Latest Nissan Serena Goes Quieter and More Comfortably

By Lee Pang Seng

THE new Nissan Serena S-Hybrid is a perfect example of what better engineering could do to make quiet, comfortable family motoring to be fully enjoyed. This is our impression after driving it to Penang and back to KL over two days. Our benchmark was the drive in the previous Serena five years ago to the south of KL. The Serena we drove to Penang was the 2.0L Highway Star.

The Serena is a tall and large MPV (multipurpose vehicle), taller than the Toyota Alphard and Vellfire, and the front comes streamlined against the boxy profile of the rear. That is important as good aerodynamics plays a role in reducing wind resistance so that less engine power is required to propel the car. With a less stress engine i.e. working at lower engine revs, better fuel mileage is enjoyed.

Although we had mentioned earlier in the vehicle launch story that we found the 15- and 16-inch wheel-tyre combination puny, we were told that this has to do with making the new Serena more fuel saving. According to Christopher Tan, Sales & Marketing Director of Edaran Tan Chong Motor Sdn Bhd, going against the current grain in tyre-wheel sizes is necessary to achieve the EEV (Energy Efficient Vehicle) status.

A smaller wheel-tyre combination means less weight, and along with other weight saving measures, has resulted in a Serena that is 12kg lighter than the previous model in spite of the higher level of equipment. Similar to the better body aerodynamics, with less weight to power ahead, the engine again is not stressed and consumes less fuel.

All these factors combine to make the latest Serena an MPV that meets its intended role a lot better. Our drive to Penang and back might be on the fast side but driven at legal speeds, the new Serena should be well up to mark in achieving the combined fuel consumption of 14.2km/l that Nissan describes as best in class.

From the driver’s perspective, we settled comfortably with the usual manual seat adjustments available to us in the Serena 2.0L Highway Star. The steering wheel is adjustable for height and reach, but this model has no audio controls on the steering wheel unlike the Premium model. That is an oddity since thumb-reach audio control is a pretty common standard feature in most family-oriented vehicles these days.

We like the walk-through design where the front passenger could mosey between the front seats to the second and third row seats if he/she so wishes. Of course, such a thing is not advisable on the move as it is not legal and could be dangerous; the law requires you to be strapped to your seat when the vehicle is moving. We did take the liberty of moving around to check out the second row Captain seats or take pictures of other Serenas in our convoy on the highway, albeit for a short while only.

The freeing up of the space between the front seats is possible as the parking brake is activated via a foot operated pedal. For cupholders, there is a sliding drawer below the gearshift panel that could accommodate two bottles to complete those on the front doors. All in, there are 14 cupholders in the new Serena, including two each on the foldable table behind the front seats for the convenience of the Captain seat occupants.
These foldable tables also have two ‘ta pau’ hooks each located near the pivot point so that they are strong enough for hanging items, packaged cooked food in particular or drinks. And with four of them, there are more than sufficient hanging points to ‘ta pau’ food for colleagues or the family.

In the front passenger seat, we had our first taste of the Zero Gravity Inspired Seat. The seatrest is moulded in such a way to provide good spinal support during long distance drives and reduce passenger fatigue. This feature was also standard to the second row Captain seats and we couldn’t remember feeling tired at the end of the journey (we even dozed off along the way as well when we were not driving).

The new Serena comes with seven USB ports and the one that is available to the front passenger is in the glove compartment. The problem is that the glovebox is not a big one and trying to plug into the port entailed a bit of effort, in particular when one’s hands are big.
Those for the second and third row folks are more easily accessed.

As a tall vehicle with a wide expanse of glass areas, the front folks could do with a top tinted section for the front windscreen to keep out the late morning and early afternoon glare of the blazing sun. Those on the second row Captain seats are spared that ‘sauna’ effect with the retractable screen cover on the sliding doors, which worked well enough to keep us comfortable during the drive.

Both the sliding doors are the hands-free type in that you just have to kick below the door to get the respective door to open. However, you need to have the key with you in your pocket to enjoy that convenience. Just a quick kick would do. Don’t wiggle your foot under the door as it confuses the sensor, as we found out.

