- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Did you notice that Nissan dropped the Quest minivan from its 2003 model lineup?

Not many people did. But they may notice the Quest is back in a new and improved 2004 model arriving in showrooms now.

Styling, inside and out, on this new van is distinctly different from other minivans and from the earlier Quest, which was a twin of the Mercury Villager. In fact, the new Quest exterior looks somewhat like a concept vehicle at an auto show, and the interior has a George Jetson, space-age feel, especially when equipped with its optional Skyview roof.

It’s about time some automaker is more imaginative in the minivan segment, where the wonderful practicality of these vehicles has contributed to a similarity in design and led to an overall commodity mentality among buyers.

The new Quest won’t lure commodity hunters, as its starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $24,780.

But Quest buyers do get a lot of van.

For one thing, the 2004 Quest is long — a full 17 feet overall, which is 10 inches longer than its predecessor.

This length and the Quest’s impressive 124-inch wheelbase help provide for the widest-opening side sliding doors in this class, according to Nissan.

“Quest’s sliding rear doors are 4 inches longer than the nearest competitor’s, addressing owners’ biggest complaint — access to the third-row seat,” said Jack Collins, Nissan North America vice president of product planning.

So, in the Quest, it’s easier to climb inside or push large boxes or other cargo in through the side doors.

I also enjoyed the low floor of the seven-passenger Quest. The easy step up makes this a very practical vehicle to transport youngsters as well as the elderly, both of whom can sometimes struggle and trip as they try to climb up into today’s vehicles.

In fact, at 5 feet 4, I found I actually dropped down just a bit as I turned to sit down on either front seat in the Quest test vehicle.

Yet, while seated, I was still able to see over cars in front of me and through some other vans’ windows in gauging the traffic flow ahead.

The windshield is dramatically raked here, and there’s an expanse of space atop the dashboard. Its appearance is punctuated by the placement of the instrument panel in the center of the vehicle, rather than directly in front of the driver.

That took some getting used to, and I never really got accustomed to seeing the left turn indicator over there to the right of the steering wheel.

But this positioning of the gauges ties in with the eye-catching center pod that’s lower on the Quest dashboard.

Congregated here are most other controls, from a straight up-and-down gear-shift lever to radio and navigation knobs and buttons.

I appreciated that the pod is nearly horizontal, so I could nicely rest the palm of my hand on it as I adjusted the controls.

The front-drive Quest shares a platform with the Nissan Altima, Maxima and Murano.

The ride here is carlike, damped over bumps, not floaty or overly cushioned. The worst I ever felt as I went over rough pavement was some modest vibration. In those instances, I heard a bit of a ba-bump, too. Steering control remained steady even then, and there was no feeling of the van’s flexing or rattling its way over potholes or cracked asphalt. The Quest’s long wheelbase helped reduce any bounciness over highway expansion cracks, too.

Nissan uses an independent strut suspension with coil springs up front and an independent multilink configuration at the back. Tires are 16-inchers on the base trim level — the S model — and 17-inchers on the up-level SL and SE models. But I’d prefer a bit fancier wheels on the Quest. The wheels on the test SL didn’t add much to an otherwise expressive vehicle.

There’s only one Quest engine, and its Nissan’s 3.5-liter, double overhead cam V-6 that also capably powers other Nissan vehicles. In the test SL, this powerplant generated 240 horsepower and was mated to a four-speed automatic. The engine has a five-speed automatic in the SE.

I could, on occasion, feel shift points, but they weren’t jerky in the test Quest. Power came on strongly each time I demanded more through the accelerator and even on a long uphill climb on a highway the Quest kept up its pace without acting as if it were being flogged. In city traffic, the Quest tester easily zipped into traffic and got up to speed efficiently.

I didn’t do too well in fuel usage, however, averaging just 19.7 miles a gallon in 50-50 city/highway driving in the test van.

Safety items are noteworthy in this new van. Curtain air bags in the ceiling are standard on all Quest models. So are antilock brakes (ABS), Brake Assist and Brake Force Distribution.

Traction control, which works to reduce wheel spin during a quick startup at a traffic light, for instance, is standard on the SL and on the top-of-the-line SE is part of a whole vehicle stability control system.

Buyers will appreciate the drop-into-the-floor third-row seating that goes down flat into a cavity in the Quest cargo area, so you don’t need to haul the seat out and leave it somewhere. This is an innovation pioneered some years ago by Honda in the Odyssey and quickly copied by other automakers.

In the Quest tester, though, I found I had to basically climb into the cavity to get enough “oomph” to pull the rather heavy, full-bench seat back and into the cavity.

Also, I wish the gaps between the hood and the other front body panels of the Quest weren’t so prominent. And I wonder why Nissan officials didn’t hide the sliding door tracks by tucking them under the rearmost side windows as many other automakers have done.

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