Shiro Nakamura: The Quest needs to have "a little more finesse and quality feel."
With its swoopy lines, broad shoulders and quirky interior touches, the Quest introduced a year ago took a radical departure from typical boxy minivan style. Minivan buyers appear to want something more conventional. The Quest has not met sales expectations since its launch last summer.
"We need to open the design window a little wider," says Shiro Nakamura, Nissan design director. "Maybe we targeted too narrow. It's a correct basic design, but we need to make some execution changes."
When Nissan introduced the redesigned Quest in August 2003, executives predicted sales of 80,000 to 85,000 annually. Sales through July totaled 30,448. The previous-generation Quest peaked at 54,050 units in 1995.
The fact that the minivan is falling short of its sales goals in the first year of a five-year cycle does not bode well for the automaker. The redesigned Honda Odyssey that arrives this fall could make things even worse.
"The Quest needs to have a little more finesse and more quality feel," Nakamura says. "It has a modern look, but modern can also be seen as too cool. The Quest needs to have more warmth."
Among the Quest's controversial features are centrally mounted instrument gauges and a pod-like center stack of audio and climate controls. Nakamura said his designers are still deciding whether the next-generation version will have such styling features.
This year, Nissan executives attributed the sales shortfall to a poorly planned launch and failure to correctly anticipate trim levels and options that buyers would want. Sales have risen for the last three months but have reached only an annual rate of 55,000 units a year.
The Quest's styling appears to have polarized potential minivan buyers, such as those discussing their purchase decisions in Edmunds.com's Town Hall. Some claim the Quest's styling difference compared to more traditional minivans was a big reason for their decision to buy the Nissan. But others panned the look. One called it "just too radical."
One Edmunds.com subscriber noted: "Styling sells, but not when it is goofy, like the dash styling of the Nissan Quest, which is an ergonomic nightmare."
The minivan has some much-praised attributes, including the widest sliding door opening in its class. Its third-row seat tumbles into the floor, and the second-row seats fold flat, allowing a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood to fit inside. The handgrips are smaller in circumference and positioned lower for children trying to enter the vehicle.
At the vehicle's press introduction last year, Nissan Design America designer Alfonso Albaisa said: "The masses are being exposed to very modern things. Our design may be avant-garde for minivans, but it's not for Nissan."
Todd Turner, an analyst with Car Concepts in Thousand Oaks, Calif., says Nissan "took a risk in hoping they could get buyers excited about a segment that is as mundane as toast."
"Nissan needed Quest to be successful and profitable out of the chute," Turner says. "It's holding its own against the other fringe players, but it's not where it should be. The risk has not paid off."
Has Nissan learned a lesson from the Quest? Nakamura says designers based in trendy environs - such as Nissan's studio near San Diego - should be wary.
"Fashion is moving toward being more modern," Nakamura says. "But we need to be careful about how quickly design direction moves from the coasts into the center of the country."