A New Oxymoron: Hip Minivan

The latest Toyota and Nissan models sport lush interiors and smart designs.

It's hard to find a vehicle less hip than a minivan. When I picked up a 2004 Toyota (TM ) Sienna minivan for a test drive a month ago, I held the keys at arm's length between my thumb and forefinger, as if a stray dog had just slobbered all over them. These days, many buyers who need passenger space have opted for the more rugged sport-utility vehicles over the tame minivans. How uncool are they? General Motors (GM ) now calls its minivans "crossover sport vans."

But don't tell the big Japanese carmakers that minivans are uncool. After seeing the success of Honda Motor (HMC ) had with its hot-selling Odyssey over the past two years, Toyota Motor and Nissan Motor (NSANY ) want a piece of the action. Both companies have cool new minivans. When I jumped in Toyota's Sienna, the interior was so luxurious that I forgot I was in a van. Bedecked with all the swank appointments like heated leather seats, the Sienna can cost nearly $40,000. And give Nissan points for creativity: The new Quest has some sharp styling and innovation, including the Skyview roof.

Toyota's early minivans were undersized and not really competitive, but the new Sienna quickly jumps to the head of the class. When I slid into the cockpit, the first thing I noticed was that the stick shift is located on a low section of the dashboard and just beneath the environmental controls. It's a nice touch that first appeared in Toyota's Lexus RX 300 luxury SUV. The stick shift adds a little panache and it's easy to reach. The wood trim around the stereo knobs and on the steering wheel make the Sienna seem more like a Lexus than a Toyota brand vehicle.

This van really goes the extra mile for comfort, too. The leather seats in the top-level Sienna XLE Limited rival any business-class airline seat that I've ever sat in. All of the passenger seats are roomy. The seats in the third row can be folded into the floor or the second-row seats can be removed to create a big cargo space.

SMOOTH RIDE. When it comes to the drive, the Sienna is probably the smoothest minivan on the market. Like most Toyotas, it almost removes the driver from the road. It practically glides over bumps and potholes. And it is incredibly quiet, so the driver can even have a quiet conversation with third-row passengers.

I couldn't say the same for the Quest. Nissan's new minivan has a decent ride, but it's not as comfy as the Sienna. That was apparent pretty quickly when I took it for a spin. The Quest takes bumps a little harder than the Sienna does. On rough roads, I could feel the pavement sending vibrations up through the tires. The Quest also deals more road noise.

What it lacks in refinement, the Quest makes up for in brawn. Nissan's formula these days is bigger and more powerful with nearly everything that it builds. The Quest has the same 3.5-liter V-6 engine that Nissan has been stuffing into many of its models. And the engine gives this minivan some gusto. The Quest powers ahead with 240 horsepower, 10 more than the Sienna has. It's also one of the roomiest minivans on the market. Another bonus: The Quest's sliding door is the biggest in the business, so it's easy to climb in and out of the vehicle.

The Quest is easily the most artistically stylish van, but in some spots Nissan sacrificed substance in the name of style. Most of the dashboard controls are on a round section of the dashboard that protrudes from the floor at an angle, like the Tower of Pisa. It's not very practical. To load CDs, I had to reach down into the middle of the "tower," and it was hard to see where I was putting the disk. Also, the gauges on the dash are small and difficult to read. One great feature, however, is that the second- and third-row seats fold beneath the floor to create a big cargo area without having to lift out the seats.

For the money, the Sienna is a better buy. At the low end, the Quest starts at $24,500, about $1,500 more than the Sienna. I drove loaded versions of both vans. With equipment like onboard DVD players for the kids and headphones in the back seats, the Toyota was $39,000 and the Quest was about $37,000. But given the Sienna's nicer interior and all-wheel drive, it was easily the better choice for the discriminating minivan buyer.

Corrections and Clarifications In "A new oxymoron: Hip minivan" (Personal Business, Oct. 20), the photograph of the Toyota (TM ) Sienna depicted the 2002 model instead of the 2004 model in the story. Here is the correct photo:
Corrections and Clarifications
Corrections and Clarifications In "A new oxymoron: Hip minivan" (Personal Business, Oct. 20), the photograph of the Toyota (TM ) Sienna depicted the 2002 model instead of the 2004 model in the story. Here is the correct photo:

By David Welch

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