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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve seen plenty of different styles, though. Like this Eddie Bauer-esque example.
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.
Here is an early Villager with the lightbar, which means it’s a 1993-95 model.
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.
These vans are rusted to bits beaters around here, haven’t seen a nice one in a long time…I bought a 96 Villager Nautica in 1998 and it was a good little van until electrical gremlins started tormenting us when it got to about 75,000 miles…rear wiper motor died, driver’s seat motor died, window switches started working intermittently. It got traded in on a 2001 Explorer.
They are virtually non-existent here due to rust issues. These vans rust like crazy but do seem mechanically sound. My friend had a 1999 Quest until maybe three of four years ago when it was scrapped due to extreme rust. I remember maybe five or six years ago him begging me to do some body work for him because the front hood, rear hatch, side sliding door all had huge holes in them. I warned him then that he’d be lucky to get couple more years out of it. Sure enough, in a couple of year the structural rust made it unsafe. With maybe 100K miles on the clock it drove itself to the scrap yard.
I have a 2000 Mercury Villager in Green/Silver in near mint condition. The reason you see so many of them in the immigrant community is because if they are properly maintained they are nearly mechanically indestructible. I have my car washed at least once a week in the winter with wax wash. I have done $1000.00 in preventive rust removal and body work to keep the van pristine. I just had the hood re painted after 14 years. I have 144450 miles on it and it runs as new. Many owners have gotten 250000 miles off these vans. Strong tranny and engine design. I run Amsoil synthetic tranny fluid and change oil every 3000. I clean the MAF sensor and change the air filter on schedule. The PCV valve has been changed twice. The only weak part of the van is the distributor. That is the ONLY part on the van that is known to fail after 100000. Mine is original. The engine is only slightly under powered as compared to other more horsepower vans, but I do not really consider it under powered. Great torque on acceleration. The van runs like silk. 3.8 gear ratio good for towing. I plan to have mine for another five years. It looks new and I get compliments from people all the time. These were super vans when it comes to reliability.
The prevalence of these has to be due to the reliability. I have a 2003 Pontiac Vibe, a product of a similar joint venture, which has been unbelievably bulletproof. It is common to spot at least 8-10 of similar vintage a day, just in light driving. When a manufacturer actually makes something that needs little maintenance and doesn’t break, it keeps getting passed around for a long time.
I hadn’t realized these vans were so sturdy, but now that I think about it, I see quite a few of them in Florida as well.
We had a 93 Villager followed by a second generation 01 Quest. The Villager was solid but the Quest was a pile, everything EXCEPT the engine/transaxle disintegrated on it.
This is odd, but my mechanic said the same thing – that in his experience, the Nissans seemed to suffer from quite a few more electrical issues than the Villagers did.
Ford did skew production towards the Mercury because it was a Ford plant. But if one was truly a conspiracy theorist, they could suggest that less attention was given to Quests on the line. I think though it’s just an anecdotal observation/coincidence.
It’s not attributed to different manufacturers, as the Nissan and Mercury were the same van. The reason for the difference must be the 1993 was a first gen model, while the 2001 was a second gen model.
I don’t think it was Mercury VS Nissan, I think it was first generation vs. second generation. The 93 gave us zero troubles besides an intake manifold gasket at the end(my Dad decided to get the 01 when he took it in). Even today I see more 93-98s on the road than 99-02s
The 01 was nothing but trouble from the start. The side vent windows never fully locked in place from the beginning, letting in lots of wind noise and cold air, even after getting the latches replaced a month after we got it they still popped open. Then the front power windows failed on both doors, 3 times!!! Then it started getting weird electrical gremlins like switchgear not lighting up, locks not actuating, several unrelated bulbs blowing out all at once(like there was a surge, never figured that one out). And lets see, what else, the passenger side mirror fell off, seriously it fell the **** off! Right where the folding mechanism is when we hit a pothole, it wasn’t completely random in that sense I guess, but it wasn’t THAT big of a pothole. What else… Oh yeah the A/C hose blew off, the CV shafts were toast at 80k, and the fuel injectors weren’t far behind. Other than that it was super reliable… Oh and it had severe rust eating away at it.
I too see a lot of these in Hispanic neighborhoods around me as well. These could be like old Chryslers of the 60s and 70s – if you got one without the common electrical issues, it would run for a long time. Like you, I have never heard of a common fail point like the trannys or head gaskets of some of the others.
