Motoring: Shaker and mover for all the family: Can Nissan's one-box people carrier oust the trusty estate? Roger Bell is not convinced

Pundits once forecast that the Renault Espace - a mould-breaking one-box car with seating for seven - would set the fashion for family holdalls. So far it has not. Eight years on from the Espace's 1985 launch, multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs) make up only a fraction of Britain's car market. There are sure signs, though, that demand for open-plan people movers is set to take off, just as that for off-road 4x4s has done. Analysts say that by 1995 MPVs could account for 300,000 sales in Europe.

Renault's trendy new Twingo, endowed with more room inside than appearance suggests, qualifies as a small-scale MPV. Up-market, an all-in-one capsule-car is on the way from troubled Mercedes-

Benz, seeking new markets as it gears up for the next century. While Fiat and Peugeot finalise their own one-box contenders and Ford and VW collaborate on a joint-venture MPV - still two years away - Nissan's Serena is in showrooms now, shaping up to existing Japanese rivals such as the Mitsubishi Space Wagon and Toyota Previa with greater authority than the old Prairie it displaces.

Nissan describes the Serena as 'a complete family transport system', which means no more than that it is versatile, the raison d'etre of all MPVs.

Robot-assembled in Spain, where Nissan has invested dollars 1.4bn, the Serena has been designed (in Japan) with Europe's growing demand for specialist vehicles in mind. It is not a converted van, but a purpose-built alternative to the estate car.

The Serena looks too tall and narrow to rival the Espace, epitome of designer elegance, in a beauty contest. Nissan, however, makes a virtue of its newcomer's svelte lines, asserting in a swipe at larger rivals that small is less intimidating when it comes to driving and parking. It expects the Serena to account for a quarter of MPV sales this year.

As in the Previa, the engine is amidships, beneath the floor, all the better for weight distribution and (rear-drive) traction. Service points are easily accessed under the bonnet, and the oil level can be checked from the dash. Prices range from pounds 12,950 (the same, say, as a down-range Ford Mondeo estate) to pounds 17,750 (which would buy a Volvo 940 2.3SE estate), according to engine (1.6, 2.0 or 2.0 diesel), trim (three levels) and body style (four or five doors; six, seven or eight seats). Nissan claims that no other manufacturer offers such a wide choice of MPVs. The Serena, it says, can satisfy with one vehicle the needs of many two-

car families.

The test 2.0SGX six-seater (the most expensive model), powered by a British-

made twin-cam 16-valve engine like that in the Primera, feels quite frisky. There is no need to hold back when it comes to overtaking. Bury the accelerator and the SGX responds with a snappy surge if not car-like tranquillity. The engine is a bit raucous, especially when extended. Refinement is further undermined on all but the smoothest roads by a ride that feels agitated, especially in the back. Glasshouse windows and lofty seating are wonderful for sight-seeing, but sitting tall tends to exaggerate movement of the suspension - a sophisticated arrangement on the rear of top models, a cheaper low-tech design on the others.

Although the Serena has firm, supportive front seats, car-like controls, a switch-like gearchange and secure handling (anti-

lock brakes and a device that limits wheelspin are standard on the SGX), it is hardly a memorable driving experience. Parking is easy, but response to the light, power-assisted steering is at best woolly. Anyone familiar with, say, a Nissan Primera would find the Serena loose and wallowy. Quality seems to have taken a tumble, too, judging by the plasticky decor, though the SGX is well equipped. Included in the price are two powered sunroofs and air conditioning. A rear off-side door is not, so passengers must get in and out against the kerb - a safety feature on the school run, but sometimes inconvenient.

With all six seats in place (the central ones can be swivelled so passengers sit face to face), there is virtually no luggage room; shoes and shopping compete for floor space. Folding the rear seats sideways creates a decent 'boot'. Alternatively, seat-rows two and three can be rearranged to form a double bed. In cheaper, more versatile models, the central bench seat can be folded forward to open up the floor as a goods deck.

There is much to be said for running a mini-bus as family transport. Whether the advantages of an MPV such as the Serena outweigh those of a conventional estate, though, are open to debate.

Specifications

Nissan Serena 2.0SGX, pounds 17,750. Engine: 1998cc, four cylinders, twin camshafts, 16 valves, 126bhp at 6,000rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Top speed 106mph, 0-60mph in 12.5 seconds. Fuel consumption 21-28mpg unleaded.

Comparisons

Land Rover Discovery, pounds 19,892. Lofty seating for seven, back two in discomfort. Diesel engine rough and noisy, performance poor, handling ungainly. High price in part due to four-wheel-drive transmission giving outstanding off-road mobility. Strong as a tank.

Mitsubishi Space Wagon, pounds 13,045. Attractively styled seven-seater competes with down-range Serenas on price. Comfortable seats and ride, good visibility, modest performance. By car standards, very roomy and versatile.

Renault Espace 2.0 RT, pounds 16,705. Roomy, versatile MPV, luggage space limited with (optional) rear seats in place. Ride and handling similar to a car's. Prices from pounds 15,840 to pounds 24,145 for fast 2.9-litre V6.

Toyota Previa, pounds 18,099. Big, butch and very conspicuous. Roomy and versatile MPV more at home in the US than the UK. Performance from 2.4-litre under-floor engine lively. Handling not up to car standards.

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