Review: The Nissan Serena will not inspire you, but few other MPVs can do a better job

Hans · Apr 28, 2020 05:57 PM

Unpopular opinion: Seven-seater SUVs are a really bad choice when it comes to moving seven adults. Have you tried climbing into an SUV’s third row seats? In a Nissan Serena, you literally step in and out of the car like it's a room.

The Serena you see here is fitted with the optional J Impul styling package, which bumps up the price to RM 149,888. Otherwise, prices are:

  • Highway Star: RM 132,888
  • Premium Highway Star (Single tone black): RM 142,888
  • Premium Highway Star (Two-tone colour): RM 144,888
  • J Impul Premium Highway Star (Single tone black): RM 147,888
  • J Impul Premium Highway Star (Two-tone colour): RM 149,888

Leather seats (black or brown) are not available on the Highway Star but it’s a RM 3,435 option. A 10.1-inch roof-mounted rear entertainment system and built-in digital video recorder are also available as a RM 701 and RM 972 option respectively.

Exterior – boxy shapes are the best for people movers

You don’t buy the Serena for its style but the Serena can only be this practical if it’s shaped like a box.

The optional J Impul package adds 18-inch Impul wheels, front and rear lip spoiler, mocha brown quilted pattern leather seats.

Built quality is good. Paint thickness is fairly consistent (around 100 micrometers) while panel gaps by no more than 1 mm from the opposite side.

Interior – Where the magic lies

All the shortcomings of the Serena can be forgiven once you step inside the car.

Compared to an SUV, or any other car with conventional hinged doors, the Serena’s sliding doors make a world of difference, especially to parents with toddlers.

A typical scenario for any parent: You are carrying a child on one hand, with the little one’s bag of nappies/toys slung over your shoulder.

Sliding doors vs hinged doors. The latter will be tight squeeze if there's another car next to it.

On regular cars with hinged doors, you will have to grab the door handles, use your back to push the door wide open, before squeezing yourself into the small opening.

With the Serena, you simply do a hands-free kicking motion with your feet and the door opens, revealing a massive aperture that allows you to either step into the cabin with your child, or strap your kid into a child seat while you stand comfortably.

Plenty of storage for all your wet wipes

The sliding door’s ease of entry/exist is the most compelling reason to buy a Serena. Your back and your shoulders will thank you.

The door opening is wide enough for you to even lay your baby down on the seat for a quick nappy change while you stand outside the car.

The low ride height also means that toddlers can easily step in/out of the car with minimal assistance. It’s ideal for elderly members of the family too.

The middle row’s individual (some call it ‘Captain Seats’) seats can adjusted left-right, not just the usual forward-back. So you can either push the seats closer together for easy reach of the child seat or split it to create a middle aisle so you can walk from the first-row to the third-row with ease.

You still need to be fairly fit to walk along the aisle though

Since this particular unit has been fully decked with the J Impul package, it gets a different quilt pattern, mocha brown leather wrapped seats.  

Whichever package you choose, the middle seats come with fold down trays (complete with firm bottle holders) and all seats have adjustable distance as well as seatback angles, plus USB charging ports.

The third row seats don’t fold flat. Instead you have to do some flipping and pulling of straps to mount it sideways but it is light enough for you do it with just one hand so it’s acceptable. There’s even a well thought out section in the boot to store the middle-seat’s headrest.

The boot floor is two-tiered, perfect for keeping shoes or hiding valuables. Of course, with seven adults inside, there won’t be enough luggage space for everyone but Serena’s boot space, even with all the seats up, is still more than any three-row seat SUV.

Plus, since the Serena is tall, you can sort of stack small luggage bags up.

The tailgate can be opened in two ways –either just the upper-half section (perfect for reverse parking), or the entire tailgate.

This alone makes the Serena immensely more practical than any other SUV. Try opening an SUV’s tailgate when it is backed up against another car or a wall, and you will understand why little things like this makes the Serena such a wonderful, well thought out family car.

Opening the tailgate in tight packing spaces is a common problem for many MPVs and SUVs - not for the Serena

The reason why so few cars have split opening tailgate - cost and manufacturing complexity

If there’s one complain about the Serena’s interior. It has to be its infotainment. The 6.75-inch head unit is fine. It’s not the most responsive but at least it comes with Android Auto/Apple CarPlay.

The problem is that there are no buttons on the steering wheel to control it. Then there’s the 360-degree parking camera. It shows up on a tiny screen at the corner of the instrument panel rather than the infotainment screen.

So many buttons, not a single one to control the audio

The reason is because the locally sourced Clarion head unit is not fully integrated into the car. 

Squint your eyes for the tiny parking camera display

Driving experience – ‘meh’

What are you expecting? That the Serena surprises us with its tight handling? Of course not.