I knew a couple of people who owned these, and they liked them quite a bit, and over a long period, too.
Kelly blue book in general seems a bit optimistic. I like to also check with Edmund’s True Market Value (TMV). There the dealer retail price puts the villager ahead of the Dodge caravan by about $250.
I wonder if there are some shops in that neighborhood that have specialized in these vans.
I have noticed the same thing about these early generation Quests — there are far more of them still on the road than their better-selling competitors. They must be tough since nothing gets beat up like a minivan.
I drove one once and was impressed with the refinement. I’ve always liked the design which was done by Nissan in San Diego, not Ford. The shape of the door handles and how they handled the glass and exterior lighting was fresh. These vans stood out but in ’96 all the attention moved to Chrysler. Then the Odyssey and Sienna became good and those three have dominated the market ever since.
Nissan has always tried a little harder in this segment except in ’99 with the gen 2. My favorite minivan by far right now is the current Quest which has a very JDM look and feel. Made in Japan and super refined. These are also expensive used.
They’re gorgeous, with an old-school, bubble-economy vibe to them, with touches like soft-touch interior panels and cloth-covered speaker grilles. It’s really the only minivan I’d consider buying if I had $40k just lying around and the need for a minivan.
I really liked the 2004 Quest; I thought it was funky and daring, and I’ve seen one in my neighborhood with a red interior – seats AND dashboard. The pedestal-type dash is cool, too. It just seemed like Nissan was willing to take a risk, but sadly it didn’t pay off and they eventually tried to tone it down. Funny, it was wackier visually than Renault-Nissan’s other major minivan, the Renault Espace, and that was actually French!
The new Quests have grown on me because I like their honesty. They are just a box, plain and simple. I prefer the current Mopar minivans though, because they are similarly upright and honest but with a bit more flash.
Unpopular opinion: I didn’t mind the looks of the GM Crossover Sport Vans. Again, glad somebody tried something different, even if GM did it out of thriftiness and not out of any desire to be avant garde. Minivans tend to look very similar to each other so I like when either they are done very tastefully, or caution is thrown to the wind and a little pizzazz is added (current Odyssey, Chinese Buick Business).
Loved the ’04 Quest and the current one is pretty cool too!
The JDM feel of the current Quest isn’t a coincidence. Quests are now slightly redesigned versions of the home-market Elgrand van.
That’s right. The Quest version is about four inches wider and obviously has different front and rear end styling. Here is the Elgrand.
I’d chalk it up to smaller size makes for easier street parking, and more durable transmissions. Everyone I know who got rid of a Caravan or Windstar either had failed transmission or a rough shifting transmission.
A farmer buddy of mine has a Quest, he likes the Nissan parts but says it’s the Ford parts that always fail.
The current production Quest is one ugly van…no tumblehome, the rear corners are way too squared-off. Some of Nissan’s new SUVs are terrible to look at too. For that matter, Toyota’s new trucks and SUVs have some really boxy styling that doesn’t look right to me. Yuck.
If they used what was essentially Maxima running gear, that could be part of the reason right there. The VG-series sixes were good engines and i’ve not heard about their autoboxes being prone to trouble either.
Seems to me like I always saw more Villagers than Quests here in the southeast. Still see ’em occasionally. I barely remembered the facelift models though.
The Maxima’s autoboxes aren’t prone to failure, but they tend to die before 200k. Hitched to a heavier minivan and put through NYC traffic, I can’t imagine them lasting very long, but I guess the standard in the V6/FWD minivan field is pretty low.
I also noticed in my past life working in auto parts that these vans were seemingly revered by the Latino community, at least in my relatively obscure suburb of the Hudson Valley. Never could quite understand why…
I’ve been wanting to do a CC in the Villager/Quest for some time but haven’t because these are nowhere to be found where I live.
My BIL works for a tiny computer hardware company that covers roughly a 5 state Midwest region. Not sure of the year, or Nissan vs. Ford, but one of these vans is the sole company fleet car that the 5 or so employees pass around as needed for out of town trips. TONS of highway miles, and it just keeps going.
Amazing that first year Villager production was over 100K That would have been good for over half of all Mercury sales in most of the final years. This was a hit for Mercury, too bad they couldn’t make it last.
