Photo Credits: Ken Saito
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Remember Nissan? Yeah it’s still around, but you don’t hear much from it lately. That might have something to do with recent, erm, developments within its management. Nissan’s flagship sports cars have been around for almost a decade, god knows what it’s doing with Infiniti, and while Nissan is committed to the EV Leaf, not much else has come from its electrification. Honda and Mazda have already brought out full electric vehicles to market, Toyota is still dominating in the hybrid segment while still thoroughly invested in hydrogen fuel cells. What’s Nissan done?

Since 2016, Japanese customers have been offered something called e-Power. Think of it as Nissan’s halfway hybrid transition to bring buyers from conventional hybrids into EVs. This technology is offered on two models: the compact Note hatchback and the Serena minivan. For now it’s a Japan-only offering but Nissan says it has plans to export the technology to overseas markets.

What Is It?

The Serena was the second model to receive the e-Power treatment. After its success with the Note e-Power, which for a time after its release dethroned the almighty Toyota Prius as the best-selling car in Japan, Nissan saw an opening in the market for a sort-of-EV minivan. As we’ve already seen, Japan still adores the minivan, especially the Serena. In 2018, it was the fourth-best-selling car in Japan and the best-selling minivan with over 87,000 sold last year. While the body style has all but gone extinct in Western markets, there’s still a demand for a spacious multipurpose vehicle that’s not too big, thirsty, and pretentious.

But it’s mainly a size thing. Whereas most SUVs and crossovers these days seemed to be designed with form over function, minivans haven’t really changed shape over the years. They’re still essentially boxes on wheels with three rows of seating. In a country such as Japan where space is at a premium, a vehicle with a narrow and tall body with sliding doors just makes sense.

This is just a minivan, nothing more nothing less. What makes it interesting is what’s under the hood. You can’t actually buy a Serena in Japan with a conventional engine. The other choice is a ‘Smart Simple Hybrid’ system which is just Nissan speak for a conventional petrol engine mated to an electric motor setup. The e-Power is far more interesting.

The Numbers

Unlike the ‘Smart Simple Hybrid’ used in other Serena models, e-Power is slightly less simple. It’s essentially an electric car with a small 1.2-liter gasoline generator. The internal combustion doesn’t drive the wheels, that’s the job of the electric motor, as noted in Nissan’s own helpful graphic:

Image: Nissan Japan

The Serena e-Power has no transmission. Instead, using Nissan’s knowhow from the Leaf, the e-Power is able to use a larger electric motor than conventional hybrids while still keeping a smaller battery. Using a smaller battery means packaging in a smaller car like the Note is easy. That and it doesn’t add too much weight.

The combined power output of the e-Power system is 136 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. That might not sound like much to propel a 4,700-odd pound minivan but the instantaneous electric torque means it’s adequate around town. It is economical though, Nissan claims a combined fuel consumption of 61 mpg. However, the best I could eke out of its 14.5 gallon fuel tank was around 413 miles of range. It’s not bad but not great. Long motorway drives with a six adults was not the ideal situation for maximum efficiency.

How Does It Drive?

The Serena e-Power basically drives like an EV with a bit more noise. It’s an odd sensation; mash the throttle and the petrol engine reluctantly comes to life but the noise from the rough small engine does not correlate to the speed you’re traveling at. The gas engine isn’t driving the wheels, remember, it’s providing more juice for the electric motor and batteries.

Unlike other headline-grabbing EVs, this isn’t a performance orientated machine. Instead you get the feeling everything was done in the effort of maximum efficiency. It’s certainly good for this sort of car. Exciting? Not really.

The powertrain is best suited for use around town where the petrol engine doesn’t get strained or needed too often. Let’s not forget the whole system was taken straight out of the (smaller, lighter) Note, albeit with a bit more power. When you ask too much from the right pedal, the Serena’s drivetrain does genuinely feel like it was originally supposed to propel a compact.

