The Nissan Serena was once a major player in the midlevel multipurpose segment, often mentioned in the same breath as the Mitsubishi Grandis and Space Gear, the Toyota Previa and the Kia Carnival. Since 2004 the competition has had serious upgrades, making the Serena become second fiddle to the competition, and perhaps even its (cheaper) Grand Livina sibling. Late last year the 2008 Serena was unveiled, with changes more to its exterior and interior. Are the revisions timely enough, or did Nissan play too late the hero?

Not much has changed from the previous Serena, save for less slats on the grill, newly designed rims, cleaner looking bumper profiles, a larger headlight area, and both headlights and taillights exhibiting the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) counterpart's visual identity.

Inside is where the welcome changes from the previous Serena are evident. Although much of the layout still pays homage to its predecessor, this Serena's ergonomics and features make it very much of an upgrade. The large middle dashboard video screen changes brightness according to the ambient lighting, while rear privacy glass, an automatic massage feature (for the driver's seat) and two big opera lamps further highlight the vehicle's relaxed persona. The incorporation of the aircon and radio controls into a single unit (similar to a Nokia E50 Communicator) under the front middle aircon vents are nice, but the button fonts are small. You have to slow down significantly or stop altogether just to fiddle with the aforementioned controls. At least aircon controls for the rear area is more accessible since its push-button cluster is on the second row ceiling.

Putting people and stuff inside can be love-hate matter. The captain's chair second row backrests are comfortable, but the same can't be said of the rearmost third and fourth row backrests, which felt a bit hard on the lumbar area. There are storage bins and cupholders for every row (save for the fourth), but getting the aluminum thin wire rings (within the folding front row backrest trays) takes some time because there's no extended pull tab. You have to have long fingernails just to pull out the said cupholders. And although the third row can't be folded flat and the fourth row can only be folded and tumbled laterally, there is a lot of space for cargo - just not for the occasional odd shaped item like steel bars or potted plants.

The 2.5L inline four banger huffs and puffs to get decent acceleration, but once it gets into the powerband (3500 rpm) it can go fast. You can also tell how fast the Serena is going due to a head-ups display on the lower left past of the front windshield, great when going through highway areas with strictly enforced speed limits. The a/t downshifts to third gear at one half throttle effort and down to second at three-fourths throttle effort, but overall the engine has a hard time moving the multi-purpose vehicle's (MPV's) 1602 kg curb weight. The results are evident - a 192 kph top speed and 6.23 km/l on four days of mixed driving.

The MPV's tall height makes cornering at speeds over 60 kph a risky proposition, and the unit's very design makes it susceptible to crosswinds. On the other hand the damping isn't exactly something to rave about, with third row occupants complaining of a bumpy ride when the Serena goes through humps and potholes. Steering is a bit heavy and numbing, and the test unit's steering wheel started to shimmy at 120 kph.

Safety is also a love-hate matter. Stopping the P 1.555 million Serena 250E generates a lot of fade and the parking footbrake location is too near the brake pedal. But footbrake grip is decent and its release lever is parallel to the driver's navel, making it easy to reach. The side mirrors are wide, exterior lighting is bright, and there's a reverse gear-activated camera (incorporated in the monitor above the middle dashboard) that makes parallel parking and long backing fun.

The Nissan Serena 250E is a good rival to others in its class, but its four years-and-counting-design, fuel consumption and brake grip make it more of an option than a top-of-mind choice.