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Let’s say you’re an up-and-coming sales executive, and you just got word that there’s yet another bun in the oven. You’ve bought the clothes, refurnished the smallest room in the house and sold off your nameless D-segment sedan for a decent coin to a trader named Sam. With money in hand, you’re ready to ply the new route as a family person with a comfortable, dependable MPV.

Trouble was, until recently there was a rather large chasm between the basic, utilitarian sub-RM100k people movers (Toyota Avanza and Innova, Nissan Grand Livina) and the posher European alternatives (Peugeot 5008, Volkswagen Cross Touran) costing upwards of RM150k – just a little too rich for both your blood and your wallet.

The respite came last year in the form of the Nissan Serena S-Hybrid – with duty exemptions afforded by its CBU hybrid vehicle status, it snuck in at just under the RM150k mark (since then, its biggest rival, the Mazda Biante, slotted into the market at around the same price). With the tax breaks set to end at the conclusion of 2013, however, many people wondered if its space in the marketplace would last.

Well, it has, and then some. Edaran Tan Chong Motor (ETCM) bit the bullet and assembled the now-facelifted S-Hybrid locally at its plant in Serendah to take advantage of the incentives the government continues to dole out for CKD hybrids. As such, the Serena is now even more affordable than before, but has the lower pricetag spoiled the car in any way? We drive it to Melaka and back to find out.

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Revisions brought on by the facelift are almost entirely limited to the Serena’s exterior. At the front, there are new LED headlights, split by a chrome accent that drops to frame the revised slatted chrome grille. The look is fairly reminiscent to that of the also recently-facelifted Elgrand, although it definitely is less brash and in-your-face without the latter’s full-length grille. The front bumper has also been reprofiled with new fog light surrounds.

Along the sides, the lower rocker panels now feature a kinked character line, while the rear has been graced with new S-shaped internal graphics for the LED tail lights. The 16-inch wheels have a new diamond-cut multi-spoke design. Overall, the improvements bring a more premium aura, but there’s no escaping the fact that the Serena is still pretty much a box-on-wheels.

One major improvement is found underneath the car, under where the front passenger sits. There, you will find something the pre-facelifted model never had – a spare wheel. Nissan says that it added a fifth tyre in response to customer feedback, and it would certainly bring far higher levels of reassurance and peace of mind to owners compared to the tyre repair kit of old.

Built on Nissan’s C platform, the bones of the last-generation G11 Sylphy (the latest B17 Sylphy has been moved to a stretched version of the Almera‘s V platform), the Serena is one of the longer cars in the segment. At 4,770 mm long, it’s 55 mm longer than the Biante, 240 mm longer than the 5008 and a massive 364 mm longer than the Cross Touran. It is also the tallest by some margin at 1,865 mm.

Nowhere is the impressive dimensions and boxy looks more evident than in the cabin, where the Serena offers acres of head- and legroom – even the third row, usually as spacious as a pet cage on smaller MPVs like these, is plenty serviceable on most journeys. The boot is also a fair bit more capacious than you’ll find on the European cars with all the seats up.

However, at 1,735 mm, it is the narrowest in the segment, compared to the Biante (1,770 mm), Cross Touran (1,799 mm) and 5008 (1,837 mm). This does mean that centre passengers on the second and third row will find it rather cramped in terms of elbowroom, but it at least makes manoeuvring the Serena through confined city streets much more manageable than its rivals.

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Nissan advertises that the Serena’s seats can be configured in 14 different ways, including being able to recline the backrests of either the first two or last two rows of seats flat. You can also fold the third-row seats and tip them up against the van’s bodysides to create a tall, flat load bay with a low sill.

The sliding central second-row seat is particularly ingenious – folding it flat turns it into an armrest with a lidded cubby hole and a cupholder that can also be slid forward to be used by the driver and front passenger. Doing the latter will also enable the left second-row seat to be slid inboard, greatly easing entry and egress for those in the third row. That seat can then be slid forwards, allowing, for example, a child to be closer to their parents in front.

Coupled to that, there are a myriad of cubby holes (including two glove boxes) and cupholders scattered around the cabin, as well as two flip-up picnic tables behind the front seats. Brightening up the slightly dour interior design is a natty, almost sci-fi digital instrument cluster, which sits above the steering wheel (à la Peugeot 208) and features an Eco-drive Navigator that guides drivers to achieve better fuel economy.

Interior fit and finish is best described as robust – there are hard plastics pretty much everywhere you look, but everything feels solidly screwed together and will no doubt withstand the test of time and everything children will be able to throw at it.

Coming in at RM138,800 for the regular Highway Star model, the new Serena comes with a lot of kit for the money, retaining virtually the all the standard equipment of the old CBU model. There’s twin power-sliding doors, i-key keyless entry and push-button start, cruise control and leather-wrapped steering wheel. About the only thing that had been changed was the digital rear climate control unit on the outgoing car, which has been replaced by a more basic slider-type item, but retains automatic blower control.

As is typical on recent Nissan models sold here, the Serena is also available with a host of optional accessories at extra cost. These include the familiar TCAT Multimedia Navigator with a 6.5-inch touchscreen, DVD playback, Bluetooth and a reverse camera (RM3,300), a 10.1-inch roof-mounted LCD panel (RM700), combination leather seats (RM2,800), a rear spoiler (RM800), door visors (RM400) and a choice between V-Kool Elite Security (RM4,600), Armorcoat (RM2,950) and Solar Gard (RM1,500) tints.

