Six short years ago, the minivan segment was thriving. Sales were a million strong and nameplates were as diverse as the sweet selections in a box of See's chocolates. From Japan (Honda Odyssey, Mazda MPV, Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna) and Korea (Kia Sedona) to the good ol' US of A (Buick Terraza, Chevy Uplander, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Caravan, Ford Freestar, Mercury Monterey, Pontiac Montana, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Saturn Relay), the minivan menu offered savory -- and, let's face it, some unsavory -- choices for every mom and dad.

And then something happened. A seed called the three-row crossover was planted, and it sprouted like bamboo on a Miracle-Gro drip. Suddenly, automakers were clamoring to harvest these hip, urban transporters and many decided to axe their no-longer-so-cool minivans. Sales of the sliding-door transporters tumbled to around 400,000 in 2009. Since then, however, the numbers have steadily increased, and they're trending to more than 500,000 in 2011.

Two big reasons for the spike in minivan interest are the all-new Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, both thoroughly redone for the 2011 model year. Each boasts an aggressive dose of standout style, myriad luxuries and amenities, and refined V-6 powertrains featuring available six-speed automatics. Honda ups the ante with a new Touring Elite trim that offers a blind-spot warning system and standard leather trim, navigation, and DVD entertainment. Toyota, meanwhile, is providing something for everyone, thanks to a catalog that includes a base four-cylinder, a decidedly sporty SE, and a top-of-the-line Limited. And let's not forget about rejuvenated Chrysler, which recently updated its Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan haulers with freshened styling inside and out and a new 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6.

Nissan, never an automaker to be left out in the cold, is bringing its own heat to the segment, courtesy of a fervent, new 2011 Quest. Absent for the 2010 model year, the Quest ends a brief hiatus, hailing now from Kyushu, Japan, rather than Canton, Mississippi. With Nissan's new NV line of commercial vehicles hogging the Mississippi factory, not to mention the JDM Elgrand serving as the basis for the '11 Quest, Japan production seemed only appropriate.

The 2004-09 Quest had the profile of an aardvark, but the new '11 looks more like a grizzly bear. At 200.8 inches long, 77.6 inches wide, and 71.5 inches tall, the Quest is 0.6-inch longer than the Sienna, 1.1 inches narrower than the T&C, and 3.1 inches taller than the Odyssey. As the tallest and narrowest of the minivan set, the Nissan certainly appears statuesque, but it doesn't look especially slender. Perhaps the rear wraparound glass, which makes the Quest seem as if it is missing D-pillars, and the squared-off tail contribute to the wider-than-it-really-is illusion. Regardless, the Quest, at 0.32 Cd, slips efficiently through the air, nearly matching the drag coefficient of the sleeker-looking Sienna (0.31).

With its tall, boxy facade, the Quest touts an interior space that generally feels cavernous. We say generally because, despite touting comparable second- and third-row measurements, the Quest trails most of its competitors in cargo capacity. Both the Nissan's second and third rows fold flat -- it's an easy, one-pull process, and a power-folding third row is standard on the LE -- but they don't drop down into wells, as with the Chrysler's Sto 'n Go second row and the others' third rows. Thus, the floor, while flat, doesn't sit as low as those in competitive vans, so the Quest's cargo capacity behind the first, second, and third rows maxes out at 108.4, 63.6, and 35.1 cubic feet, respectively. Compare that to the hauling capability of the Sienna (150.0, 87.1, 39.1) and Odyssey (148.5, 93.1, 38.4), and the Quest is noticeably deficient. That said, the Quest's numbers are still big (over 108 cubic feet is nothing to be embarrassed about) and it's hard to imagine it not having enough room for the average family's most cumbersome objects. For the cargo area that will see the most use -- the space aft the third row -- Nissan gave the Quest a standard storage well, fitted with covers. The space is large enough for 11.4 cubic feet of goods, and the composite covers, which can support more than 200 pounds, create a new load floor able to prop another 23.7 cubic feet.

