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First Drive: 2011 Nissan Quest


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First Drive: 2011 Nissan Quest

by Michael Harley (RSS feed) on Dec 16th 2010 at 11:57AM

Nissan Emerges From The Kitchen With Something New


You can get vanilla ice cream in an array of varieties. There's New York Vanilla (the classic flavor), French Vanilla, Vanilla Bean, Homestyle Vanilla, Creamy Vanilla and Country Vanilla. Regardless of the subtle differences, each frozen delight is only a mild modification of the same mixture of milk, cream, sugar and vanilla beans. While generally bland and lackluster when compared to Rocky Road, Carmel Ribbon and Mint Chip, good old-fashioned vanilla ice cream enjoys an enormous following and offends few, making it the best-selling flavor in the freezer section. If you make ice cream and want to sell in volume, get on the horn to your friends in Madagascar.

Minivans are a lot like vanilla ice cream.

No matter how hard the automakers try to differentiate their product, all of today's minivans are essentially mildly altered concoctions blending seven-passenger, front-engine, front-wheel drive, six-cylinder, highly-utilitarian ingredients. Yet, like vanilla ice cream, they are part of a segment that cannot be ignored, and they do surprisingly well at satisfying a broad degree of palates. In the case of nearly every automaker, if you're building family vehicles, you offer a minivan.

Nissan has released its all-new 2011 Quest and it's a minivan formulated with today's all-too familiar ingredients, but unlike the rest of the vanilla troop, the Quest could leave a unique taste in your mouth. Has Nissan broken new ground with its new family transport, or are they just offering consumers the same dessert with just a different label? Read on for the answer.

The Nissan Quest has been around for nearly two decades. Originally introduced in 1992, the first- and second-generation models offered six-cylinder front-wheel drive powertrains and seven-passenger interiors. Both models were manufactured in Ford's Avon Lake, Ohio assembly plant, allowing the American automaker rights to re-brand and sell Quests as the now-forgotten Mercury Villager. Unfortunately, the Quest's short wheelbase made it tough to compete in a segment with the long-wheelbase Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and Chrysler/Dodge twins. That changed dramatically when the third-generation model debuted in 2004. Assembled in Nissan's then-new Canton, Mississippi plant, the Quest returned with a traditional powertrain and passenger configuration and a much longer wheelbase. It also appeared with avant-garde sheetmetal and a radical center-mounted instrument pod that was bold - so bold the automaker redesigned the dashboard for the 2007 model year. Plagued with early quality issues and tough competition, sales fell from nearly 50,000 annual units in 2004, to under 9,000 units in 2009, with the Quest opting out of the competition for 2010.

Nissan introduced an all-new 2011 Quest for the North American market at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show (the Japanese-market Nissan Elgrand, wearing only slightly different cosmetics, debuted in Japan several months earlier). Compared to its predecessor, the 2011 Quest is four inches shorter in length, one inch taller, yet the same width as the 2009 model. Its wheelbase is down nearly six inches. The base curb weight of 4,367 pounds (it tops out at 4,548 pounds for the loaded LE model) is up about 60 pounds across the model range, but weight distribution has improved to 55/45 compared to 60/40 on its predecessor. The fuel tank (20 gallons) and towing capacity (3,500 pounds) remain identical.

Nissan's tabling for the Quest: "Gets Parenting." Meaning, in general terms, that the automaker believes that seven-passenger minivans are used by both mothers and fathers and is up to the task. Taking the pitch a bit further, Nissan says minivans must deliver style, performance and utility that appeals to everyone in the family. A minivan must make travel fun, regardless of the situation. To address this, Nissan says its 2011 Quest offers bold exterior styling with an interior that's both comfortable and flexible.

As promised, the exterior styling of the 2011 Nissan Quest is interesting. The automaker has dropped most all of the design cues from the last model (thankfully, as it was never one to win any beauty contests) and delivered a rather boxy minivan that will be most remembered for its full-surround privacy glass out back and bold front grille. There are new front triangle windows to improve outward visibility, but the sliding door rails remain visible at waist height. The overall look is distinctive and functional, rather than sleek and stylish. If anything, it's unique.

