Nissan's minivan - a long way from the comfort zone

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The new Nissan van, the Japanese automaker's first seven-passenger vehicle in the US market, is designed to be more versatile than a large sedan, yet provide the fuel economy of a compact. Well, it's true, the van does have a lot of room, but the fuel economy is nothing to write home about. Also, it's not the most comfortable vehicle I've been in this year, at least in the front seats. Because of the high step, it's hard to climb into the front, especially for a someone wearing a skirt (my wife can tell you all about that). Grab bars, one on each side, are a help. The sliding door, on the other hand, functions well and unzips the right side of the van for easy entry and exit.

The driver and front-seat passenger sit on top of the engine, and there is far too little spring to the seats.

Also, a negative mark on the comfort scale is the inability to put your feet flat on the floor in front of you. You have to extend your legs out at an angle over the engine compartment. There may be no better alternative, given the placement of the engine beneath the front seats.

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Despite all this, the van performs in a pleasing way if the road is straight or has wide, sweeping curves. The pickup performance is more than enough, and the brakes work well.

I will say this: It's the sort of vehicle that seems to grow on you as you build up the miles. My reaction after a few hundred miles is more charitable than after the first 50.

The van is equipped with Nissan's 2.4-liter, fuel-injected NAPS-Z engine which, the company says, is the most powerful standard engine in the compact-van market. That may be true, but getting to the engine is a problem at best - even for such a simple task as checking the oil level, which cannot be done without uprooting the front-seat occupants, peeling back the carpet, and unlatching the engine cover. Added to these annoyances are two front windows that do not roll all the way down.

Visibility is good all around, no matter where you sit in the van. For the most comfort as a passenger, grab one of the two captain's chairs just aft of the front. No doubt about it, they're the best seats in the car. There is also a bench seat at the rear which, according to Nissan, is capable of supporting a trio of adults (depending, of course, on their size). The rear liftgate is split, which permits either the entire door or only the glass hatch to be opened for cargo.

The test van had dual air conditioners, but they failed to function. At $1,450, cool air doesn't come cheap, but at least it would be nice if the system did its job. Base price of the Nissan GXE van is $14,599. The XE version begins at $12,599. The dual sun roofs in the test van are priced at $1,250, all of it toting up to an out-the-door price of $17,524.

Nissan, it would seem, has quite a bit more work to do in the minivan area if it's to become fully competitive with the domestic carmakers, including the minivan leader, Chrysler, which fired the first shot in the minivan race.

Among the minivan competitors, only the Chrysler minivans, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, are front-wheel drive. Now Chrysler keeps up the pressure with its two extended-length vans.

No one, it seems, can win all the car-war battles - as the Japanese are beginning to find out.

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