Nissan has been about the busiest automotive manufacturer in the world for the past couple of years, filling just about every possible niche of sedans, sports cars, sport-utility vehicles and trucks, to say nothing of a fleet of upscale vehicles stretching from here to Infiniti. But when it seems Nissan has exhausted its output of new vehicles, as well as its plant capacity in Smyrna, Tenn., the Japanese company has come up with a new Quest. Literally.
This past week, Nissan introduced its 2004 Quest, a completely redone version of the former minivan, which was similar in name only. The introduction was held in Jackson, Miss., and included a tour of Nissan's new plant in nearby Canton, Miss.
Combining old with ultranew was fitting, because not many auto manufacturers have been as busy as Nissan to rewrite its own history the past couple of years, from battling for its own existence until being bailed out by an alliance with French auto giant Renault. Nobody has strung together such a succession of major hits as Nissan Altima, 350Z, Maxima, Murano, Frontier Crew Cab, Xterra, and the upcoming Titan full-size pickup, plus the G35 coupe and sedan, M45, FX-35 and FX-45 on the Infiniti side.
The Quest intends to rewrite more history, the part that suggests the apparent demise of minivans in the face of trendier SUVs. Nothing is more efficient as a family hauler than a minivan, and consumers have quietly been buying more than a million of them a year ever since 1992.
Quest joins the new Sienna from arch-rival Toyota, they revised MPV from Mazda, and the Odyssey from Honda, a vehicle so impressive that Nissan considered it the benchmark for its Quest. The suddenly-congested minivan segment is still led by Chrysler Group's Caravan/Voyager/Town and Country, with worthy competition from General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen. Nissan's previous Quest led to a joint venture with Ford, on the Mercury Villager. Ford insisted the Quest/Villager stay small, so as not to get in the way of big plans for Ford's own Windstar, then the deal ended with Ford about to introduce the new Freestar, with a version for Mercury. Unshackled, Nissan took the new Quest to new heights, a daring styling exercise close to the concept minivan that dazzled viewers at last year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The body shape arches from the rear, then drops dramatically to the front compartment, tapering from flared wheelwells to lines that converge on an inset hood.
The wheels are pushed out to the corners for an elongated 124-inch wheelbase, 204.1-inch overall length and wider (77.6-inch) stance maximum interior room. The Quest is 9.5-inches longer, 3 inches wider and 4 inches taller than its predecessor.
The interior is dominated by a center-mounted instrument cluster, with gauges and a navigation screen, while below it, a cylinder-shaped center-stack rises up from the floor at an angle that leaves the shift lever and the heat/air and audio controls on a round, nearly horizontal plane. The lower part of the cylinder houses various storage drawers and compartments.
While minivan buyers have practically had to go underground to escape the dreaded "soccer mom" criticism that drove many to SUVs, Nissan unabashedly says it is aiming the Quest at women. While men will enjoy the power and sporty handling of the vehicle, it is intended to be a family truckster. So women, predominately 35-40, college educated, balancing a career with family obligations, which includes hauling kids to various events, will look at the Quest for stylish and sophisticated transportation.
A brief road-test showed off the Quest's virtues. The lowered front beltline and the open dash creates vast forward visibility. The bucket seats are firmly supportive up front, and the same in the second row's captain's chair buckets, which slide fore and aft, recline, and, importantly, flip forward and tumble ahead to combine with the widest-opening sliding doors in the industry to make access to the third-row bench seat easy.
The third-row bench tumbles into a rear storage receptacle so similar to the Odyssey's that a Nissan official admitted it was more efficient to simply pay Honda for the rights to copy it.
There are two DVD screens mounted on the ceiling of the top SE model, amid the Skyview roof that features five -- count 'em, five -- sunroofs! The normal tilt and power opening front sunroof is augmented by two more sunroofs fixed longitudinally on either side of a center ceiling console, letting light through to brighten the second and third row seats. They don't open, they just let in light, filtering out 100 percent of ultraviolet rays, and offering sliding shades if it gets too bright. The DVD screens fold down in "I- formation" out of the center roof panel, one for the second row and the other for the third.
I tried sitting back there on part of the introductory drive. We didn't have a DVD, but the wireless headphones offering independent listening to CDs promise great harmony on trips.
But the best spot to be is in the driver's seat. The 3.5-liter V6 engine delivers 240 horsepower and 242 foot-pounds of torque. The top SE gets a five-speed automatic transmission upgrade from the standard four-speed, as well as 17-inch alloy wheels compared to 16-inch on the S and SL.
The only two things I found worth criticizing is the lack of a "dead pedal" for the driver's left foot. The angled floor over the left front wheel well means your foot is at an awkward angle, unless you plant it flat on the floor or stretch it out almost under the brake pedal.
The other item is the neatly designed shift lever has a button on the left side to deactivate overdrive on the five-speed. That's beneficial for coming off a freeway, where fourth gear promises less hunting in residential traffic, but the button is right where your fingertips hit when you grip the lever, and several times I inadvertently deactivated the overdrive.
The Quest S will be priced between $24,600 and $27,000; the SL at $27,000 to $33,000; and the SE from $33,000 to $37,000. Nissan estimates 75 percent of Quests will be under $30,000, when the new minivan hits showrooms in early July.
John Gilbert writes a weekly auto column. He can be reached at http://email@example.com.