I’ll also go on record as liking the current Quest. Different, but in a positive way. At least you won’t mistake it for anything else.
It’s ridiculous how common these are in Manhattan – all over the place, but especially in Hispanic neighborhoods. I’ve often wondered what it is about them myself, and the best I can come up with is that their size is just as important as their sturdiness. There aren’t really any other minivans left on the roads that are this “mini”. The early Chryslers are too old, the 2nd generation has the horrible transmission, the Previa was always rare (but like these Nissan/Mercury twins, I feel like I see them more often now than I did in the 90s), the 1st gen Honda Odyssey was very popular here when new, but I think a lot of them ended up being sacrificed for taxi duty later in life since the Isuzu Oasis was such a hit in that role. And that’s really it. Anything smaller isn’t really a minivan, anything bigger isn’t as easy to park or navigate through New York’s crowded streets.
Plus, it seems like Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have always been particularly fond of Japanese cars that have a certain level of sportiness to them, and Maximas flying those flags have always been a very common sight. Even though these were built at a Ford plant in Ohio, everyone knows that it has “a Maxima engine” and I’m sure that gives it some additional clout.
Sean, I’ve never asked… How long have you lived in NYC? You and I seem to be the only NYC-ers on CC!
Zero years, haha! I actually live in Long Island, but I work (outdoors) in Manhattan and would rather be in the city most of the time anyway, so most of my waking hours are spent there.
There’s a few of us, but some of them don’t post that often – Orrin, Jeremiah Birnbaum, Triborough, I think “safe as milk” might be from here, too. Prolific Cohort Contributor William Rubano lives near me out on LI. One of these days we should do an official CCNYC Get Together – Jeremiah has mentioned it in the past so I know he’d be down, at the very least, and I bet a few more people would come out of the woodwork as well!
For a lot of Hispanic families(especially those new to the USA) can only afford/obtain one car and since a lot of Hispanics work in the construction or domestic business and as the average Hispanic household will have several children in them and perhaps grandparents and other relatives it is imperative to have a vehicle that can be used for work and also be able to cart the family around also.
Interesting that they’re sought after now. In 2002, my then girlfriend’s sister bought a low mileage four or five year old Quest or Villager with a big dent in the back bumper at auction for $6,000. It was a high level trim one with a middle-row TV set and an even-then-obsolete VHS player. The price was about half what they were expecting to pay for a decent used minivan.
In 1996 I ended up with a Lexus SC400 company car thanks to a Mercury Villager. The car had been the owner of the yacht I crewed’s undergrad son’s car. He rented a Villager for a vacation and liked it so much that he bought it from the rental company, freeing up the Lexus to replace the Town Car I was using.
I saw a Nautica edition villager in traffic yesterday and pointed it out to a friend as one of the most bizarre pieces of cross branding ever.
The author mentions the Mazda MPV in the article, and that’s a minivan with a certain amount of street cred – it even gets a mention in the Wu-Tang Song “CREAM”
There’s even one in the video (at 1:18)
The only reason I even know that the Mercury Villager Nautica exists is from Foxy Brown’s verse on “Affirmative Action”. There’s also a Biggie song where he says he’s “stashin [his] heat in the passenger seat of the Nautica Jeep” which is undoubtedly a fuck up that implies he thought these vans were SUVs (since “Jeep” was synonymous with SUV at the time). When I first started listening to rap, my girlfriend made me a tape that, by total coincidence, had both those songs on it… so for the longest time I thought that Mercury Villagers were like the hottest shit in the hip hop world; turns out those were the only two songs where they were ever mentioned!!
Aha! Youse guys have uncovered the theme of the day! If Nas ruled the world, in 1996, “Sky’s the limit – I’d push a Q-4-5 Infinit’…” 🙂
LOL, plus the infinite number of songs mentioning Cadillacs…
Nice minivan for the time. Not enough room for my long legs behind the wheel though.
These vans have a ‘cult following’ with blue collar familes. Tough as nails. See them all over Chicagoland with either ladders or hauling kids. Funny to see the top trim ‘Nautica’ Mercury version, used as a construction/contractor hauler.
My brother got a 2000 Taurus wagon, instead of a Villager that his wife wanted back then, new. They would still have it now if they had gotten one.