The seven-passenger cabin of the 2011 Nissan Quest is much less polarizing. Traditionally configured, it features a standard instrument cluster (yes, behind the steering wheel) and a center console with the transmission shifter mounted slightly to the left. The HVAC vents are high on the dashboard, on each side of the optional navigation screen. Climate controls are above the infotainment controls, both to the right of the shifter.

The driver and front passenger sit in individual bucket seats split by a fixed center console, while the second row also features two individual bucket seats, but with a removable floor-mounted center console between them (there is no bench option). The second-row seats fold forward, but aren't designed to be removed. The third row is a bench, split 60/40, with belts for three passengers and the ability to fold forward, but it too can't be removed. There is a permanent, generously sized hidden storage area in the rear well behind the third row.

The competition allows the second rows to come out, and the third rows to "tumble" or fold out of the way (into that recessed area in the back). Nissan's approach is much more convenient, but it does compromise overall cargo volume as the folded seats take up space.

The all-new 2011 Nissan Quest is built in Kyushu, Japan, on the automaker's "D" platform, shared with the Maxima, Altima and Murano. The front-engine, front-wheel drive unibody platform utilizes a standard four-wheel independent suspension setup. Up front, it features struts with coil springs and stabilizer bar, while the rear is fitted with a multi-link design. There are disc brakes at all four corners, and the steering rack is a vehicle-speed-sensitive power-assisted rack-and-pinion design.

Under every hood is the automaker's "VQ" six-cylinder engine. Featuring Nissan's twin Variable Induction Control System (NICS), digital knock control, micro-finished camshaft and crankshaft surfaces, DLC (Diamond Like Carbon) coated valve lifters, forged crankshaft and a lightweight intake manifold, the all-aluminum six-cylinder engine displaces 3.5-liters and is rated at 253 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. Mated to the engine is Nissan's Xtronic CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) with Adaptive Shift Control (ASC). The automaker doesn't quote acceleration figures, but we estimate the Quest will hit 60 mph in about eight seconds.

While official EPA mileage figures haven't been released, Nissan is quoting 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. Those figures are identical to the 2011 Toyota Sienna (3.5-liter FWD 6AT), but fall short of the 2011 Honda Odyssey (3.5-liter 6AT) which delivers 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.

Nissan is offering its 2011 Quest in four different flavors: Quest S, Quest SV, Quest SL and Quest LE. All share the same engine and transmission, but the standard equipment levels differ on each:

Quest S: Standard 16-inch steel wheels with full wheel covers; rear roof spoiler; six-way adjustable driver's seat; front door map pockets, wood-tone trim (instrument panel, front doors, and sliding door window switch); fold-flat second and third row seats, permanent rear storage well; first and second row center consoles (second row removable); Nissan Intelligent Key with Push Button Ignition; and AM/FM/6CD audio system with four speakers.

Quest SV: Standard one-touch power sliding doors; 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheels; Tri-Zone Auto Temperature Control; power driver's seat lumbar adjustment; six speakers; fog lights; Conversation Mirror; 4.3-inch color audio display; USB port with iPod connectivity; Bluetooth Hands-free Phone System with steering wheel controls; RearView Monitor; and leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Quest SL: Standard leather-appointed seating and door trim; 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels; power liftgate; eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat; Quick Comfort heated front seats; HomeLink Universal Transceiver; auto-dimming inside mirror with compass; roof rails; auto on/off headlights; leather-wrapped shift knob; Quick Release fold flat third row; and heated outside mirrors with integrated turn signals.

Quest LE: Standard Nissan Navigation System; Bose Audio System with 13 speakers; XM Satellite Radio; memory system for driver's seat and outside mirrors; auto tilt-in-reverse outside mirrors; second and third row manual sun blinds; four-way power-adjustable front passenger's seat; eight-inch VGA color display (dash mounted); DVD Entertainment System with two wireless headphones and remote control; rear 11-inch 16:9 aspect ratio display for DVD Entertainment; Advanced Climate Control System (ACCS) with auto recirculation feature; Blind Spot Warning (BSW) system; and High Intensity Discharge (HID) xenon headlights.

