Nissan’s Elgrand Could be the Big One
By Charles Krome
Despite the best recent efforts of Honda and Toyota, the minivan segment remains a decidedly unsexy one. Yes, U.S. customers still buy a couple hundred thousand of them each year, but it usually seems to be more out of necessity than desire. It’s like this: If you need to haul around more than four people in anything like comfort, your choices are essentially limited to minivans, SUV or crossovers. The days of adults sitting three across in a car and liking it are long gone, and putting three kids in the same row, with just an inch or two or less between them, can be like putting three cats in a cardboard box and then shaking it up.
On the other hand, three-row body-on-frame SUVs are not exactly known for their fuel efficiency, and full-size three-row crossovers, although they’re not as thirsty, just can’t offer the same kind of interior room and versatility because of their less-boxy designs. Thus, minivans.
But let’s face facts here. The main reason minivans have such a bad rap isn’t really because they’re primarily thought of as people movers, but because of the people usually thought of as doing the moving: Women. Somehow, during the transition from full-size rear-wheel-drive vans to these smaller, FWD versions, the whole concept of who drives a van went from either “dude on the make” or “member of the A Team” almost directly to “soccer mom.”
Except for the occasional Dodge Caravan that’s been modded out to run sub-14-second e.t.’s in the quarter mile, a lot of men seem to think driving a minivan is akin to wearing a skirt.
Recently, however, anticipating a chance to catch some of the customers who are disenchanted with SUVs and crossovers, automakers have been trying to change the minivan’s image.
The Chrysler Group is toying around with the idea of a “man van” version of the Dodge Grand Caravan, the coming 2011 Honda Odyssey actually shows a bit of style—although not nearly as much as the concept version—and Toyota’s been pushing its new Sienna as a “Swagger Wagon,” complete with funky commercials directed by Jody Hill (“Observer and Report,” “The Foot Fist Way).
And the amazing thing is, Toyota actually has been succeeding with that stuff. Sales of the 2011 Sienna have spiked quite nicely, surging 41.5 percent in July. While this will last, however, is anyone’s guess now that “Consumer Reports” has reviewed it. Per CR, the 2011 Sienna “doesn’t measure up to the previous model,” due to the new one’s “drop in interior fit and finish and quietness.” We noted the same plastic proliferation in our review of the 2011 Sienna (though our reviewer’s muted hearing capabilities didn’t pick upon the increased interior noise). The bottom line here: The Sienna lost its place as the top-rated minivan to the 2010 Odyssey and now offers quality comparable to the Kia Sedona, which hasn’t been redesigned in five years.
But now comes the 2011 Nissan Quest. What is essentially the JDM version of Nissan’s new minivan, which goes by the “Elgrand” moniker in Japan, was just unveiled and it’s full of the usual Japanese domestic market quirkiness, from it’s “floating roof” to its cube-like rear treatment.
All signs point to the Elgrand coming to the U.S. with relatively minor exterior changes, which would give it a major point of differentiation from the rest of the minivan mob. If anything, the biggest problem the next-gen Quest will face is that its looks maybe too extreme for U.S. buyers. Following up on this thought, it’s worth pointing out that Nissan took a similarly revolutionary styling approach to the 2004 Quest, and that minivan’s design—and poor overall quality—kept buyers away in droves.
Will things go differently this time around? I’m thinking yes, since the cars like the original Scion xB and Nissan’s own Cube have broken the ice as regards JDM design cues, customers are obviously hungry for a new approach to the minivan segment, and the name “Elgrand,” even if it’s not used here, just sounds really cool.