Driving in Japan: Experiencing the Nissan Serena, X-Trail, and Ariya

Nissan has always been a brand that’s piqued my interest, it’s the one Japanese powerhouse automaker that I know least. I’ve never really understood what the brand has stood for besides the given Japanese build quality.

However, in the past few years, the brand has been pushing innovation and has taken the necessary steps towards a carbon-free community. This has produced some of the best hybrid and EVs on the market today, lucky for me as part of the media delegation of the brand for the 2023 installment of the Japan Mobility Show, we were given the opportunity to take some of their vehicles on a long road trip.

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Nissan Japan Drive

We were ushered to the Nissan Global Headquarters situated a few kilometers outside of Tokyo in the somewhat picturesque city of Yokohama. After exiting the bus we were given a few minutes to bask in the technological splendor of the Nissan HQ showroom. Inside were a number of their models, along with interactive displays explaining the Hybrid and EV technologies.

After which we were herded upstairs for the drive briefing itself, where the rules of Japanese driving were explained. As we know Philippine driving is completely alien compared to other countries, In Japan we were expected to be respectful, and very careful as the locals seem to take driving to a degree of respect I’ve never seen. Road signs, lines on the road themselves, and speed limits were just some of the things our Japanese instructor expected us to digest, not to mention that I would be driving on the right side of the road for the first time in my life.

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Nissan X-Trail

Us media representatives were grouped into 3 and divided among the 6 vehicles the brand laid out for us, only 3 models were lent to us as a whole, the Nissan Serena e-Power, Nissan X-Trail e-Force, and Nissan Ariya EV. My group’s first vehicle was the X-Trail and like a sacrificial lamb, they coerced me into driving first.

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I was excited to be driving the X-Trail given that the Philippines doesn’t get this model, and I wasn’t disappointed at first glance. The exterior gives you an idea of just how expansive the vehicle actually is, and the design is spot on in terms of exuding a modern rendition of class and sportiness. Inside is another story, the two-tone brown (almost orange) and black interior lends a touch of design brilliance that isn’t common in vehicles nowadays, not to mention that the features inside were truly futuristic.

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The X-Trail’s digital cluster houses literally all the information one would need while driving, which enabled me to simply glance down from time to time without having to take my nervous eyes off the Japanese motorway. The X-Trail we had was the top-trim hybrid with AWD, and it felt solid from the get-go.

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Almost immediately after exiting the Nissan HQ garage my excitement quickly turned to underwear soiling nervousness. At the stoplight, a mistake made by me nearly caused an international crisis as I got confused by the lights. Nonetheless, with my freedom intact I quickly came to terms with the “opposite” habits of the Japanese. I exited the busy streets of Yokohama and hit the motorway, and this is where the X-Trail came into its own, the hybrid system and the AWD kept the vehicle sure-footed on the road, and in no time I merged to the overtaking lane and blasted through along with the other local drivers.

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Another thing I was able to test out was the Nissan Pro-Pilot System, which is the brand’s foray into ADAS and eventually fully autonomous driving. This was a treat for me because the brand has yet to debut Pro-Pilot in the Philippines, and I must say that it’s one of the more straightforward and easier ADAS systems to use.

The journey from Yokohama to our first stop in Kamakura took around about an hour, and we breezed by the metropolis quickly and eventually exited into the smaller picturesque quaint towns. Having acclimated to driving in Japan, I was able to enjoy the vehicle and the surroundings more, but it was really thanks to the X-Trail’s ease of operation and overall capability.

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We eventually hit the beachside/surfer town of Kamakura which is reminiscent of the Cote de Azure in Europe, sleepy, sunbathed, and absolutely stunning. We stopped for lunch at a local hotel, and we switched cars for the next exciting leg of the drive.

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Nissan Serena

The Serena (like the X-Trail) was once sold in the Philippines both unfortunately were ousted by the competition, but this new one I feel could shake up the growing luxury MPV/minivan segment. It looks the part with the high roofline and boxy stature but has some aggressive touches to the exterior design. Inside is a mishmash of practicality and comfort, with a plethora of space, comfort, and features.

The next bit of our journey was to be epic, from the beachside we would be making our way to the mystical and legendary Hakone Turnpike. Hakone is every car nut’s dream, as it’s known as a spaghetti of tarmac carved out on a mountain range where street racers and bikers use it as a proving ground for their machines and skill.

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As you can imagine my carmates were less than thrilled at the prospect of driving a hybrid minivan up Hakone, which I elected to once again drive to. Why waste an opportunity to drive Hakone? regardless of the vehicle, heck I’d do it in a wheelbarrow. We left Kamakura and hit some coastline weekend traffic, which allowed me to come to terms with the Serena. In truth, it was very straightforward and required little learning curve despite its massive proportions.

