Curbside Classic: Nissan Quest and Mercury Villager – Official Car of Washington Heights

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Recently, I showed you how prevalent the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera was in a particular two-block section of Chelsea where, in a small area, I’d noted over half a dozen different of those sedans and very little else of that vintage. Well, there’s another geographic vehicular anomaly that’s even more noticeable and it’s right in my neighborhood of Washington Heights in uptown Manhattan. Minivans swarm the roads of New York like flocks of the humble passenger pigeon once darkened our skies, but one minivan in particular is more ubiquitous than any other: the first and second generation Nissan Quest and Mercury Villager.

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It was one of the first things I noticed upon moving uptown. Washington Heights is a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, with a very large portion of that population hailing from the Dominican Republic. The Dominican population is so large that Rudy Giuliani, as Mayor, renamed a thirty-block stretch of Amsterdam Avenue to Juan Pablo Duarte Boulevard, after one of the founders of the Dominican Republic. For whatever reason, Washington Heights seems to love its minivans. Name a minivan and I’ve probably seen it uptown, and this includes more obscure metal like: the Toyota Previa; both generations of the Mazda MPV; Mercury Monterey; and Isuzu Oasis.

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The most successful minivans of the past twenty years have been: the Chrysler minivans (Town & Country/Voyager, plus Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager); Honda Odyssey; and Toyota Sienna. Are these the most common minivans uptown? Not at all, not even older models. The compact Quest/Villager twins, though, were less successful new but you’d never guess by looking at the parked cars in my neighborhood. Every single photo in this article was taken in Washington Heights. If there is a block without a Quest/Villager, the next block will have two of them.

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Why is this the case? I searched for answers on Blue Book, by comparing the prices of base trim, V6, short-wheelbase minivans from 1999 in average condition with 155,000 miles on the odometer. The results shocked me. The Quest and Villager’s “fair market” dealer price was actually higher than key rivals by a considerable margin.

Nissan Quest- $3646

Chevrolet Venture – $1468

Dodge Caravan – $1692

Honda Odyssey – $2761

Toyota Sienna- $2222

Mercury Villager – $3035

Was this a case of supply and demand in action? Are these somewhat diminutive minivans highly sought after, inflating used prices? Are they simply more reliable than their rivals?

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The Quest/Villager were the product of a Ford/Nissan joint venture. Ford had been fielding the venerable, partially truck-derived Aerostar but the market was shifting towards more car-like, front-wheel-drive minivans, but Nissan had been less successful in its attempts in the minivan arena. The Stanza Wagon was one of the first (maybe even the first) modern minivans, but seated only five and its successor, the Axxess, was axed from the US market after only one model year. Even more disastrously, its commercial van-derived Vanette was prone to self-immolation; after a class-action lawsuit in 1994, Nissan actually bought most of them back from buyers at above market value and crushed them en masse.

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Partnering with Ford, then, must have seemed a wise idea, although the new minivan’s platform was mostly derived from existing Nissan material. It rode on a modified version of the Maxima platform, and sat between Caravan and Grand Caravan in length. The only engine available was the Nissan VG30E, mated to a Nissan four-speed automatic transmission, which pumped out a class-competitive 151hp and 182 ft-lbs and was good for a 0-60 of 11.7 seconds. Inside, the two vans used a lot of Ford switchgear and interior parts. The seating layout consisted of seven seats; the second row bench could be removed, although it weighed 60lbs, and the third row could be slid up on tracks to allow for a larger cargo area. This was a much more user-friendly system than in the Mopar vans. The Quest/Villager also outshone the Mopars in terms of drivability, with critics praising them for a firm ride, nicely weighted steering and a fairly compact turning circle.

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Both Quest and Villager were manufactured in Ford’s Avon Lake, Ohio plant, and thanks to Ford’s ownership of the factory, more Villagers were produced than Quests in their debut year. 109,000 Villagers reached customers; while this was a quarter of combined Caravan/Voyager sales, Lincoln-Mercury dealers must have been mighty pleased that they finally had a minivan.

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In just a few years though, the market changed. Minivans were arriving with sliding doors on both sides, such as the new GM vans. The completely redesigned Mopar minivans were much larger, with even the SWB variants offering 20 more cubic feet of interior space. Even Ford’s own Windstar had reached the market, and despite reliability issues that would soon become apparent, was a modern, spacious minivan. The Quest/Villager’s strongest suit was its nimble handling, but that seemed less of a priority for most minivan buyers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find sales figures for the Quest/Villager beyond the first year tally, but it’s fair to say the Mopar vans, the Windstar, and likely the GM vans and the Toyota Sienna all handily outsold the two vans annually.

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For 1999, the Quest/Villager were redesigned. They were lengthened by 5 inches, and Nissan’s VG33 V6 replaced the old 3.0 mill; horsepower was up to 171, with 200 ft-lbs of torque.  The twins were now a bit curvier, and more stylistically differentiated. The biggest news was the arrival of a second sliding door (Ford’s Windstar also gained a door in 1999). The Villager lost its flagship Nautica trim, and now came in base, Sport and Estate trims. The latter was just as much of a fashion victim as the white/blue or blue/white Nauticas, as it came standard with gold cladding.

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But even with its bigger dimensions, extra door and larger engine, the Quest/Villager were still behind. With 4,000 pounds to lug around and 30 fewer horsepower than the Windstar, the 3.3 V6 was overworked. Sales were slipping, and the Villager’s 45k sales figure for 1999 would never be surpassed. Villager sales figures dropped considerably each year, with just 16,442 sold in 2002. Quest’s figures were little better for that year, at 17,480.

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The vans were losing their luster with critics, too, with a 2000 Car & Driver comparison test placing the Quest equal last with the Chevrolet Venture. The weak engine and the non-removable third-row were the largest targets of criticism, but C&D had little praise for the Quest’s seats or handling.

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The game had changed, and the ‘tweener Quest/Villager twins were no longer relevant. Nissan would develop its own minivan to replace the Quest, and kept the nameplate. Mercury retired the Villager nameplate, dusting off the Monterey name for a rebadged Ford Freestar a few years later. Both replacement vans would again fall short of the Mopar minivans in terms of sales.

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These joint-venture vans, though, seem to last. You hear about Mopar vans and Odysseys with bad transmissions, but there’s been no similar horror story spread about the Quest/Villager. That being said, there are still plenty of owners who complain about finicky, expensive parts that fail. Apparently, though, there’s something keeping these van’s values high and something that keeps so many of my hard-working Dominican neighbors from buying other used minivans in such volumes.

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Regrettably, the one time I saw a Villager Nautica (or at least I thought it was one), it was very late at night. As you can see, though, I’ve snapped probably one of every trim in both generations. And if I haven’t, I can just walk out my front door now and find whichever is missing.

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I’ve seen plenty of different styles, though. Like this Eddie Bauer-esque example.

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I’ve even seen lightly modified examples, like this one which looks like it belongs to someone young. On a related note, Washington Heights is pretty lively in the summer time. Hydrants get opened, piragua vendors are on every street corner, and young men open the sliding doors of minivans and blast music out onto the curb. I really enjoy this neighborhood, and it feels very safe as well.

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Here is an early Villager with the lightbar, which means it’s a 1993-95 model.

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And here is a brown Quest, from a time after brown was cool as a car color but before it became cool again.

I wonder what will replace these vans when they get old and fragile. I won’t know until I see what’s parked in their place, because to predict that would require me to know just why people love these so much.