The 2018 Nissan Serena S-Hybrid represents a bit of a revival for the Nissan brand in Malaysia. It’s the first model to be launched by Edaran Tan Chong Motor (ETCM) since the Navara pick-up made its debut here in 2015, its arrival lending the local Nissan line-up a much needed boost in terms of product freshness.

It has however taken a while for the fifth-gen MPV to reach these shores – two full years, if anyone’s counting. That’s because the C27 was unveiled in Japan in mid-2016. Nonetheless, it’s finally here, in locally-assembled CKD form, and joins the Nissan model range here as the replacement for the C26 Serena.

The Serena is, without a doubt, ETCM’s most important launch in years, so it’s absolutely crucial that it’s a good one. Well, is it? We put the people mover through the paces to find out.

The C27 Serena is an all-new model, but you’d be forgiven if you think it’s more of an extensive facelift. After all, it does share the same – though slightly revised – engine from the outgoing C26 model, the same tall, boxy shape (as our comparison gallery shows) as well as identical dimensions in terms of length, height and wheelbase. In Malaysia, even the wheel design has been carried over, which is usually unheard of between generation leaps.

Overall, however, it does look a lot more modern and sophisticated than before, with a quirky, JDM flavour to it. I especially like the sharp dual tier headlamps up front, the wrap-around rear windows and floating roof look, especially with the dual tone colour option on the Premium variant, which was the model evaluated.

A commendable addition is the new hands-free opening and closing of the twin powered sliding doors. The clever split-opening rear tailgate is also a very well thought out enhancement.

It’s nice that both items are offered as standard fitment even on the base model, along with automatic LED headlamps, keyless entry, cruise control, touchscreen head-unit with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, Around View Monitor, as well as front and rear automatic climate control.

In fact, the level of kit is consistently packaged, the Premium Highway Star variant adding on mostly cosmetic items, in this case leather upholstery, a DVR dash cam, a roof-mounted monitor for rear passengers, V-Kool security window tint and 16-inch alloy wheels in place of the 15-inch units on the Highway Star.

So other than the small wheels, the cheaper Highway Star variant is actually pretty well equipped, which is more than can be said of most base models sold in Malaysia. If there’s something to nitpick, it has to be with the choice of utlising halogen bulbs for the headlight DRLs and normal bulbs for the rear brake lights. Considering that the older car had LED taillights, it’s a little strange.

Inside though is where it gets really interesting. The Serena still has a very unconventional layout, with the dashboard mounted low and the instrument cluster placed high up, well above the steering wheel. In this regard, you can say that Nissan came up with the Peugeot i-Cockpit design even before the French did.

The new MPV’s steering wheel is a giant leap forward for Nissan, finally retiring the tired old design. The same goes with the digital instrument cluster, which is far more pleasing to the eye compared to that on the old car’s, which looked like it was inspired by the 80’s Knight Rider era.

Trim and material quality is very good too. The dashboard top feels nice to the touch, so much so you’d think it’s actually wrapped in leather. There are still a few hard and scratchy plastic surfaces to be found if you look for them, but in this price range, I’d say this is more than acceptable.

Negatives are minor – the 360-degree cam is displayed on the top screen instead of the head unit where you’d expect it to, and the idea of retaining a manual foot parking brake, instead of an electronic switch, in this day and age is showing up the design’s age.

Nonetheless, Nissan has managed to modernise the design without affecting the Serena’s standout practicality factor. There are still plenty of compartments, most of them now with powered USB ports – with seven charging ports in the car, that means one for each passenger.

And that brings us neatly to the next pressing issue. Yes, there are just seven seats here, down from eight in the old car. But is this such a bad thing? Well, yes and no. The thing is, the old Serena had a very small centre seat, which wasn’t very comfortable or highly functional – most C26 owners simply pushed the slidable seat forward and used the middle row as makeshift individual seats instead.

For this new generation, the choice has been to go for proper captain seats with dedicated armrests for Malaysian customers. The units are better shaped and definitely more comfortable than before, and are very similar to the front seats, complete with Nissan’s Zero Gravity technology.