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It felt nimble and maneuverable on the tight roads, and the hybrid powertrain was more than enough to propel me and 3 other full-sized adults at a decent speed. Overall though it was the comfort that really made the Serena stand out, with Nissan Philippines GM Dax Avenido claiming multiple times how much he’d want one in Manila. Add the availability of Pro-Pilot and the kilometers just breezed by further allowing me to take in the scenery that is the Japanese motorway system.

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Finally, we hit the final toll booth and exited towards Hakone, while waiting for the rest of the convoy to catch up to us in the lead pack I braced myself for a childhood dream come true. Staring at the mountain range in the distance with the steeply inclined roads, I couldn’t help but shake in anticipation (despite being in a minivan).

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We eventually departed the waiting area and began our ascent, and the scenery changed in an instant, from the sea and concrete jungles, a lush forest already turning brown and orange from the fall season assaulted our peripherals. I had to keep myself in check while driving because I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the landscape, it was as if I was transported to another world. A few kilometers from the observation deck, we stopped at a waiting area to take additional photos and videos of the vehicles, with that done we set off again and Hakone began to show itself by making the roads twistier, I and my minivan tried our best to keep up and to its credit, the Serena didn’t strain as much as I thought it would.

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We reached our stop atop the Hakone Turnpike road for a short driving break and car change. We parked up at a massive parking lot that was a treat in itself, almost every vehicle in the parking lot was Japanese tuner legends, Subaru STI’s, Nissan GT-R’s, Toyota AE86’s you name it, and they were there. I stepped out of the Serena and let the crisp and cool mountain air engulf me, as I took in the sights. In the distance, I could hear the “ratatat, brapbrap, tsutsu” of countless Japanese tuner cars. My first thought was this must be what heaven is for car guys, a beautiful cold mountain road, spectacular scenery, and a symphony of tuned engines screaming in the distance.

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Nissan Ariya

The last car we drove as a group was the Nissan Ariya EV Crossover, which to me was a truly exciting prospect. Nissan has paraded this new EV as a glimpse into the electrified future. The Ariya really does look the part with its exterior design almost taken out of a sci-fi novel, with a matching futuristic interior to boot.

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We left the observation deck and made our way to our final stop of the drive, lake Ashi. The lake can be found in the middle of the mountain range where Hakone is. I elected to be a passenger for this part of the journey, and boy I didn’t regret it. Upon setting my eyes on Lake Ashi I nearly fainted at its beauty. It reminded me of the many lakes found in Europe like Geneva or Austria, where only mountains surround a seemingly calm lake. A final driver change and coffee break enabled me to really take the sights in, and almost recharge for the long journey back to Yokohama.

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I was able to convince my carmates that I should take back driving duties and judging by the deep eyes and yawns, they were more than willing to be passengers. Once we left Lake Ashi the skies were becoming a canvas of blue, orange, and white as the sun began to set, with most of the convoy now split up, I elected to “make haste” towards Yokohama.

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I’m glad the Ariya was my steed for the journey because it was more than willing to indulge my newfound lust for speed and sportiness. The instant EV torque and power coupled with the AWD system gave me the confidence to push it through the tight Hakone corners even as night fell. With a full moon shining down on us, I kept my pace quick and comfortable, once we reached the highway the serene quietness of the Arya’s cabin was only broken by the intermittent snores of my passengers, this was when I knew I had to engage the Pro-Pilot system.

An hour away from Yokohama we hit the infamous Tomei highway traffic jam, where I got first-hand experience of just how kind Japanese drivers are. They willingly slowed down and allowed other vehicles to merge or change lanes, and an almost standstill traffic jam with no horns sounding out made me feel I was in a driving Utopia. This courteous nature used by the local drivers enabled a steady flow of traffic, not like here where jostling for position creates bottlenecks.

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At Journeys End

A final driver change moved me back to the passenger seat, where I had the time to digest the day’s experiences. In truth, I was in awe of just how Nissan has moved the needle in terms of electrified mobility, their offerings are just as if not better than most of the competitors. I particularly enjoyed the ease of use and capabilities of the Serena, Ariya, and X-Trail despite the fact that these vehicles represent the most modern tech and features in the market today.

Which brings me to my final thoughts of that day, with a wide-ranging lineup why had Nissan chosen these 3 particular vehicles for us PH media reps to drive? Was it meant to be a preview of things to come from Nissan PH? Were we meant to relay to the rest of the populous just how good these future Nissan PH models are?

I asked the question to the powers at be, and all I got in return was a knowing smirk, an errant wink and this statement “God willing, these vehicles will (hopefully) be sold in the Philippines.” Take from that what you will, and if you’re keen on these 3 models hit the church pews, I know I will.

Pablo Salapantan

Pablo Salapantan

Pablo's first word was probably "Car", and this has developed into a personal passion that has consumed his professional life as well.

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