Why the Nissan Axxess Is the Most Difficult Minivan to Understand Ever


I really wanted to write an article about how the Nissan Axxess was the best minivan ever made (that award was given to the 1988 Dodge Caravan). I mean, I own a Nissan Axxess. It is fun to drive on country roads. It looks pretty stupid — in a good way. It has automatic front seat belts.

But then I started doing some research on the history of the Axxess.

Can your minivan do this?

As I read through old car reviews I began to question if the vehicle that I had been claiming was a minivan for all these years was even a minivan at all.

For the purpose of US customs paperwork Nissan imported the Axxess under the classification of a station wagon. The EPA classifies the Axxess as a passenger vehicle, but minivans fall under the classification of trucks. Furthermore, the department of transportation only requires the Axxess to meet regulations set up for passenger vehicles. Not those for trucks — like a traditional minivan has to meet. (Source: Minivans from Japan)

Officially the US government does not recognize the Axxess as a minivan — they also don’t recognize Abkhazia as a country so what do they really know?

I am not going to go into the philosophy of what makes something a minivan versus a station wagon — or Sino-Georgian politics — but it is interesting that during a time in America where the minivan was king — much like the way the SUV ruled the 2000's — Nissan tried to sell a car that was only barely a minivan.

Why Didn’t Nissan Just Make a Traditional Minivan?

With so many clear examples of what the 1989 American consumer wanted in a minivan why did Nissan import such an outlier?

The Axxess was only imported to the US in 1989 (the 1990 model). This was the peak of the minivan movement. Chrysler had already conquered the suburban garage with the front wheel drive, spacious Caravan and Voyager. Volkswagen Vanagon’s classic styling made it into a collectors item. Even GM and Ford had developed reasonably successful models in the Astro/Safari and Aerostar — albeit not as successful as Chrysler, but we will address this later.

Popular Mechanics Centerfold from February 1990. The Axxess with the white arrow is surrounded by its contemporaries.

The Axxess, however, did not meet any of the specifications that made its contemporaries so successful. The Axxess was much shorter making access to the third seat much more difficult. It didn’t have a central door pillar which effected the safety of rear passengers. And finally, it had an underpowered, obnoxiously-loud engine.

Set Up to Fail

The main reason why the Axxess went down in automotive history without much of a fight was because it was set up to fail. A partnership between Ford and Nissan in 1987 meant changing times for the design of both company’s minivan projects. The main goal of this partnership was to combine their resources to create a front wheel drive minivan to compete with Chrysler’s Caravan and Voyager.

At the time Ford was still producing the rear wheel drive Aerostar and Nissan was producing a front wheel drive wagon-ish vehicle called the Stanza.

During the talks in 1987 Ford and Nissan made plans to begin production on, what would later become the Nissan Quest, at the Smyrna, Tennessee plant in 1991.

Can you see where this is going? The Axxess was imported in 1989; one year prior to the planned major launch of the Nissan Quest. This means that Nissan only really planned on importing the Axxess for one or two years max before giving up on it.

Axxess sales courtesy Minivans of Japan-book

Nissan most likely came up with a cost-effective low risk plan to see how the Axxess would fare in the interim before releasing the Quest. They sold 9,776 units in 1989, but that number fell to 208 units by 1991. It didn’t go so great…

Where Does the Axxess fit in Automotive History?

When I first started researching this article I planned on writing about how the Axxess was a visionary design for its time; creating a new class of vehicle in the face of the peaking front wheel drive minivan revolution. In reality, the Axxess was really just a stop gap for Nissan and Ford between the Stanza/Aerostar and the Nissan Quest.

The Axxess was never going to be a hit in the US, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun car to drive. Upon its release in 1989 Bill Hartford of Popular Mechanics said, “driving the Nissan Axxess will make you feel as if the year is 2001 and you have just come out of orbit.” I would change Mr. Hartford’s quote to say, “driving the Nissan Axxess will make you feel as if the year is 2015 and you have a pretty unique vintage minivan/station wagony thing.”

The one thing that can be said about the Axxess is that it is certainly a misfit. That is why we love our Axxess so much. We can cover it in wood panelling. We can ash a cigar in the backseat. We can even install a toilet in the trunk. And none of those things feel weird in the Axxess.

Axxess with freshly wood panelled siding and rims.
The toilet in the back of our Nissan Axxess
A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.