We were among the fortunate few who were grouped three to a vehicle although my two ‘drive companions’ came with a lot more luggage than expected. As the standard luggage space was not enough, the flexible arrange of the third row eats freed up space to stow our combined luggage. The equally divided seats could each be folded to the respective side conveniently and hooked firmly in place.

Comfort and convenience aside, the main anticipation was on engine performance and the way it would affect the drive. The engine series is the same being the MR20DD 1997cc unit with slight electric assistance; thus its classification as an S-Hybrid or Smart Hybrid. It is the not a full hybrid as it only has a far smaller secondary battery and an electric (ECO) motor with generator that assists in initial acceleration and regenerative charging for the batteries on board.

Nissan has, however, revised its power characteristics a bit by giving the latest engine version a bit more power at 110kW (150PS) at 6000rpm against 108kW (147PS) at a lower engine speed of 5600rpm. The peak torque, meanwhile, is slightly lower at 200Nm at 4400rpm from 210Nm at the same engine speed.

The current power output is probably tuned to accommodate the improvements in the Xtronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) with Adaptive Shift Control. These improvements are in the transmission electronic control that could now lock the ratios for a given driving situation so that engine power could be better optimised for strong yet efficient performance. The new mapping controls make the new CVT performance as good as an automatic transmission.

And we couldn’t agree more on that as we hit the road with the new Serena S-Hybrid. Although the MPV comes with three drive modes – ECO, non-ECO and Power – we decided to drive in ECO mode as we felt that most Serena owners would prefer this option to gain maximum fuel mileage. Based on that scenario, we were happy with engine response and when we need to pick up speed to overtake quickly, the CVT accommodated by selecting a gear to give us that push.

That meant the engine didn’t have to rev too much or high, and that led to less engine noise. Of course, helping that is the better body insulation, especially on the firewall or the panel between engine and passenger compartment. It was a major difference from the earlier model that had a CVT that didn’t operate as ‘smartly’ and body insulation that was not as good. The loud engine roar we heard in the previous model was a lot less now, or in a more muted form.

As my ‘drive companions’ also discovered, driving in non-ECO mode provided a more urgent note in the engine to pick up speed as the CVT picked a higher gear to cruise at. And if that wasn’t enough, selecting Power mode via a button on the gearshift had the new Serena running on an even lower ‘gear’ or ratio. Doing that had the engine running at a higher speed and it wasn’t exactly a comfortable experience for a family MPV. Likewise, driving in non-ECO mode was also a somewhat jerky experience as we were running on a higher ratio and the CVT was ever eager to downshift on the slightest prompt of the accelerator pedal.

By the end of the drive, it was a unanimous decision that the new Serena S-Hybrid was best driven in ECO mode. Based on the average fuel consumption computed by the MPV’s electronics, we went as high as 11 l/100km (9km/l) to as low as 8.5 l/100km (11.7km) depending on the drive modes selected. Although we used up more than half a tank of fuel (as indicated) each way, we believe that with legal speed driving the KL-Penang drive could easily be done on less than half a tank. At 110-120km/h, engine speed was about 2000rpm.
As we were driving in a convoy and keeping with the pace maintained (which was often above the legal speed limit), the indicated fuel consumption was pretty good. We even got to explore its top end over a clear stretch of the highway with the digital readout at almost 185km/h. Apparently another media party outdid us at 191km/h in another Serena S-Hybrid!

For the highway speeds that we were doing, the good body aerodynamics did a good job of lowering air turbulence on the roof and the sides of the Serena. We could conduct a normal conversation even at above 140km/h due to the minimal wind noise. Road roar was also nicely curtailed and the tyres that our Serena was running on were 195/65 R15 Bridgestone Ecopia EP150s, which were known for comfort and economical driving.

We did feel the MPV being buffeted by strong crosswinds along a few stretches due to the large side profile of the Serena. It was generally quite well planted on the road at the speeds that we were driving and the body roll through sweeping curves appeared to be well controlled too. That added well to its comfortable ride. 

If we were less convinced before about the Serena on its overall performance as a family MPV with adequate kick, our drive experience with the latest model has brought about a more positive view. The new Serena has definitely earned its rightful place as an attractively priced seven-seater MPV of choice in the Malaysian market.