It’s a tall riding seven-seater that handles like a bus.  You sit high above the ground, surrounded by so much glass, it’s almost like sitting inside a fish bowl.

If you have to know, it sprints from 0-100 km/h in 14.1 seconds, 0-100-0 km/h in 18.5 seconds, coming to a halt in 48.9 metres.

Surprisingly, its lazy driving characteristics didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I will happily alternate between my raw and visceral E30 with the Serena. Different tools for different purposes you see.

Driving position feels like sitting on a sofa chair

The Serena has an uncanny ability to calm you down and make you feel so lazy that you want to just cruise along with just one arm on the steering wheel, another resting on the centre arm rest.

It got to the point where I had flip the arm rest so far back up so I can’t reach it because I caught myself one too many times to be cruising along sitting in a slouching position – the opposite of everything I have learned from advanced driver training courses.

Despite the looks, the Serena is surprisingly easy to park. With a 5.5 metre turning radius, the Serena turns tighter than a Honda Civic (5.9 metres for TC-P variant, 5.7 metres for others). Hard to believe but true.

The aforementioned parking camera’s tiny display is annoying, but you will get used to it because the car is shaped like a box, so it’s easy to judge the corners, and outward visibility is very good.

The S-Hybrid is not a hybrid at all, despite the name. Nissan took a very liberal interpretation on the definition of a hybrid – yes, the Serena has two batteries and a motor, but that doesn’t mean that it works like a Honda HR-V Hybrid.

The Serena S-Hybrid’s secondary battery isn’t even a hybrid battery at all. It’s just regular deep cycle discharge 12V battery used by every car equipped with idle-start stop. It costs about RM 800 to RM 900 to replace.

The electric motor doesn’t drive the wheels. The so-called Eco Motor is just a slightly more powerful alternator that recuperates energy when the car’s coasting. It’s an energy recuperation function, not to be confused with a proper hybrid’s regenerative braking system, so it doesn’t work any better during braking.

The Eco Motor also doubles as a starter motor, providing 48 Nm of torque assistance to the crankshaft (via a belt pulley) for about 1 second during standing starts.

The engine’s start-stop is quite jerky and it’s better to turn it off (fuel consumption figures in the subsequent section).

The engine is noisy when pushed hard but where you are rushing to in something this tall?

Ride comfort – lounge on wheels

Ride quality is surprisingly good even when it’s not fully loaded. This is important because in many MPVs, the ride quality can vary considerably depending on load.

The Serena however, manages to maintain a reasonable balance in ride comfort irrespective of passenger load, within reasons of course.

Rear entertainment system is an optional extra

The seats however, are soft and don’t give much support. Quality of the leather is just average. Thigh support is lacking but it feels like a house’s sofa. The Serena gives you a home-like sense of comfort, which is to say it’s not luxurious, but comfortable enough.

Once you learn how to work the individual seat’s levers and tabs, it’s an amazingly practical car to move 7 adults comfortably.

Everyone can get in and out of the car without any assistance from the driver. For example, passengers in the third row can control the power sliding doors via a switch on the side panels. There’s also a foot-operated switch to push the middle row seats forward so they get out.

Air-conditioning is adequate and everyone gets their own vents. The driver can control the rear A/C from the front.

All three rows get excellent legroom, shoulder and head room.

The Serena S-Hybrid is best driven at around 100 km/h. Beyond that, it gets too noisy, with our dB meter averaging around 70.5 dB at 110 km/h, which is higher than a Toyota Vios’s 69 dB.

Fuel consumption – not excellent but good enough

We averaged about 8.4-litre/100 km on highways and about 10.5-litre/100 km in the city, with 7 adults on board.

It’s pretty good but still within what we would expect with a car of this size and seating capacity.

Conclusion – is there a better option?

The Nissan Serena is not a car that you reward yourself with. No. It’s a need, not a want.

If the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” is true, then I would like to add “It takes a Serena to keep a family together.”

If moving people is a priority, forget about SUVs. There’s actually very little utility in a sports utility vehicle.

SUVs are difficult for kids/elderly to get in and out because of the high ground clearance. Despite the big exterior, SUVs are not that spacious inside. The bigger tyres are expensive to replace, fuel cost is high. The high boot floor also makes it hard to load/unload.

Seven seater SUVs make even less sense. Most of the time the third row seats are useless and even in those that can fit adults, are still very difficult to climb in/out.

The Serena is not perfect. The lack of audio controls on the steering wheel and tiny parking camera display are hard to overlook. But short of buying a cheap reconditioned Toyota Alphard with a dubious history, (and higher running cost), few other cars can match the Serena’s practicality.