If you like the sound of all of these items, you would be better served by opting for the Premium Highway Star trim instead, which nets you all the above (including the most expensive V-Kool Elite Security tint) for what the previous fully-imported Serena S-Hybrid Highway Star was retailing for – RM149,500, a RM1,900 saving over buying the accessories separately.

Given that the Serena is advertised as an eight-seater, it’s perhaps a shame that it is only offered here with two airbags. Families with lots of smaller children may also be disappointed to hear that Isofix child seat anchors are only fitted on the two outer middle row seats, down on some of the Serena’s European rivals, many of which can fit three kids abreast safely secured (and sometimes even another two in the third row). However, Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC) is at least fitted at standard.

Under the bonnet resides the same MR20DD 2.0 litre direct-injected twin-CVTC four-cylinder mill as before, mated to an Xtronic CVT equipped with Adaptive Shift Control (ASC), which detects corners or hills through the vehicle’s lateral acceleration sensor, matching the ratios to suit different driving conditions. Maximum power is rated at 147 PS at 5,600 rpm, while torque output is a decent 210 Nm at 4,400 rpm.

Supplementing the engine is an upgraded version of the regular Serena’s ECO motor, itself a beefed-up starter that controls the car’s Idling Stop function and serves as an alternator during deceleration. On the S-Hybrid, the motor’s capacity has been increased from 1.0 kW/150 A to 1.8 kW/200 A, enabling it to provide a “torque assist” function – a 50 Nm boost for up to one second when moving away from a standstill.

A separate 27 Ah battery that powers the car’s accessories like the radio, wipers and lights has also been added alongside the regular 64 Ah cell that energises the motor. With the engine no longer having to run the electrics and move the car at the same time, the S-Hybrid manages a respectable fuel economy figure of 15.2 km per litre on the Japanese JC08 driving cycle, which is said to be best-in-class.

The first thing you notice when you set off is how smooth and quiet the engine at anything other than full load. In regular driving, all you will ever hear is a low, monotone hum that steps up or down as you modulate the throttle (which sort of reminded me of the engine sound of an eight-bit racing game), accompanied by a distinct lack of vibration. This is matched neatly to the buttery CVT, which helps the Serena whisk itself off with nary a jerk or forceful pull.

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There’s little in the way of urgency when stoked, however – the leisurely responses from the transmission mean that the engine can struggle to cart along all 1,660 kg at a reasonable pace, and makes itself heard quite a bit when pushed. Once it gets going, however, the S-Hybrid does manage to pile on speed rather effectively, surging past the national limit on highways with ease.

Four-up (including Izwaashura Sadali of our sister site InfoKereta.com), we managed an average fuel consumption figure just shy of 12 km per litre, but that included large stints of fast and spirited driving. We suspect that a much lighter-footed driver can get fairly close to Nissan’s claimed figure. The start-stop system is one of the better ones out there both in terms of speed (0.3 seconds) and smoothness of startup.

With such a tall, narrow body, the Serena wasn’t bound to excel at roadholding, and our drive confirmed it as such. A hurried approach will invariably result in a lot of body roll, while the steering is neither particularly quick, precise or feelsome, making it fairly difficult to accurately place the car through a corner. There’s also a shortage of grip from the low rolling resistance Bridgestone Ecopia tyres – you’ll definitely want to take things a bit easier.

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But of course, this being a large, efficient people carrier, that’s exactly what most Serena drivers will do. Besides, driving this Serena down a winding road at considerable speed will quicker get your toddler completely carsick than provide you with any sort of satisfying driving experience.

Instead, drop back and enjoy the ride, because it’s here where the Serena regains some sense of dignity. It glides over bumps and surface imperfections with aplomb, transferring very little of the harshness of our roads to the occupants. It’s not perfect, however – sometimes the suspension can feel a bit too soft, with larger undulations causing the ride to be a little bouncy.

Being slab-sided in appearance, it’s not surprising to find that the Serena can feel a little wayward at speed and vulnerable to crosswinds, as well as creating some wind noise around the A-pillars, but it’s not too bad at a cruise, with engine and tyre noise kept to a minimum. The seats offer excellent support – if not quite as comfortable as the Teana‘s zero gravity-inspired seats on longer journeys – but little in the way of bolstering.

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Seeing as the facelift has changed very little of the Serena S-Hybrid, this practical and comfortable MPV is very much the same machine as before, and buyers will have to temper their expectations to suit. Those seeking a stylish, funky people mover with a modicum of verve and driver appeal will want to look elsewhere, because in these areas the Serena is bound to fall short.

If, however, you’re looking for something more serene (pun unintended), something that will carry you and another seven people across journeys long or short in the least intrusive way possible, then this car will warrant a closer look, what with its smooth and refined way of going about its business.

The outgoing S-Hybrid has been a minor sales success for Nissan over here, and on this instance we can really see why. Coupled to the fact that this new car’s sticker price is even more attractive than before, all while keeping the high levels of kit offered the last time around, and it is clear that the new Nissan Serena S-Hybrid will continue to appeal to many more households throughout the country.