Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Week-Long Quest

Last week, I purchased my first Quest--a 2009 Nissan Quest SE (grey with grey leather interior). Prior to this time, I had owned a 2008 Toyota Sienna XLE Limited and a 2005 Honda Odyssey Touring Model.

The Honda was a dismal experience. The touring model ate up tires in no time; I had to replace the PAX tires twice in 28,000 miles. The inside was comfortable on a fundamental level, but the vehicle was poorly assembled with little attention to fit and finish. Like every Honda I owned from 2000 on, the vehicle was a rattle-trap, and the dealer had no willingness or inclination to address that as a problem ("If you want a quiet vehicle, buy an Acura," they said--which I would have done, had Acura made minivans). The seat configuration required me to fill my garage's storage area with two second-row seats, which took up room I'd rather use for something better. Even worse, Honda released the 2004 and 2005 Odyssey with a known defect: they put the air conditioning compressor very low, just behind the lower air intake vent, which had no mesh or gridwork to protect it. Naturally, within a year, I had a punctured compressor, damaged by a rock thrown up from the road. Honda admitted the problem, but was willing to do nothing to cover any cost of the repair. ("Road hazard," they said.) And because I really enjoy listening to music in the Honda, I was bothered by the fact that the sound was mushy and flat and lackluster, with no built-in iPod integration. And speaking of mushy... the vehicle also had a mushy ride, dipping into curves and seeming to stress under any load over 900 pounds. It braked poorly and seemed to grind when the van was loaded.

Honda's horrid customer service on the air conditioning compressor led me to trade in that van for the Sienna. The quality control was much better, the fit and finish greatly improved. The compressor problem didn't exist, thanks to intelligent design of that front air intake vent and wise positioning of the compressor. Tire wear was much more even and tires lasted longer. While the Sienna didn't have a manufacturer-built-in iPod interface for the deluxe JBL Synthesis/Nav system, the Toyota dealer did hook me up with a third party dealer who installed the interface the same day I bought the van. There were problems, though: the second-row seats still had to be removed, for instance. The JBL sound system, while better than the Odyssey system, was still aggravatingly bad. Toyota, for some reason, put limiters on the front speakers that filtered out bass. The speakers had no real tweeters---they were just midrange speakers, so they sounded tinny, with no highs or lows. And the subwoofer thumped like a bad differential, but it had no tonality to the thump... just a dull thud. Like the Odyssey, the vehicle drove like a van--heavy and sluggish in response, and it too was mushy when carrying a load. It braked better, but still seemed taxed by a load. And no one has a more dysfunctional voice-activated system than Toyota; never once in the year and a half that I owned the van did it recognize a SINGLE SPOKEN COMMAND. We would occasionally just babble nonsense at the car to see what it would do, since that frequently got results no worse than using the suggested voice commands. The Toyota DID seem a bit more refined, though: it had a better dash design, more intuitive controls, a sueprior touch-screen nav system, and little touches like turn signals on the rearview mirrors, power folding mirrors, and courtesy lights on the mirrors that would light the ground below the doorways to make it easy to avoid puddles. It also had HID headlights and a power folding third row seat.

The Nissan is the only van I've ever owned that drives like a well-made SUV rather than like a van. Steering is responsive, the engine seems confident and responsive, and the mushy ride of the other two vans is nonexistent here. The seating is of higher quality, both in terms of leather surfaces and in terms of comfort. The stereo is outstanding; people may make fun of Bose speakers, but anyone who has ever had to endure the Odysssey and the Toyota system will realize that the Nissan's upgraded system is vastly improved, with rich resonant sound, crisp highs, and resonant, note-worthy bass response. Even XM radio sounds good on this system (and anything that can make XM sound good is really accomplishing something!). The second row fold-almost-flat seating is flat enough for my needs, so I have my garage storage area back again. (I own a comic shop, so once a week I have to pick up from 700 to 1100 pounds of books--but the rest of the time, the cargo area of the van is pretty much empty.)

Is the Nissan perfect? No. The Nissan-added iPod interface is embarrasingly bad. If an iPod is connected, XM doesn't work. Every time you want to randomize the playlist on the iPod, you have to use the seek button to choose setup (which may take five or six pushes of the button), then quickly press track up/down, then use the seek button again to choose random list, then quickly press the track up/down again. Turn the Quest off, and it loses all those settings and you have to start over. And the steering wheel track up/down button doesn't work at all with the iPod interface. This is a horrible design, and Nissan should be embarrassed. Still, it IS a built-in iPod interface...

The Nissan also has park-assist sonar on the rear bumper only; the dealer had third party front-bumper parking sensors added prior to delivery of the vehicle, but both the Sienna and the Odyssey include that. Oddly, the Nissan needs them even more than the other two vans; due to the extreme slope of the front hood, it's much harder to determine where the nose of the Quest is without parking sensors.

Nissan should have gone one step further and designed the second row seats to fold absolutely flat rather than almost flat; this is one of the few areas where American vans like the Chrysler Town and Country surpass the Japanese vans.

The central command console/stack is a bit too large and rounded, intruding slightly into the knee area on both driver and passenger sides. A little ergonomic design there could have gone a long way.

For some reason, Nissan removed the compass display from the rear-view mirror with the 2009 model, while both Honda and Toyota still include that. An odd step backwards...

Nissan could also benefit from a more intuitive redesign of its climate-control and sound system; the buttons seem poorly placed, too similar in size, and arranged in a haphazard pattern.

Finally, the navigation system would benefit from an aesthetic redesign that makes it look like it was intended to be there. Right now, it looks like an afterthought, so oddly shoehorned into the dash that everyone assumes it's cleverly designed to fold away when not in use. If it actually DID fold away, the design would be quite clever indeed; since it doesn't, it's just quizzical.

Even so, I can say that based on my first week's experience, the Quest is the best of the three vans I've owned. The ideal van would have the best features of all three vehicles, of course--but when you have to buy based on what's there rather than on a nonexistent ideal, you can't do better than the Nissan Quest.

1 comment:

mike weaver said...

Cliff,


I have been scanning your blog for your Alders post and I am having no luck. Can you point me towards it?

Thanks
Mike Weaver