Inside, the Quest treats seven passengers to upscale materials, first-rate fit and finish, and 16 cup holders -- one more than in Odyssey and four more than in Sienna. Why no 8-passenger capacity? Nissan opted for seven seats because eight would have meant cramming a third seat into the second row. And don't forget, the Quest is already on the narrow side. Plus, Nissan claims it didn't want to compromise comfort for passengers sitting in the second row, which is the most frequently used after the driver seat. Nissan also chose not to offer an ultra-wide 16-inch split-screen LCD for its DVD entertainment system, a la the Sienna and Odyssey, instead going with a still-wide 11-inch LCD sans a split-screen option. The logic? Nissan would rather treat minivan passengers to one big screen than shortchange them with two small ones, even if it means they can't watch dual programs simultaneously.

While Nissan realizes parenting is far from easy, it believes the Quest can at least make the life of a parent easier. To that end, the Quest comes standard with the aforementioned fold-flat second and third rows as well as a smart key with pushbutton start and a removable second-row center console. Innovative and helpful options for mom and pop include a power tailgate, Bluetooth, backup camera, navigation with 8-inch display, blind-spot warning, HID headlamps, 120-volt AC power outlet, and power sliding doors that open or close with the touch of an exterior handle-mounted button. (Rather than having to pull a handle to power-operate a door, the one-touch button makes operation easier for a parent with his/her hands full.) The Quest's tire-pressure monitoring system even boasts an "Easy Fill Tire Alert" feature that, via the horn and exterior blinkers, informs a user airing up the tires that the proper pressures have been set.

The Quest rides on a 118.1-inch-wheelbase version of Nissan's D-platform, which also underpins the Altima, Maxima, and Murano. Nissan claims structural rigidity is improved over the previous generation, and we have no reason to doubt that claim -- the Quest feels extremely solid and well constructed, and inside it's luxury-car quiet. The suspension, which comprises of struts up front and multilink setup at the rear, delivers a supple ride that is still adequately taut for spirited driving. Moreover, the electro-hydraulic power steering serves up a firm, linear helm, and the four-wheel disc brakes provide steady, strong stopping power. Standard wheels on the entry-level S are 6.5 x 16-inch steel rims with 225/65 Bridgestones. The SV trim gets slightly wider 7.0-inch aluminum wheels, while SL and LE trims step up to 7.0 x 18-inch alloys with 235/55 Toyo A22 rubber.

As is the case with many a V-6-powered Nissan, the Quest uses a CVT mated to a 3.5-liter VQ-series engine, tuned to 260 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 240 pound-feet of torque at 4400. Below 3000 rpm, the powertrain feels a little lazy, but once in the midrange (3000-5000 rpm), the CVT and 3.5 quickly spruce up, pushing the relatively light 4485-pound van with satisfying vigor. At the track, which was damp from a misty rain, the Quest LE ran from 0 to 60 in 8.3 seconds and through the quarter mile in 16.4 at 89.8 mph. Both the six-speed Odyssey Touring Elite and Sienna Limited are nearly a second quicker to 60 and over a half-second quicker to the quarter. With the Quest on a dry track, we expect its times to drop at least a tenth or two. Similarly, the Nissan's 60-to-0 braking, at 139 feet, would likely fall below 130 on dry pavement. As for handling numbers, due to the wet track, we were unable to attain lateral-acceleration and figure-eight numbers. But check back in the coming months, as we plan to put another Quest through our full battery of tests.

Pricing for the Quest opens at $28,550 for a base S, which comes with wood-tone trim, 6-CD changer, and intelligent key with pushbutton start. At $31,700, the SV adds one-touch power sliding doors, alloy wheels, tri-zone A/C, power driver seat, fog lamps, backup camera, USB connectivity, Bluetooth, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. The $35,150 SL, which Nissan predicts will be the volume seller, nets leather trim, 18-inch alloys, power liftgate, heated front seats, roof rails, and heated mirrors. Our tester, a top-level $42,150 LE, offers nearly everything under the sun, including navigation, 9.3GB hard drive, 13-speaker Bose audio, second- and third-row manual window blinds, DVD entertainment system, blind-spot warning, HID headlamps, 120-volt AC outlet, and an advanced HVAC system with air purifier and deodorizer. The last item trickles down from Infiniti, which we wish had also donated its AroundView monitor -- maybe in another year or two. At least our LE had the dual power moonroofs ($1350) that treat all passengers to a little stargazing.

