Nissan’s Quest – a better minivan in search of a market

By Jim Meachen

CANTON, Miss. — Nissan officials want to get the message out — quality at their newest U.S. plant in Mississippi has improved dramatically and customer satisfaction has increased proportionally.

As an example, they rolled out the 2007 Quest minivan inside the 3.5-million-square-foot plant in a visual demonstration of how far things have advanced since Quest Job One on May 23, 2003.

The minivan has been a sales problem for Nissan over the past three years and it has been addressed, officials said. But wait there is more on that in a minute.

Dave Boyer, vice president for manufacturing at the massive facility, described the various measures taken to turn trouble-plagued vehicles in 2003 — the plant also builds the Infiniti QX56 and Nissan Armada sport utilities, the Titan pickup truck and the mid-sized Altima sedan — into problem-free vehicles in 2006.

He told reporters that Nissan has developed a customer satisfaction team to uncover problems and quickly correct them, a parts quality engineering team to address supplier problems and a built-in-quality program allowing workers on the line to come up with better ideas in the manufacturing process.

Boyer also said Nissan is pleased with improvements based on 2005 J.D. Power and Associates quality surveys and company statistics that show a 56 percent drop in warranty claims from March 2005 to March 2006 for vehicles built in Canton.

Boyer said it’s not just the manufacturing process that yields customer satisfaction, but the design of the vehicle — the ease of use of the switchgear, the sound of the audio system, and the effortlessness with which rear seats fold down. If buyers are not comfortable with the workings of their cars and trucks, their dissatisfaction is going to show up, Boyer said.

What Boyer didn’t say is that it was irresponsible of management to load a new plant with a novice work force with five new vehicles and expect the build quality to meet expectations. The Canton workers did their level best, but what you don’t know you don’t know.

Thankfully Nissan stepped up and made the necessary changes including better training, to insure a measure of success. And to the credit of the Canton workers they too have stepped up to be part of the vast changes and improvements.

As for the Quest – It was the first vehicle to come off the Canton assembly line more than three years ago. It has been a slow-seller — an also-ran to the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna — that has not resonated with buyers partly because of its quirky exterior styling and the also quirky and unusual instrument panel layout. Never mind those initial quality problems.

To its credit Nissan has been listening to its customers, and it has responded with a heavy-duty mid-cycle redesign. The dashboard area has been reworked and the Quest has gone under the knife in several other areas. And the build quality has taken a turn for the better.

But it may take awhile for this course correction to gain the attention of customers. August sales of the new Quest were just 2,625 compared to sales of 3,631 for the previous edition in August 2005, a 28 percent slide. In October sales year over year were up 15-percent but year to date the minivan was still off considerably from the prior year.

Part of the problem may still be with the exterior styling, which is nearly as quirky as the interior used to be, and remains basically the same although we must admit to liking the looks just because it is different from the run-of-the-mill minivan designs. The Quest’s rounded edges and long nose set it apart from the traditional people movers. Its unique look apparently puts people in two camps — you either love it or hate it. It evokes emotions that leave little room for ambivalence.

From the standpoint of driving dynamics, the Quest has always been one of our favorites. It handles like a sedan and performance is ample from the 3.5-liter V-6, which dispenses 235 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission.

If there is such a thing as a driver’s minivan, the Quest may be it, although on paper it doesn’t accelerate any better than the Odyssey or the Sienna. It just feels strong and planted.

We drove a 2007 Quest in Mississippi, running it through the gears and taking a few wide sweeps at speeds that are not usually associated with people movers. We most liked the revised transmission setup designed for quicker response off the line. What is nice, even though it is a minivan you will not have to totally sacrifice an interesting driving experience.

So what about the changes?

The biggest improvement has been made in the interior and dash layout. We could never get used to looking right to determine our speed. And we had trouble with the black hole in front of us at night. The gauges, now illuminated by white light instead of nerve-wracking orange, have been relocated from the center of the dash to behind the steering wheel where they should be.

The redesigned center stack is user friendly with clear climate and audio controls.

The DVD player has been relocated to the center bin area where the driver has complete control. And get this — the rear entertainment system can be ordered with two screens, one for the second row and another for the third. Great to keep the kids apart.

We were impressed with the new spring-loaded third seat, which makes folding it flat a one-handed operation. And here’s the best part. The headrests no longer have to be removed and stored. They automatically fold out of the way.

We were fond of some of the original van’s quirkiness. For instance, we thought the skylights over the back seats were one of the coolest minivan innovations since the first Dodge rolled off the assembly line nearly a quarter century ago. And Nissan, much to its credit for changing just the things that needed to be changed, has retained the skylights.

A quick note about safety — the Quest has an airbag system that families should demand including side curtain airbags for all three rows. Antilock brakes are also standard. Optional is anti-skid control.

The new Quest comes in four trim levels starting at $25,000 and ranging to $34,550 for the top line SE. The mid-level S is $26,300 and the SL is $28,150, and that’s where most buyers will probably land.

We like what Nissan has done with the minivan. Although we can’t speak to the Quest’s new-found quality, we noticed a considerable difference — no squeaks or rattles — on a couple of Canton-made vehicles we drove during 2006 including the Infiniti QX56.

Nissan may never be a major player in the minivan segment, but the revised Quest offers an intriguing and capable alternative to the middle-of-the-road competitors.


Base price, $25,000; as driven, $34,550

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6

Horsepower: 235 @ 5,800 rpm

Torque: 240 pound-feet @ 4,400 rpm

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Seating: 2/2/3

Turning circle: 40 feet

Wheelbase: 124 inches

Length: 204.1 inches

Curb weight: 4,349 pounds

Maximum payload: 1,204 pounds

Cargo space behind seats: 32.3 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 20 gallons

EPA mileage: 25 mpg highway, 18 city (premium)

0-60: 7.9 seconds (Edmunds)

Also consider: Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Hyundai Entourage

The Good:

• Redesigned dashboard puts gauges in front of the driver
• Excellent performance and handling

The Bad:

• Turning circle mimics 18-wheeler
• Quirky design may alienate buyers

The Ugly:

• Please don’t tell me I have to pump premium gas into my family hauler