Speaking of the right pedal, the e-Power comes with something called an “e-Pedal,” some tech taken from the Leaf. With the e-Pedal, lifting off the accelerator pedal engages the brakes automatically. <Does it actually engage the brakes or does it just boost the regenerative braking (that is, is it setting the electric motors to charge the batteries more aggressively? - yes it engages the brakes, slows down pretty much to a complete stop and brake lights come on) Keep your foot off the throttle and the car will brake itself to a full stop. You can of course override this with the brake pedal. While not really useful on the motorway, I found myself using it to slow down around town. The benefit of this is it makes the most of recouping energy through regenerative braking.

You can switch this on and off by selecting the Drive Mode—the e-Pedal works in either ’S’ or ‘Eco’ modes—but it’s clever stuff.

Hybrid drive aside, the Serena is a perfectly normal modern minivan in terms of comfort and refinement. It’s no super luxury Alphard, but then nothing is. Just don’t try to tackle corners with any sort of gusto otherwise you’ll be met with nautical levels of roll.

What’s Great

The e-Power system is great for urban use. It has the benefits of an EV silently driving around town, but should you need to drive out further you can rely on the gas engine to take away any range anxiety. It’s a good idea that’s still definitely in its early stages, and I assume that’s why Nissan is taking its sweet time to export it.

It’s also great value for money. I can understand why this is Japan’s best-selling minivan, you get a lot of space for your cash. The cheapest Serena e-Power starts from ¥2,997,500 ($27,400), which is on par with the average price of a conventional family hatchback. It doesn’t seem big from outside but inside is a clever utilization of the space you have. The dimensions are perfect for the narrow roads of Japan. At 4685mm long, 1695mm wide, and 1865mm tall it’s just about the right size for most parking spaces in Tokyo and other built-up areas.

It’s almost foolproof to use—everything is ergonomically placed inside. The massive central display screen is great as are the camera aids. The interior itself is roomy and practical with sliding seats for the rear two rows, captain chairs in the middle seats, tray tables like you get in economy class on a mid-level airline, and lots of visibility. The dual-power sliding doors are a nice touch as is the split tailgate. This being quite a tall car, the main tailgate can be quite large so for those tighter spots.

What’s Weak

It’s not the best for long trips with all rows occupied. The rearmost seats are quite upright and firm while luggage space with all three rows in place isn’t the most generous. You’ll be able to fit a large suitcase and a few soft bags in the there. With the Serena fully loaded, the powertrain struggles to get it going or return anywhere near its claimed fuel consumption.

The engine does get strained every now and then when you need to accelerate hard. It’s not the best motorway overtaker, instead it’s more comfortable cruising at one speed in the middle lane. As good of an idea as the e-Power tech, it’s still in its early days and could do with some improvements should it want to succeed overseas as a viable alternative to a full EV. I get the decision to give it a smaller battery but because of that, the charge doesn’t last long so the petrol engine needs to kick more often than you’d want it to.

In an ideal world, the battery would be larger and store more charge to power the car without needing the gas generator providing electricity as often as it does now as a sort of long-range extender.

Value

Compared to the style forward crossovers the minivan is still the best way to get the most space for your yen. With prices for the e-Power variants starting from below the three million yen mark and the most basic Serena starting from ¥2,576,200 ($23,600), the same as a Prius, it’s little wonder why the Serena is as popular as it is. You certainly can’t get this much space in a SUV in this price bracket.

My test car had around 1 million yen ($9,100) worth of options on it including an Advanced Safety Package, which included adaptive cruise control and steering assist, LED headlights, and 16-inch alloys.

Verdict

It’s a minivan that makes sense. The Serena sums up why the minivan still makes sense to the Japanese buyer wanting space, efficiency, practicality, reliability, and affordability without having to get an excessively large vehicle. The e-Power tech is a step in the right direction for Nissan, which seems to have neglected hybrid tech on a more global scale.

I’ve been told e-Power will be sold overseas in a matter time of time. Hopefully by then Nissan would’ve been able to sort out some of the kinks such as having a larger battery for extended EV range and relying less on the gasoline engine.

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