1996 Nissan Quest

This road test of a Nissan Quest began last August in the company of a Dodge Caravan Sport. The Sport was easily the most nimble minivan I had ever driven, and the experience drew my thoughts to all the other little vans, and the Quest in particular.

The Quest had been my favorite up until that point, its road manners defined by a low centre of gravity sitting over a suspension derived from the athletic Maxima. The drivetrain, too, was popped out of the last generation of Nissan's flagship sedan. And, while you could never call it fast, the Quest's power was delivered smoothly and eagerly.

Positioned slightly upmarket from the garden variety people mover, the Quest met the handling expectancies of customers who were used to quality cars. (Nissan labels it the "executive" minivan and in a hyperbolic moment I once called it the BMW of minis.)

That was then, this is now. Since the Nissan's intro in '92 as a '93 model, we have seen improvements to all minivan suspensions, perhaps not enough to satisfy my contention that they should handle as well a good car, but we're getting closer.

Ergo, I cajoled the Nissan folks into putting a Quest into their 1996 press fleet, equipped with the optional handling package. Given that my inspiration came from a Caravan thus equipped, I wanted to deal with apples and apples.

The Quest's handling goodies are an apparent bargain. A mere $300 adds a rear anti-roll bar, new springs and shocks, chunky P215/70 R15 tires including a full-size spare, plus a trailer wiring harness.

However, the package is only available on the top-of-line GXE model (base price: $30,298). The manufacturer's suggested retail price on our tester came out at $32,908 including a sunroof, CD changer, automatic climate control and two-tone paint.

Which is, admittedly, a very competitive figure for a luxury-level van. Nevertheless, I strongly contend that the less affluent among us should have full access to an important safety adjunct (see below).

Moreover, the XE models (base price: $25,598) are lighter. Less content, less weight, better handling if you are willing to forgo the luxo-trappings.

To finish my Nissan bashing, I was shocked to discover that the '96 XEs still have ABS as an extra cost option. ABS is standard on GXE. I guess safety ain't for po' folks.

Fortunately, I can report that if you fork over the dough for a GXE, you do get something for your money. The Quest lived up to my memory of its abilities.

It is not a zippy canyon carver like the Caravan Sport. It does not inspire spirited driving, but it will play if the driver so wishes. The Quest really shines when the demands of getting from A to B require a lot of input from the wheel: lane changes, off ramps, twisty roads. All of which the minivan accomplishes with a minimum of stress. Admittedly a matter of taste, but I experienced no decrement in ride comfort as a result of the firmer suspension.

I loved the brakes. For whatever reason, the other automakers can't seem to decide how minivan binders should work and feel. The new Magic Wagon's are good, but the Quest's seem better. Nice pedal feel, powerful, easily modulated operation from the moment of initiation, and perfect anti-lock action in a panic stop.

Where time (just four short years) seemed to have passed the Quest by, is in engine performance. I remembered no real concerns about the Quest's acceleration from my previous test rides. The 151 h.p. 3.0 L V6 and four-speed automatic in our tester delivered up 0-to-100 km/h times consistent at 13.6 seconds, which is decidedly slow. Moreover, they used up well over nine seconds to pull out at 90 km/h and pass at 120 a duration that requires a lot more planning than I like.

Subsequently, I discovered that the engine, an early production unit, had some problems and was slated for replacement before the van went for sale as a demo.

Gadzooks! Off to a dealer with the Wheels deadline looming, to borrow a brand new Quest XE, and gently rerun the tests on the scarcely broken-in (60 km) vehicle. Allowing for a little feather-footing in deference to the van's newness, and for the tightness of the engine, I can report the revised 0-to-100 km/h at about 12.5 seconds and 90120 km/h at about 8.75. Better than the Mazda MPV (Wheels, April 6, 1996), but still well behind the V6 Chrysler minis and the Windstar.

My brief run in the standard suspension XE reinforced my endorsement of the handling package, but it also demonstrated that the Quest gets around pretty good in stock trim.

Handling and performance, however, are not the only intriguing aspects of the 1996 Quest. Current Nissan press releases and advertising announce that the van has been treated to more than 100, count 'em, 100 improvements.

Well, I did count them with the help of input from Nissan Canada's director of marketing, Ian Forsythe, who supplied the master list, fully three pages long and actually recording 129 items in total.

The count was obviously padded for promotional reasons. For example, a new speaker cover is enumerated as two changes one on the passenger side and one on the driver's side. And, there are a bunch of similar double counts. But, some cool head must have reigned when they listed a new passengerside air bag in the No. 1 spot and put the bilingual SRS warning sticker down in 48th.

Obviously, I don't have the space and you don't have the patience for me to relate each one here. Nevertheless, a change is a change and all seem to be actual improvements.

Obvious from the outside is a facelift involving the front bumper, grille and headlights plus the rear bumper and taillights. More subtle is an improvement in city driving fuel economy from 13.6 L/100 km last year to 12.9 in 1996. Highway fuel usage drops from 9.4 to 9.0 L/110 km.

Other notables include an improved dash layout made necessary by the additional air bag, all the seats have been recontoured, an integrated child seat is available for the second row bench, anti-UV solar glass replaces tinted glass, and a tilt wheel is standard.

Before we close, let me take this opportunity to once again correct some misconceptions that seem to follow the Quest around. The Quest is not an import. The panels come from Nissan's stamping plant in Tennessee and it is assembled in Avon Lake, Ohio, alongside its nearly identical sister ship, the Mercury Villager.

The Quest was not created by Ford. The award-winning initial design of the Quest/Villager was primarily Nissan's with some input from Ford.

The Quest is not particularly small, its tidy shape just manages to look that way. In all major outside dimensions, the Quest varies insignificantly from the Windstar.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on week-long driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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