WASHINGTON (AP) -- Just when you think you've seen every version of minivan possible, Nissan debuts its fourth-generation Quest with a few new ideas.
The Quest's third-row seats are not removable, so don't worry about straining a back muscle lugging them out. And no matter how many seats are occupied or how much cargo is packed inside, the Quest has an extra, large, hidden storage area under the floor just before the rear bumper for sizable last-minute items.
And it's not an earthshattering innovation, but there are 16 cupholders, more than what you'll find in the Honda Odyssey.
Built in Japan, the 2011 Quest is some 2 inches narrower and shorter in length than the Odyssey. But the Quest's starting price is on par with the Odyssey. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $28,550 for a base, 2011 Quest S with 260-horsepower V-6 and continuously variable transmission.
Note the Quest is the only minivan on the U.S. market with a CVT, which is designed to optimize fuel economy. But the estimated fuel mileage for the Quest -- 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway -- is not class-leading.
Meanwhile, the 2011 Honda Odyssey -- which has top minivan gasoline mileage of 19/28 mpg -- starts at $28,580 with 248-horsepower V-6 and automatic transmission.
The 2011 Toyota Sienna LE with 266-horsepower V-6 has a starting retail price, including destination, of $30,010 and the 2011 Chrysler Town & Country starts at $30,995 with 283-horsepower V-6 and automatic transmission.
Nissan officials talk up the exterior styling of the new Quest, but no one looked at the van during the test drive.
I kept looking at it, though, every time I approached, because the curved gap between body pieces at the front where the hood came down atop the silver-colored top of the grille seemed too obvious, not blended.
Frankly, the Quest's flat-look rear roof reminded me of a Ford Flex, or a hearse.
At 16.7 feet long from bumper to bumper, the test Quest SL looked bigger than it drove.
The turning circle is just 36.7 feet, which is similar to a sedan's. And the Quest maneuvered well in parking lots, though I did have to remember just how lengthy the body was as I made turns. I noticed a lot of body mass as the van traveled. It was particularly acute in curves and around corners, when passengers and I felt weight shift from one side of the vehicle to the other.
But the ride overall was well controlled over road bumps.
There was ample power to get his van moving. The 3.5-liter, double overhead cam V-6 from Nissan delivers a good 240 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm, so the van didn't feel sluggish.
The new Quest tester merged easily into traffic and kept pace with ease.
But I heard and felt a common CVT characteristic of engine revving for a long time when I accelerated. Conventional transmissions automatically move into pre-set gears, so the revving sounds are at a predictable, clipped pace. Not so in the Quest tester.
Note that while a CVT works a bit differently than an automatic transmission to maximize power and fuel, drivers operate this tranny the same as they do an automatic. Just put it into "Drive" and then forget about shifting.
But even with the CVT, I didn't get anywhere near the estimated mileage that Nissan has publicized.
In city driving, I was pretty much stuck around 15.7 mpg. The mileage crept up to 16.4 mpg after I spent time on the highway.
These numbers are far below the published 19/24-mpg estimates.
Nissan only offers the Quest with front-wheel drive, and during some startups, the strong engine power hit the front wheels with force. I was glad to keep both hands on the steering wheel.
But even with its size and heft, the 4,480-pound Quest SL tester was about 100 pounds lighter than an Odyssey and a Chrysler Town & Country.
The Quest is spacious inside, and it feels generously comfortable, especially for second-row passengers with the two second-row captain's chairs pushed all the way back on their tracks. Each chair has an armrest on each side.
Sitting there, I could extend my legs and enjoy the large windows on the sliding side doors. These windows, by the way, go down just over halfway, so pets and kids can get some fresh air.
But be aware that there can be a loud buffeting sound created by the air hitting the window space as you travel.
As is typical in minivans, the third-row seat accommodates three people who would sit closely on short cushions. Rear-most windows did not open in the Quest SL.
But headroom in the Quest's third row was impressive at 40 inches. This is more than the 37.9 inches in the third row of the Town & Country and the 38 inches in the rearmost seats of the Odyssey.
The big, hidden storage area is behind these third-row seats and under a 60/40-split hard cover. You wouldn't know the cavernous space was there if you didn't hook a finger into the pull-up loop and yank one of the covers up.
The Quest provides up to 108.4 cubic feet of flat cargo room with second- and third-row seats folded. They go down easily.
Curtain air bags, antilock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control are standard safety items.