Photographs by Karl McWherter
Remember when brands from different countries exuded a regional flavor? The Teutonic touches of a Volkswagen or a Mercedes were definitely not like the Italian qualities of Alfa Romeos or Maseratis. Which were unlike the uniquely French aura of Renaults and Citroëns. In the early years, even Toyotas, Datsuns, and Subarus oozed their Japanese-ness.
Americans found Americanized imported cars more palatable, so we got blander Camrys and Accords. Everything took on these generic properties, from compacts to SUVs to pickups and especially minivans. This blending of styling cultures neutered designs to the point where the average consumer can't tell the difference these days between a Ford, a Volkswagen, and a Toyota without seeing the badging.
For the most part, all brands followed this simple plan. This past year, however, Nissan brought the shichimi back to some model lines. It started with the boxy little Cube, which makes no excuses for its hometown quirks. The next model to embrace its Japanese roots was the 2011 Nissan Quest minivan.
We drove the Quest into Reading, Pennsylvania. More than a century ago, Reading (pronounced "RED-ing") had two significant events that are, in some way, related to our minivan. First, there's Duryea Drive where one of America's early automakers, Charles Duryea, tested his cars before selling them. This long, winding road is now used annually for the famous Duryea Hillclimb race. At the end of the road stands an American version of a Japanese building: the 103-year-old Pagoda.
Around the turn of the 20th century, local politician and builder William Witman Sr. became so fascinated by a postcard of a pagoda (albeit one from the Philippines), he decided to build his own atop Mount Penn. Nissan, too, took something foreign to the company, the American minivan, and gave it a Japanese flair. Just as Witman's Pagoda stands out among the traditional American architecture of Reading, Nissan's minivan looks like no other minivan on the American scene.
Assembly of the third-generation Quest moved back to Japan after a decade and a half of U.S. manufacturing. On the surface, that's the biggest change, but it's not the only one.
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