Minivans offer little inspiration. There is little about them that beckons the poet, especially on a gray, rain-soaked day.

Drip, drip, splatter, minivan. Nothing to prompt movement from the couch to the outdoors. Nothing except duty and limited time for test drives, which is why I finally left the comfort of home to drive the 1998 Nissan Quest GXE.

It is a short-wheelbase minivan, more on the order of the original Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. Its body is tubular, accented by a rounded nose and gently curved rear. In terms of design, it is the essence of functionality.

Stepping inside the test model on a dismal Saturday afternoon was an exercise in discipline, for the interior was uniformly gray. And the seats were of a material more akin to high-grade sackcloth. Was I in a minivan or a monastery?

The answer was in movement, which the Quest GXE did exceptionally well. For all its drabness, the thing was a runner, which encouraged me to extend the drive deep into Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where late winter's mist became a gossamer veil.

At a rest stop on the return trip, I examined the Quest GXE's particulars, especially the maneuverability of its seats, which is a big selling point for the Nissan Quest and its Ford Motor Co. twin, the Mercury Villager. The manufacturers' claims about the ease of rearranging the Nissan Quest's seats are true. Using floor-mounted tracks, the seats can be reconfigured 24 ways. I tried only six, because all that moving about was beginning to attract the attention of a Virginia state trooper patrolling the area.

Some fellow auto scribes have complained that the Nissan Quest's V-6 engine is noisy. I did not notice this. The 3-liter V-6, the only engine available for the Quest, produces 151 horsepower at 4,800rpm and 174 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. It's not noisy; it's a hummer.

One transmission is offered, an electronically controlled, four-speed automatic. But the Quest, a front-wheel-drive vehicle designed to seat as many as seven people, comes in three trim levels, the base XE, GXE and luxury GLE.

The tested GXE gets four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, rear air conditioning, steering-wheel mounted sound system controls, a power driver's seat (which gets demerits for the poor ergonomic design of its controls) and captain's chairs as standard equipment.

The GLE gets power seats for the driver and front passenger, a power moon roof and leather upholstery, though it seems a waste to put all that fancy stuff in something that essentially is a family bus and cargo hauler.

1998 Nissan Quest

Complaints: The Nissan Quest comes with three side doors in a world where four is becoming the norm -- even for minivans. The absence of that fourth door complicates access to the rear seats.

Praise: My latent bias against minivans aside, both the Quest and the Mercury Villager are overall solid, well-designed family mobiles. The people who buy them aren't looking for poetry. They want reliability and practicality, and they get lots of both in the Quest.

Head-turning quotient: Zilch.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent overall ride, even for back-seaters. Excellent acceleration. Good handling, but brakes could use some work. I had to squeeze them in the test vehicle to get good stops.

Safety: Dual front air bags; three-point seat belts; steel, pipe-style, side-impact door beams; child-safety lock on the sliding door; available, built-in child-safety seat in the second-row seats of the XE and GXE models.

Mileage: About 18miles per gallon. Tank holds 20 gallons of recommended 87-octane unleaded. Estimated driving range on usable volume of fuel is 350 miles, running mostly highway and driver only with no cargo. (Cargo capacity varies from 14.1 cubic feet to 114.8 cubic feet, depending on seating arrangement.)

Sound system: Four-speaker, AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with console-mounted six-disc CD changer. Installed by Nissan. Good.

Price: Base price on the Quest GXE is $26,049. Dealer invoice is $23,186. Price as tested is $27,768, including $1,249 in options and a $470 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Pricey, considering the competition. Compare with the Villager, short-wheelbase Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager, Chevrolet Venture, Honda Odyssey, and Toyota Sienna.