air purifier.
Parents on road trips will applaud the 11-inch monitor and built-in DVD player available ($2,100 on the SL model, standard on the fully loaded LE). The dual moon roof is another option ($2,500 on the SL including the Bose audio system or $2,000 on the LE) long-distance travellers might want to consider.
That said, even the sub-$30,000 Quest has the same powertrain: a 3.5-litre V-6 (260-horsepower) mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Acceleration is excellent and the CVT is smooth. Fuel economy at 11.1 litres/100 km city/8.1 highway is competitive. The Quest will tow 1,588 kg.
Everyone gets power windows, door lock and mirrors, folding seats, a big, permanent storage well at the very rear, roof rails and a full suite of safety gear: six airbags, traction control, stability control, whiplash-preventing front headrests and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
Spend more and you get second-row sliding doors that open with a single touch and can be opened from the driver's seat without ever unbuckling the seat belt. Spend even more and you add more and more stuff - including air conditioning, leather upholstery and fancy sound and an entertainment system.
For road trips, the high riding position is great for straight lines; if you want to carve corners in a hurry, forget it. This is a tall minivan, folks. So a nice ride on open highways is as good as it gets.
For negatives, Nissan has placed the gear shifter on the dash very close to the keyless start button where it's fussy to find and blocks your view of some controls. Smaller drivers will find that the closer they sit to the steering wheel, the less they see. Pushing the seat back and making full use of the telescoping steering column will help here.
All told, this is a good van and deserves at least a little love.
2011 Nissan Quest SV
Price: $35,048 ($1,600 freight)
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6
Horsepower/ torque: 260 hp/240 lb-ft
Transmission: Two-speed CVT
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.1 city/8.1 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Dodge Grand Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona, Volkswagen Routan, Mazda5