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The Skyview roof’s glass panels above the rear seat passengers forced Nissan engineers to design the roof section for maximum viewing area, without compromising safety. The central interior spine follows the overhead support, and carries the screens for the optional DVD system, as well as ductwork for the upper HVAC vents and large dry cleaning hooks. One of the toughest challenges was tying the hooks into the support structure so a heavy load of clothing wouldn’t pull the headliner down.

The Quest’s central instrument cluster contains an analog speedometer and tachometer, digital fuel and temperature gauge, and a message/navigation screen. The center stack groups all controls in an elliptical center tube angled toward the floor, and is designed for quick scanning and use of the various buttons and knobs. It also contains the standard AM/FM/CD unit.

Lofty Ideals

Nissan designers have reinterpreted the minivan as a stable and inviting living environment, not a box on wheels.

One reason Nissan’s new Quest looks different from any other minivan out there is Alfonso Albaisa, interim design director at Nissan Design America. The son of a Cuban-born architect, he’s a graduate of New York’s Pratt Institute, and he spent a few semesters at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies in the 1980s. Though he long ago put away the–ahem–unique clothing of his youth (think Napoleon, or Prince), Albaisa hung onto his ability to create non-traditional solutions that draw from his architectural roots. As a result, the 2004 Quest has an interior with the ambience of an urban loft, and an exterior that mimics the stepped sides of a skyscraper.

“For us to stand out in the segment,” he says, “the Quest had to have a proportion different than the competition’s.” Having the longest wheelbase in the segment–124-in.–wasn’t enough to do the trick. So Albaisa’s team indented the greenhouse and set it atop the wider lower body section, joining the two via a chamfered shoulder line. This places the visual weight low on the body side. The hood is a separate panel that adds depth to the front section, and ties the fenders, greenhouse and nose together. A rising window line places the greatest height at the rear passenger compartment, but made it impossible to inexpensively hide the track for the huge sliding side doors (the 33.8-in. opening is said to be the largest in the industry) within the lower frame of the rearmost side window.

Fewer compromises are found in the interior, where Albaisa’s “urban loft” analogy translates into open spaces, flexible seating and sky lights. Overall interior volume is 211.9 ft3, and the second row captain’s chairs can be tilted forward to ease entry into the third row, or folded and arced forward into a well in the floor for greater cargo capacity. The third row bench folds absolutely flat, but needs some muscle to raise and lower. With the seats folded it’s possible to carry a 4x8 sheet of plywood in the back with the hatch closed (as long as the spring-loaded rear seat strikers are folded away). Adding the available Skyview roof–a series of glass panels with integrated sunshades located above the rear seat passengers–brings natural light into the cabin.

Perhaps the most controversial interior item, however, is the instrument panel. Like Saturn’s Ion, the Quest gauge cluster is centrally located, and leaves a large expanse of real estate ahead of the steering wheel. (Odds and ends can be stored in a covered storage area near the base of the windshield, or placed in the glovebox.) A photo clip sits directly ahead of the steering wheel (“Mr. Pelata, the executive vice president of the Planning Group,” says Albaisa, “suggested it as a way to ‘humanize’ the interior.”), though it’s more likely to be used to hold directions to out-of-town soccer games.

The gauge cluster–a mix of digital and analog readouts, plus a message screen that doubles as the display for the optional navigation system–sits just ahead of the center stack; itself a unique design element. It is a large, elliptical tube that extends up from the floor to the top of the instrument panel, and carries the shifter, climate and audio controls, CD player and center HVAC vents. A faux sandstone finish and contrasting color set it apart. “It’s elliptical,” explains Albaisa, “so the front seat passengers can swing their legs around it to get to the backseat. Plus, it visually ‘calms’ the front cabin by logically grouping the controls in an area that’s not in the center of the driver’s line of sight.” The original design also called for the unit–which is built as a tested module and delivered to the line just-in-time–to have a number of slide-out drawers for carrying small items. The only drawer to survive because of space demands has a rubberized rectangle with ridges along its perimeter. By moving a cross-shaped divider, you can create a space that securely holds cell phones at an easily reached height.

The assist grips along the B-pillar also are unique. They are longer, extend lower, and are sized for use by both adults and children. “The upper section is thicker for adult hands,” says Albaisa, “and we extended the grips lower to make it easier for children to use them. The section there is based on the thickness of a tricycle hand grip. A constant section would have been too thick for children to comfortably use.”

Mechanically, the Quest story is familiar. Based on the same FF-L platform as the Altima, Maxima, and Murano, it’s powered by a 240-hp 3.5-liter V6 driving the front wheels mated, depending on model, to either a four- or five-speed automatic transmission. Disc brakes are used at each corner, and ABS, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, and Brake Assist are standard. Ditto the four-wheel independent suspension. Vehicle dynamic control is available as an option. Head curtain air bags are standard, while seat-mounted side air bags for the front seat passengers are optional.

With an overall length of 204 in., height of 70 in., and Cd of 0.33 (without the available roof rack), the Quest is at the head of the class when it comes to interior space, exterior size, and aerodynamic efficiency. How the market will respond to its unique design will determine whether or not this becomes the face of the minivan mainstream, or a statement for the urban–and urbane–family.