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The Mercury Villager made its public debut with commercials depicting a group of Chrysler executives taking the minivan for a test drive - one enthusiastically described how superior it was in all the little things. Now, years later, we finally got our hands on a Nissan Quest, which the Mercury Villager is based on. (The differences amount mainly to trim).
The main advantage of the Villager/Quest is its size and handling. It is relatively small, which helps it to drive more like a car. Handling is better than usual, thanks to a tightly tuned suspension. On the other hand, the ride is not up to many minivans' standards. It all depends on what you prefer. To be fair, the mini-minivan (such as the PT Cruiser and a variety of models sold outside the US) also offers very good handling and small size, at lower cost.
The Quest has the usual minivan benefits, like well-designed, flexible seating. It also has some user interface issues. Locking one door locks all the doors; if someone is reaching for the handle as you lock the door, their finger or hand can easily be pinched. The air conditioner light cannot be seen unless you have your head in the center of the minivan. The cruise control "on" light is nearly impossible to see during the day.
Though there is ample power for accelerating from a standstill, the overdrive is very high, and the transmission is slow to downshift. The convenient overdrive shutoff button provides much more pep at highway speeds, and making passing faster and easier. Though the engine is smaller than the Chevy Venture's, it gets slightly lower gas mileage.
Handling is very good, and the Villager/Quest feels more confident than most competing minivans. Nissan's desire to give control to the driver extends to two headlight settings with a manual override option. The Quest has a black-on-white instrument panel, the Villager a white-on-black version.
The controls are easy to understand and use. The rear washer, wiper, and defrost controls are all clustered together and clearly labeled.
Wind noise is similar to the 1996-2000 Caravan. Cup holders are also comparable, though the middle seat occupants have no place to put cups, and the rear seats only have molded circles in the sides.
The seats are comfortable, and unusually good at holding aftermarket child seats firmly. Integrated child seats are available.
A clever mirror pops down from the roof to allow the driver to see the middle-right hand passengers. It's too small to be used except at stop lights. A nice idea, could be implemented better.
The videotape player has a larger screen than the Venture, but it is placed where it can be easily kicked by children. Rear audio controls and headphone jacks are provided, just like the Venture - there are also rear vent controls.
The stereo is fairly easy to use and learn, some controls are awkward and hard to use. Sound is so-so.
A movable rear shelf can increase cargo area or shield the rear area from view for security. This was such a good idea, it is being copied by Chrysler in both the PT Cruiser and the new Caravan.
The sliding door stops allowing the doors to be easily held in place, and just as easily closed.
Overall, the Nissan Quest is a competent minivan for those who prefer handling over ride, but there are better alternatives. The Toyota Sienna, though less of a value, promises higher quality and seems like a better package overall. The current generation short-wheelbase Caravan and Voyager are nicer overall, and the next generation may match the Quest's nimbleness while providing more creature comforts at a comparable price. Finally, if you can get one, the PT Cruiser is cheaper and smaller. You have a lot of choices in the minivan market, and Nissan's niche may be squeezed as competition heats up.
Note: If you want a Villager, don't wait too long - the series is being discontinued with the 2002 model year. Nissan will instead sell a new Renault minivan which is being designed at the moment.
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