DEL MAR, CA – Ever since the modern minivan was introduced by the former Chrysler Corp. in the 1980s, auto makers have tried to top each other with gimmicky features.

“Behold the magic seat!” Honda Motor Co. Ltd. proclaimed in 1995 with its Odyssey’s disappearing third row.

Nearly 10 years later, Chrysler offered “Stow ’n Go” second-row seats to get a flat load floor.

In 2003, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., a bit player in the segment, thought an anti-minivan minivan was the way to go. With unconventional sheet metal and a multi-panel “Skyroof,” Nissan targeted “sexy moms” who prioritized style over substance.

Turned out most sexy moms were not impressed, as Quest again sank below its rivals.

Now Nissan appears on the right path, going after the natural minivan target: families.

But the new ’11 Quest, although nice, is destined to remain a niche player, thanks to its one-size-fits-all flavor that makes competing vehicles, especially the new-for- ’11 Odyssey, more attractive.

The Quest, on sale in late January and sharing a platform with Nissan’s Japan-market Elgrand van, makes a styling statement with its boxy shape and near-upright D-pillars joining a flat roof.

Nissan says this design increases headroom for rear passengers, especially those in the usually cramped third row.

But for Americans accustomed to softer, swoopier minivans, this might be a turnoff.

The Quest also is slab-sided, flat from the beltline down to the rocker panels, emphasizing that – at 200.8 ins. (510 cm) long – there isn’t much mini about this van. The Quest is just 6 ins. (15 cm) shorter than an ’86 Ford E150/E250 Club Wagon.

Minivans are all about interior comfort, space and functionality. The Quest boasts 167.1 cu.-ft. (4.7 cu.-m) of passenger volume.

With or without the optional moonroof, the Quest’s passenger space is less than Odyssey’s but more than the best-selling Chrysler Town & Country.

To accommodate the fold-flat second- and third-row seats, the Quest is 2-3 ins. (5-8 cm) taller than competing kid-movers, Nissan says.

While it sounds good, an extra-tall minivan could be a concern for folks with low garage openings.

Accessing second-row seats is easy with Nissan’s one-touch sliding-door handles. A tiny button requires just a stab of a free pinky or knuckle.

’11 Nissan Quest LE
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 7-passenger van
Engine 3.5L DOHC V-6 with aluminum block, heads
Power (SAE net) 260 hp @ 5,200 rpm
Torque 240 lb.-ft (325 Nm) @ 4,800 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 96 x 81
Compression ratio 10.3:1
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 118.1 ins. (260 cm)
Overall length 200.8 ins. (432 cm)
Overall width 77.6 ins. (177 cm)
Overall height 71.5-73.0 ins. with/without roof rack (182-185 cm)
Curb weight 4,548 lbs. (2,063 kg)
Base price $41,350 ($27,750 S base grade)
Fuel economy 18/24 mpg (13.0-9.8 L/100 km)
Competition Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Kia Sedona
Pros Cons
Comfy seats Heavy seats
Easy access to third row Hard to get out
16 cupholders! Drinks could tip

Nissan emphasizes the Quest’s comfort quotient over the competition. Having recently spent a weekend in the new Odyssey and time in a Town & Country, the claim rings true.

The Quest’s seats are forgiving, with good side-bolstering, both for front- and second-row occupants. Nissan uses three layers of foam, the softest on top.

Unfortunately, this abundant cushioning helps make the Quest’s second-row seats heavy and hard to move, almost requiring two hands to slide them forward for third-row access.

Flipping down seatbacks is necessary for a flat load surface because Nissan has eschewed the Stow ’n Go concept as well as removable seats. This is why the auto maker raised the roof; the folded second- and third-row seats take up close to a vertical foot (0.30 m) of space.

This faux floor seems preferable to removing heavy seats, or even flipping them into the floor, which puts hands near sharp metal parts.

But it’s likely some parents will prefer a true load floor and perhaps dislike lifting items even higher than usual to place them on collapsed seats.

The Quest’s manual seat controls are awkward. To move second-row seats forward, a sliding lever is positioned on the side of the seatback. It proved sticky in one test vehicle.

A pin-style release positioned atop the seatback for easy lifting, as in Nissan’s Juke and Leaf, would be more ergonomic.

But the wide, horizontal latch at the base of the second-row seats, used to collapse them flat, was a much beefier, better-functioning device.

The Quest’s only second-row seating configuration is two buckets, with a small, removable center console.

The lack of a bench-seat option may be a turnoff for some buyers wanting to put three people/car seats in the second row.

Accessing the Quest’s third row is a mixed bag. Getting to it is much easier than getting out.

The Quest’s opened sliding door intrudes into the threshold, requiring a step around, a harder feat when exiting.

But the third row is comfortable, with plenty of head- and leg-room.

Ingress and egress to the second row is effortless, thanks to a step carved into the floor, perfect for that other group of minivan owners, senior citizens.

Unlike the Odyssey’s third-row “Magic Seat,” which folds and flips backward into a cargo floor well, the Quest’s third row just folds forward flat, either manually or with power buttons in the up-level LE trim.

Entertainment now is crucial when transporting children, who apparently need more than to look out the window. A rear-seat DVD system is a must.

But unlike the split-screen system found in the new Odyssey, Toyota Sienna and Chrysler minivans, which allows for two different videos to be shown at once, Nissan opts for a single large LCD screen.

For parents of two kids accustomed to each having their own way, this might be a deal killer.

The Quest’s only powertrain remains a standout in the segment. Nissan’s venerable 3.5L VQ V-6, mated to a continuously variable transmission, makes a plentiful 260 hp and 240 lb.-ft. (343 Nm) of torque.

The V-6 propelled us, mostly free of duress, up some steep mountain roads near San Diego. To summon more torque for those situations, a manumatic feature would be nice.

The vehicle-speed-sensing power rack-and-pinion steering feels very heavy, even at low speeds and especially when compared with the ’11 Odyssey. While adding a sporty flair to the vehicle is laudable, a lighter touch would be more appropriate for a kiddie hauler.

The Quest’s suspension wins over the Odyssey’s, absorbing uneven pavement and potholes much better.

Interior materials are some of the nicest we’ve seen in a minivan, with scads of soft surfaces covering the dash and door panels, compared with the sea of hard plastics in the Odyssey and Sienna.

Contrast piping on the Quest’s leather seats is attractive, as are thick-carpeted mats, which partially tuck under the sill trim to better hold them in place.

But Nissan’s one-size-fits-all cubby cupholders, lacking a rubber bottom or grips, get marked down. The minivan has an eye-popping 16 cupholders overall.

Also lacking is a proper grip for front doors, making it difficult to get leverage to close the heavy door.

The new Quest comes in four grades, ranging from the $27,750 base S to the $41,350 LE. The SV and SL grades fall in the low- and mid-$30k range. This pricing is on par with the competition. But when did minivans reach parity with BMWs?

Still, the Quest LE is a good value: power everything and yes, the DVD system.

While not forecasting sales for the minivan, Nissan says it hopes the comfort and luxury materials push it ahead of rivals.

Doubtful. The Quest has shortcomings, notably the singular seating configuration and absence of a true load floor and dual-source DVD viewing. And Nissan offers only one engine, while Toyota has a 4-cyl. option and Chrysler multiple V-6s.

But perhaps Quest will find its own comfortable niche within the minivan segment. The vehicle is well-suited for older buyers, thanks to its comfy bucket seats and easy second-row access.

They’re probably less likely to fight over what episode of “Hannah Montana” to watch, too.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com