Chicago Auto ShowCHICAGO – Automotive designers love to talk about the importance of “thinking outside the box.” Occasionally, that thinking goes too far.

The interior of the Nissan Quest minivan is a prime example.

When the current model launched in 2003 as an ’04, the boldly styled vehicle demonstrated desperation on the part of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. designers to craft a family hauler that broke the mold for minivans, injecting passion and style into an otherwise drab segment.

The Japanese auto maker admits now it missed the mark by a mile with regard to the vehicle’s interior.

Its sales figures show a precipitous drop, from 46,430 units in 2004 to 40,357 in 2005. So far this model year, Nissan has sold 8,433 Quests, down from 12,011 for the same period last year.

2007 Nissan Quest

Here at the Chicago auto show, Nissan unveils the ’07 Quest, which represents the most expensive mid-cycle enhancement (at least $70 million) in Nissan’s history.

The new Quest looks the same on the outside and virtually is unchanged mechanically, but it offers a vastly different experience inside.

Nissan completely redesigned the instrument panel, repositioning the instrument clusters from the center to the more conventional placement directly in front of the driver.

Designers initially located the clusters in the center to give children in the back seats something to look at, perhaps as a form of entertainment, says Tracey Matlock, chief product specialist-product planning.

In reality, however, the central clusters merely aggravated drivers and ultimately held no interest for young occupants.

In addition, the odd configuration made for an instrument panel that was aesthetically challenged, a mish mash of complex, intersecting lines.

The company admits the interior styling was polarizing for some buyers.

“The old interior was fairly broken up. We wanted an interior that was more harmonious,” Matlock says.

Every interior trim panel in the vehicle was changed, and higher grade materials were selected. By way of hydrographic film, accents of brushed aluminum and wood were added to all door-trim panels and the instrument panel.

“We needed to give the interior some warmth,” Matlock says.

Also gone from the new interior is the oddly configured center stack, which stood like an off-kilter telephone pole, with a mess of buttons placed on top. Matlock derisively refers to the console as “the can.”

Now, the audio and climate-control buttons remain roughly in the same location, but they are integrated into the instrument panel. Plus, many of the buttons are no longer flush with the surface – they have been raised for better ergonomics, she says.

2004 Nissan Quest

The only carryover part from the previous interior is the lengthy overhead console, which stretches across the front two rows of seats.

Although the seats largely are unchanged, the fabric and leather surfaces are all new. Available are two colors in cloth, three in the new perforated leather. Matlock expects about 50% of Quest buyers to opt for leather.

Second-row seats fold flat, but not into the floor, like Chrysler Group’s successful Stow ’n Go seating.

Despite the expensive redesign, Nissan maintains the price point for the Quest will not change substantially. Official pricing has not yet been announced, but the current model starts at $24,150.

Nissan says it expects to sell 65,000 Quests annually.

With the all-new interior, Nissan is counting on the Quest in the marketplace for several more years. The next-generation Quest goes on sale in 2009 as a ’10 model.

In other product news, Nissan says it will unveil the face-lifted Maxima and all-new Altima sedans at this year’s New York auto show.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com