2011 Nissan Quest 3.5 SV: The boxy van that thinks outside the box.
Price: $30,900 base price. Add $300 for roof rails, $180 for carpeted mats, and $60 for a cargo net. Total with destination was $32,240.
Marketer's pitch: Unrivaled family mobility.
Conventional wisdom: The weird van for when your family outgrows the Juke or the Cube.
Reality: Love-it-or-hate-it looks, not quite as versatile as its boring competitors.
Moving forward: The Quest offers something unusual among minivans in its price range: a continuously variable transmission. Instead of shifting through gears, this offers a steel belt/pulley system with a wide selection of ratios to transmit the 3.5-liter V-6's power to the drive wheels. It's also supposed to improve fuel economy. This even comes in the base Quest S, which starts at $27,750.
Shifty: In reality, the CVT seemed to provide kind of a shifty feeling when climbing hills from a start, and a lot of apparent slowing momentum when going downhill. I didn't realize at first that it had a CVT until I checked the features list.
Slurp: Perhaps I should consider what the gas mileage might have been without the CVT, but I averaged about 20 m.p.g. in the Quest, less than the 22 m.p.g. of the other minivans I tested.
The new MPV? As a Mazda MPV owner who sacrificed cargo space for a fun ride, I'd say this minivan picks up the torch from the discontinued zoom-zoomer. The slightly shorter cargo area makes a world of difference in handling compared with larger vans.
Gear unselector: The Quest also picks up on the Mazda gear selector lever, which I think should be long retired. The driver can turn the overdrive off with a button, or choose low gear. So among minivans, only the Sienna and Caravan allow selection of the full range of gears for slowing down on hills, or sort-of sportyish shifting while driving.
And this is not a CVT feature; a neighbor has a Subaru Outback CVT, and the steering wheel-mounted shift buttons offer six gears.
First impressions: When I first sat in the Quest, I couldn't help but notice how intuitive everything seemed. I hit an overhead switch, and all the interior lights came on. The radio had simple dials and buttons. The dashboard dimmer was on one side of the gauges, the info button on the other.
Quality inside: My last experience with a Nissan was an early 2000s Frontier pickup, and everything about that interior seemed cheap and breakable. But the Quest showed Nissan has moved past that.
Stuff: Unfortunately, in this critical area the Quest falls a little short. Looking to haul 4-by-8 sheets of plywood? Can't do it here.
The cargo bed is wide enough, but the sheet won't fit behind the front seats, unless they're all the way forward or the door is propped open.
Still, a drawer under the console and a door opposite it provide ample storage. And a second-row console offers more storage back there.
Small screen: The radio and backup camera screen were among the smallest I've seen. A bit too small, unfortunately, as the backup camera was really hard to read. But visibility otherwise was very good, so parking was not an issue. (A larger screen is available as an option.)
Friends and family: The base cloth seats are very nice, soft yet firm and supportive.
By the book? At first I thought there was no owner's manual. Then I found it strapped to the floor of the cargo area. Seemed odd.
Where it's built: Kyushu, Japan.
How it's built: J.D. Power & Associates puts the predicted reliability for the Quest at about average. The rating for a 2008 model (the most recent Quest rated) is below average.
In the end: The Quest certainly brings something a bit different to the minivan match. This, rather than the Mazda5, is the minivan for people who want a little cool in their soccer-mom ride.