My wife and I owned two of these Nissan Quests. Never broke down!! I just did t-belts and regular services, brakes and such. Both of the vans lived well past 250,000 miles. The first one we had got smashed of the freeway by some fool. I sold the second one to a friend who is still driving it.
Purchased a 1995 Villager used in 1997 when first child came along. Villager van was lowered priced at Carmax than the identical Nissan Quests on the lot. A very reliable van with only wear items and routine maintenance. Put over 200,000 miles on it with minimum issues. Gave it to a family in need who put another 80,000 miles on it before selling it to a painter.
We owned a “99 Quest and loved it. Great styling & very reliable. Decided to get rid of when we took it in for a oil change and attendants didn’t want to put it up on the lift because of rust on the underside.. We would have kept it much longer except for that.
These vehicles are so common in South Central Los Angeles. Wish I had taken more photos when I was there in 2012.
When I was working at the Nissan dealerships, I would pretty much assume when a Hispanic came to the parts counter, they had a Quest or Villager. The Villager customers would often tell me they were sent over from the Ford dealer, either the part was not available from Ford or if it was, it was a lot more expensive. Also, when I still had my 70 C10, I had more then one Hispanic knock on my door or come up to me and ask if I was looking to sell it. Generally they would be middle aged working class types. I was living in Southern California when I was asked about my truck. I was in the Portland Oregon area when I was working at Nissan Dealerships.
The Quest SE was the runner-up when I got my Trooper in ’01. I loved the size and drive-ability, and the fact that the drivetrain was pretty much Nissan-stout. It was even pretty sporty looking in SE clothes (but old man cheesy in Villager Nautica!).
Ultimately I went with the Trooper because of the seating position and overall car design, knowing I’d pay a penalty in mpg and handling. I never second guessed myself, but also know I could have easily lived with the Quest’s utility.
It’s a shame there’s nothing the same size available right now. The Mazda MPV left us as well – it was also perfectly sized. The Mazda5 needs to be 3 inches wider and 3 inches taller to truly compete. The length is pretty good though….
It’s funny how you point out that Hispanic families that gravitate towards these (rwd Mazda MPVs too) – if I ever need to get an idea of long-service beaters, I’d cruise our area neighborhoods to see what is stout and popular.
Bought a new 1994 Villager Nautica edition. Beutiful vehicle and very well appointed. Slightly underpowered but willing drivetrain, very quiet and comfortable. Best “minivan” on the market at that time and very well built. Still have the leather Nautica travel bag that came with the car!
I bought my ’99 Quest brand new in early 2000. I chose it because I’m a (small-time) General Building Contractor and I wanted a vehicle that I could LOCK my tools inside — as opposed to a pickup truck. Everyone would say “How come you have a minivan instead of a pickup like MOST carpenters?” I’d mention that I liked being able to lock up my stuff, PLUS being able to carry more than just one or two passengers “legally.” My Quest has seven seat belts. When asked how can I transport l-o-n-g lengths of lumber, I say that I removed the “Roof Luggage Rack” which came with the van (it was suitable just for carrying suitcases and the like, not for lumber or plywood) — and replacing it with two 4′-long cylindrical bars which clamp securely to the rain gutters. Then when the pickup aficionado says, “Well how about when you want to move a REFRIGERATOR — and without lying it on its side?” That’s when I tell him I bought a trailer hitch from U-Hail, and had them install it. Then I bought a 5′ x 9′ open top utility trailer which enables me to transport huge amounts of stuff, including fridges standing up! Oh, and did I mention that MY (silver-coloured) minivan is the ONLY one I’ve ever seen that sports WHITEWALL TIRES! Tah-DAAA! I chose the Quest because it was the CHEAPEST minivan that came with TWO sliding doors. It has been pretty-much trouble-free until just recently when the transmission broke down. Oh, it still functions perfectly well, but ONLY if I let it warm up (with the engine idling) for a full ten minutes before driving off. If I fail to do the warmup, it stalls and it stalls and it stalls. Aamco said two or three thousand dollars to fix it…. The other thing I don’t like is the gas mileage being only about 17. But I LOVE the spaciousness inside, the very good heating and cooling, the great sound system (built-in audiocassette player, but no CD or MP3), EASY entry and exit, and much more. Oh, and somehow, my car has zero rust!