Nissan only offer three option packages, and most are limited to the SL trim level. These include: DVD Entertainment System (SL only); Bose audio upgrade Package (SL only); and Dual Opening Glass Moonroofs (SL and LE trim levels).

With the standard Intelligent Key stored in our pocket, the six-cylinder VQ under the hood of our top-of-the-line Quest LE test model spins to life with a quick push of the start/stop button. The driving position is commanding, much like other minivans, and outward vision is good (the front triangle windows are useful). The seats are supportive and comfortable, and all controls are within easy reach. However, from our tall vantage point, when the transmission shifter (PRNDL) is dropped into Drive, the wide, leather-covered lever hides some of the HVAC and audio controls - a mild annoyance.

On the road, the 2011 Nissan Quest reminds us of a heavier and less-nimble Murano (it should, as both share platforms and a powertrain). We're fans of the VQ engine, for its grunt rather than smoothness, and it moves the minivan off the line with authority. The standard CVT works well in this application, as it's incredibly fluid and efficient (being enthusiasts, we do miss the 2009 model's stepped automatic transmission as it allowed the engine to spin the tachometer around the dial). Handling is competent and safe, even up to about six-tenths of its capability. Push harder and the tires will scream long before the chassis throws in the towel.

After covering a couple hundred miles in the Quest, our overall impression is very favorable. Nissan's newest minivan offers an excellent ride with a quiet cabin. The steering delivers decent feedback, the brakes are solid, and the handling exactly what one would expect from a two-ton people mover.

Looking a bit closer, we even found a few cherries mixed into to the minivan.

Nissan's innovative, and standard, tire inflation system is pretty impressive. The hazard lamps are designed to flash when the tires are being inflated (with the ignition on). Once the tires reach the correct level of inflation - their OEM recommended pressures, we assume - the horn will honk briefly. While it's trick that the vehicle so accurately monitors tire pressure, it's a bummer that only drivers in high-level Quest LE models are able to view the pressures for each wheel on the eight-inch VGS navigation screen.

We also like Nissan's approach to the rear-seat DVD system. While the competition leans towards ultra-wide screens, in order to display two videos side-by-side, Nissan chooses to use one large 11-inch screen for one video at a time. The result is a much better picture when only one DVD is playing (plus the kids who ride in a Quest will learn the important skill of compromise at an early age).

The cabin itself is warm and inviting. We liked the expansive woodgrain across the dash, the quality of materials, the feel of the thick steering wheel and the overall driving position. Nissan has also worked hard to make the step-in low from the side sliding doors, and it makes a difference.

However, we also tasted some sour milk.

The powertrain, more specifically the continuously-variable transmission, lacks any type of electronic "hill hold" to prevent the minivan from rolling backwards on an incline (unlike traditional stepped gearboxes which hold a vehicle stable on all but the steepest hills when in gear, most CVTs will roll backwards even when in "drive"). Most other automakers have embraced the "hill hold" for basic safety reasons. Nissan should too.

We also didn't like the small (non-removable) console between the front two seats. That area is prime storage space, whether for a purse (um, murse?), laptop or six months worth of drive-through receipts. Whatever the case, it needs to be larger and preferably removable.

Those few quibbles aside, it looks like Nissan has finally delivered a world-class minivan – something it should have introduced a decade ago. In any other year, this would be stellar news. Unfortunately, 2011 is chock-full of minivan debuts and both of its primary Japanese competitors have introduced their own all-new offerings. We're not trying to melt Nissan's sundae, but the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna are also incredibly fine vehicles that have set the class standard for the better part of a decade.

Rather than argue over which of the three is the sportiest (Honda or Toyota), the most luxurious (Nissan or Toyota), the most comfortable (Honda or Nissan), the most innovative (Toyota or Honda), the most child-friendly (Honda or Nissan), the quickest (Nissan or Toyota) or the most fuel efficient (Honda or Toyota), and make a recommendation from there, it's best to figure out your own needs and priorities. After all, with so many excellent variations, we can't choose your favorite flavor of vanilla.



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