Our Nissan Quest minivan had been bought as a lightly used one year old vehicle. As the most expensive non-real estate purchase I had made, it was a little distressing to see its condition go downhill over the years. The main users were my wife and our three young boys, none of whom had any interest in keeping the van clean. A series of electrical and mechanical maladies convinced me there had to be a better solution. For a short time I found it in the cheap and potentially disposable minivan.
The Nissan Quest had a rather mixed record in our household. It was stylish (as a minivan could be), powerful and had served us well in its earlier years, but despite being a 2004 model, it was really starting to show its age. Front wheel bearings and excessive tire wear were becoming recurring issues. A massive appetite for brake components was a constant though its life. More worrying to me at least was seemly random and intermittent electrical failures that were becoming far too frequent. Due to their inconsistent nature, the cost of tracking down these issues could be massive. Even then, the van would have needed further mechanical work to get back in reasonable condition. So after the van briefly quit running a few times due to these electrical gremlins, I chose to sell it cheaply as a project vehicle.
I figured if I was going to be constantly repairing a vehicle, it might as well be a cheap one so we could cut our losses and walk away in the event of major repair. I doubt there is a cheaper vehicle pound for pound than a used minivan. There are, of course, a few reasons for this. The first factor is that they are in low demand as most folks would prefer a more macho looking SUV or CUV. Secondly, they are for the most part family work mules and the interior condition of most examples reflects this. The challenge is to find one that has not been thoroughly trashed inside and out without paying a premium for it. The first find was a 1997 Dodge bought from the original owner. The owner also happened to be a licensed mechanic so rather than negotiate on price, I managed to get him to include a fresh insurance safety inspection. If you have read my last few COALs (Mazda 808, Nissan Micra), you will realize this was potentially worth a few hundred dollars in bogus repairs and grief.
The van had only a hint of exterior rust but an immaculate interior. All the carpets had been covered in clear plastic carpet runners since new. The plastic had gone a little yellow from age but left the carpet underneath looking like it had just left the factory. I immediately tossed the plastic protectors since I figured we might as well enjoy the interior. At this stage in its life, there was no point having this van eventually head to the scrapyard with mint condition carpeting.
Our van had the smaller 3.3L V6 which was certainly a step down from the Nissan’s 3.5 liter VQ, but otherwise it drove very nicely. Strangely, the Dodge got noticeably better fuel economy than the Nissan had. This little mystery was later solved when the buyer of the Nissan let me know he had discovered a hole in the Quest’s gas tank! The Dodge performed faithfully as we drove it for just over a year with no repairs beyond normal maintenance.
I would have been alright with keeping the 1997 van a while longer, but my wife was operating a home daycare at the time and needed to swap child seats in and out on a semi-regular basis. The older 1997 van did not have the Latch system which greatly simplified this task. I managed to sell the older van for exactly what I had paid a year earlier, but was now challenged to find a newer and still clean replacement for almost the same money.
We had good luck avoiding the self-destructing transmissions these vans were famous for, so it made sense to roll the dice again on another. A likely candidate was a 2001 Dodge with a mere 142k kms on it. We did not have the luxury of knowing its owner history like the previous van, as the current owner had taken it in on partial trade for a trailer, but it appeared to be in nice shape. The van was also new enough to avoid dreaded insurance inspection. On our test drive contained a little dose of drama near the end when smoke started wafting out from under the hood. I quickly pulled and over diagnosed what looked to be a leaky valve cover that was dripping oil onto the hot exhaust manifold. Armed with this knowledge, I was willing to gamble on it for the right price and was able to strongly negotiate with the seller. We scored ourselves a second ultra-cheap and clean minivan.
While only a few years newer, the second Dodge van was certainly nicer than the older one with a more cheerful exterior colour, white faced gauges and lower mileage.
The engine was again the smaller 3.3L V6 which was peppy enough around town, though it did struggle a bit on steeper hills. When ordering a replacement gasket, the parts counter guy told me the factory valve cover gaskets are a bit of a trouble spot on these vans and there is a slightly more expensive aftermarket gasket that was worth investing in. It seemed to be solid advice, so I ordered the pricier gasket and set about replacement. The leaky front one was very easy to replace with super easy access. The rear one less so, which is normal with a transverse V6 engine. Thankfully, the new gaskets succeeded in turning the van from fire hazard to family hauler.
While this van was not covered in plastic, the interior was almost like new again. I am not sure how we got so lucky twice in a row.
I am not convinced that the rear seats were ever used. Certainly not regularly. Perhaps it belonged to an older couple who enjoyed the space and upright driving position?
We kept this van around for year or so before moving on again. In addition to oil changes, it did come to need a little spot of brake work but overall, it was very reliable. It was a bit of a struggle to sell this van, which I found surprising given the condition, but again I was able to sell it for what it owed us even with valve cover gasket and brake repairs factored in. Given this, I would have to call my “disposable minivan” experiment a total success. While I had been prepared to walk away from either in the event of a transmission failure, both had served flawlessly. They had both essentially cost us only insurance, maintenance and gas for just over a year each. Sadly there would not be a third act as my wife was wooed by the swan song of the giant “Mommy SUV” for her next vehicle.