If there’s a downside to the layout, it’s when you need to carry large items such as luggage for long holidays, forcing you to fold up the last row seats. This effectively turns your big MPV into a strict four-seater instead of five.

Essentially, it’s a compromise either way. You either go with seven seats and sacrifice absolute seating flexibility, or go with eight seats and sacrifice seating comfort. My take is, having seven seats is the better option 95% of the time, so I think Nissan has made the right choice here.

As for usability, the captain seats now offer a wider range of adjustments, including sliding them all the way back for a huge amount of legroom. As before, you also get useful tray tables and side window blinds, though the windows themselves only go down halfway.

Elsewhere, access to the last row has been improved. The rear-most seats, while not particularly supportive for long journeys, do offer good legroom even for adults. As for passenger egress, the addition of tumble-forward foot levers – along with a switch to open the door – make the last row feel less like a trap compared to most other MPVs and especially three-row SUVs.

The presentation of the boot remains the same, though the space saver spare tyre in the facelifted C26 model has been ditched, replaced here by a tyre repair kit. Space-wise, it’s generous enough with all seats up in place, and there’s also a deep under-floor storage area. For more cargo room, you can fold up the last row, though the process is perhaps harder than it should be.

Safety equipment-wise, the Serena comes equipped with six airbags, which is a definite improvement from the two in the old car. Also on, electronic stability control and two Isofix mounts for the middle row, though there are none for the last row.

From a driving perspective, the very first thing you’ll notice from behind the wheel is the high, upright driving position. Your legs go almost vertically down. Together with the steering wheel that’s slanted this way, you know straight away that this is a traditional MPV. It doesn’t even attempt to be more car like, like quite a few other MPVs attempt to be.

To me, that’s a good thing, because you also get excellent visibility all around. A low window line and large quarter windows up front offer a near unobstructed view out from the Serena. The latter is a result of thinner A-pillars than before, accomplished without affecting structural rigidity.

As for the drive, the Serena retains the same 2.0 litre, direct injection, naturally-aspirated engine, but retuned for better fuel economy. You get 150 PS and 200 Nm of torque, which is actually three PS more but 10 Nm down from the old car.

The S-Hybrid Eco motor has been revised too, again with slightly less torque, with 48 Nm on call now instead of 50. The automaker says the new Serena is 13% more economical than before, with an average of 14.2 km per litre of fuel consumption being touted.

The lower torque output may make you worry about performance, but having tested both new and old models back to back, we can say for a fact that you don’t feel the reduced torque. It takes 13.5 seconds to get from 0-100 km/h, exactly the same as that accomplished by the C26. No, it’s not quick, but for a family MPV, it’s enough to pass muster, and it doesn’t really struggle going uphill.

Nissan’s Xtronic CVT continues its good work. It feels slightly more direct than before, and it also helps that the engine is also much quieter now. You can hear the engine under hard acceleration, but at no point is it excessively loud.

For those not familiar with the Serena S-Hybrid, it’s not really a full hybrid vehicle. There’s no EV mode here, and the torque assist only comes on for a maximum of one second. It however comes in handy when you pull away from a standstill, which is usually the time when you use the most fuel.

Handling-wise, the Serena drives pretty much like an MPV. The steering is very slow, meaning you have to turn it more than on other cars, but on the plus side, it has a very small turning radius, so driving in town and parking is an extra easy affair.

If you drive it slightly faster, there’s considerable body roll, but less than that found on the old car. The new Serena has a more comfortable and quieter suspension, lending it further refinement, which is exactly the kind of traits you’d want in an MPV.

It’s not fast by any measure, and its outlook is soft, so if you’re looking for a fun-to-drive, sporty MPV, then there are more impressive performers out there. I thought its comfort levels – and honest character – made it a very likeable MPV to move around in though. It doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not, and what it is, is a really good people carrier.

In essence, the new Nissan Serena is a great family MPV, well improved over the old model in pretty much all areas, and at this pricepoint, it’s pretty much in a class of its own. Nissan looks to have scored big with this one, and its certainly very worthy of consideration if you happen to be looking at a people carrier.