Following in the footsteps of an over-styled, poorly packaged predecessor, the new Quest is a refreshing dose of minivan moxie. Sure, it still lags behind the competition in some respects -- it's not the quickest, most fuel efficient, or the most cavernous -- and we do wish the side doors slid rearward a bit more, making ingress and egress easier for the third row. But as an overall package, it is impressive. Love or hate its tall, boxy body and wraparound greenhouse, but there's no denying that the Quest stands out among today's DustBuster lookalikes. Its cabin is comfortable, ergonomically sound, and chock full of useful technologies and cool conveniences. Plus, it's a smooth, quiet, rewarding drive that is competitively priced. For Nissan, the minivan stars have finally aligned.


2011 Nissan Quest LE
Base price $42,150
Price as Tested $43,680
Drivetrain Front-engine, FWD
Engine 3.5L/260-hp/240-lb-ft DOHC V-6
Transmission CVT
Curb weight (f/r dist) 4485 lb (54/46 %)
Length x width x height 200.8 x 77.6 x 71.5 in
0-60 mph 8.3 sec*
Quarter mile 16.4 sec @ 89.8 mph*
Braking, 60-0 mph 139 feet*
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 18/24 mpg (est)
CO2 emissions 0.96 lb/mile (est)
*Damp track

Palatial People Movers
How the top-tier Quest LE stacks up against its luxury rivals


  Nissan Quest LE Chrysler Town & Country Limited Honda Odyssey Touring Elite Toyota Sienna Limited
Basics
Base Price $42,105 $39,495 $44,030 $39,510
Engine 3.5L/260-hp/240-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 3.6L/283-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 3.5L/248-hp/250-lb-ft SOHC 24-valve V-6 3.5L/265-hp/245-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Auto Trans CVT 6-speed 6-speed 6-speed
Wheelbase 118.1 in 121.2 in 118.1 in 119.3 in
Curb Weight 4485 lb 4535 lb** 4559 lb 4624 lb
Length x Width x Height 200.8 x 77.6 x 71.5 in 202.8 x 78.7 x 67.9 in 202.9 x 79.2 x 68.4 in 200.2 x 78.2 x 68.9 in
Legroom 2nd/3rd rows 36.7/40.5 in 36.5/32.7 in 40.9/42.4 in 37.6/36.3 in
Cargo capacity behind 1st/2nd/3rd rows 108.4/63.6/35.1 cu ft 143.8/83.3/33.0 cu ft 148.5/93.1/38.4 cu ft 150.0/87.1/39.1 cu ft
EPA city/hwy 18/24 mpg* 18/26 mpg 19/28 mpg 18/24 mpg
*Estimate, **Town & Country Touring
Features and Amenities
18-inch wheels Std NA Std Std
Navigation Std Std Std Opt
DVD entertainment Std Opt Std Opt
HID headlamps Std Std Std Opt
Smart key Std Std NA Std
Blutetooth Std Opt Std Std
Back-up camera Std Std Std Std
Blind-spot system Std Std Std NA
Performance
0-60 mph 8.3 sec* 8.1 sec 7.4 sec 7.4 sec**
Quarter mile 16.4 sec @ 89.8 mph* 16.3 sec @ 86.0 mph 15.7 sec @ 90.6 mph** 15.6 sec @ 91.0 mpg
Braking, 60-0 mph 139 ft* 130 ft 127 ft 125 ft**
Lateral acceleration NA 0.73 g 0.73 g 0.74 g**
MT figure eight NA 29.0 sec @ 0.54 g 29.0 sec @ 0.56 g** 28.6 sec @ 0.59 g
*Numbers recorded on damp track, **Numbers for T&C Touring
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