A funny thing happened when buyers fled the minivan market as part of the mid-2000s cultural migration towards the SUVs that currently dominate the automotive landscape: the few, the proud and the almost entirely Japanese badges that were left behind began their slow but inexorable ascent into luxury land.
Both Honda and Toyota realized that it made little sense to court the masses with entry-level models that had been devastated by sexier crossovers, and instead focused their efforts on importing portions of the premium van culture that had long existed in their native Japan. With Dodge’s Grand Caravan left behind to soak up contractors and those seeking basic transportation, the Odyssey and the Sienna began to pile on features and equipment that elevated their pricing, if not their status, to the point where transactions today now hover around the $50,000 mark for top trims.
All the while Kia and Hyundai hovered around the minivan periphery, alternating between bargain-basement and upscale attempts to gain an American foothold with van-shaped people movers of their own. Korea, like Japan, is a nation where limo-like vans dominate urban life, but both brands seemed hesitant to truly commit to exporting that concept to America.
That all changes with the 2022 Kia Carnival. With a starting price of just over $30K, the Carnival does pay lip service to the concept that at least a few bargain-hunting families are still seeking out minivans. It’s the top-tier edition of the Carnival, however, that reveals Kia’s true game plan — to colonize the same sliver of chic #vanlife territory staked out by Honda and Toyota — and to do it at a bit of a discount.
It’s Not a Minivan, It’s an MPV
There’s a bit of wink-wink, nudge-nudge going on with Kia’s positioning of the Carnival, which is billed as an “MPV” rather than embracing the minivan moniker afforded its predecessor, the Sedona (which was sold as the Carnival outside of the U.S.). Apart from a brief flirtation with the term by Mazda two decades ago, the “multi-purpose vehicle” acronym never caught on this side of the Pacific, but if that’s the pantomime required to get brand execs to sign off on the Carnival’s mission statement, then so be it.
From almost any objective perspective the Carnival fits the definition of a minivan perfectly, what with its simple box design and dual sliding doors separating it from the more fluid forms afforded to current crossovers. Dressing up the traditional costume is a flying buttress of chrome that rises up on either side just behind the rear doors, an affectation that is either attractive or regrettable depending on your point of view. The rest of the van is handsomely hewn, especially the front fascia with its toothy grin of a grille and elaborate LED lighting details.
Mechanically, there is a bit of SUV lurking beneath the Carnival’s skin. The vehicle’s 3.5-liter V6 engine and eight-speed automatic transmission are shared with the brand’s Sorento mid-sizer (which also features similar styling forward of the windshield). With 290 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque on tap, there’s more than enough might to motivate even a fully-laden Carnival, which can accommodate either seven or eight passengers and up to a respectable 145 cubic feet of cargo. That number dwarfs behemoths like the Chevrolet Suburban SUV and is on par with class leaders like the Honda Odyssey. (However, in the top-tier SX Prestige trim I drove the second-row seats are not removable.)
Lounge Out in the Second Row
The most crucial attraction at Kia’s Carnival is found once you’ve bought your admission ticket and made it past the gate. The SX Prestige model boasts the same high-end interior trappings found in stealth luxury SUVs like the Kia Telluride, which for the driver and front passenger translates into deep-black door panels broken up by soft, colorful leather inserts, a dappled aluminum style bar across the dash, and a pleasing 12.3-inch LCD touchscreen that pairs with a digital gauge cluster.
As impressive as the Carnival’s cockpit presentation can be, the true bonanza is reserved for those who stretch out in the van’s second row. Kia has brought back the power-extending ottoman that was once available with the previous-generation Sedona (a feature copied by Toyota for the Sienna), only this time it’s even more decadent thanks to a rear tilt feature for the captain’s chairs that delivers barbershop-level lean-back.
Equipment like this has long been a staple of Asian-market models, and it’s puzzling as to why it’s taken so long for them to arrive stateside. Lolling away the miles at a gentle decline with your legs fully supported by supple upholstery while you gaze out the Carnival’s generous side glass is an experience that exceeds anything you’ll find in a similarly priced SUV’s middle row, as the van’s tall roof and wide stance banish claustrophobia during even the most extended of trips.
If you need to pack the van tight, then the Barcaloungers fold up to make more room for those riding in the third row, which is again more generous than all but the biggest of truck-based SUVs. Those same third-row seats fold flat into the floor to harbor extra hauling, filling the deep cargo tub that rests behind them when they’re popped into place.
Set Sail With Carnival
If all the Carnival had to offer were a stellar set of seats and an elegant, posh interior, it would still be a remarkable and roomy crossover alternative. However, pushing it higher up in estimation is its overall relaxed vibe from behind the wheel, one that hinges on a pillowy suspension tune that is softer than a Letterkenny birthday party. Paired with the power of its capable V6 engine, the Carnival floats and bobs its way over rough roads, detaching itself from the tedium of daily life for the duration of your commute, and delivering a reasonably peaceful capsule in which to better tune out either the bickering of the children riding in the way-way-back or the snores of the adults ensconced in their recliners.
It’s ultimately this concept — the “van as refuge” from quotidian travails — that best encapsulates the Korean take on the MPV mood. Whereas the marketing for crossovers and SUVs encourages us to strap on the bikes, kayaks and canoes, fill the hatch with camping gear, and head off into the wilderness, minivans and their multi-purpose ilk just want everyone to relax, take a load off and maybe stay in this weekend after picking the kids up from band practice, all while surrounded by a cabin that could pass for first-class accommodations on a trans-oceanic flight.
There’s certainly room in the modern marketplace for both of these perspectives to peacefully coexist, and the Odyssey et al. have certainly taken similar, if not quite as concentrated stabs at minivan magnificence. What the 2022 Kia Carnival SX Prestige eloquently elaborates is that you no longer need to pony up $50K for the privilege, as its $46,000 MSRP affords at least a 10% cut compared to its Japanese rivals that are still holding back the curtain on the full luxo-van experience.
Although this latest model might have arrived chronologically last, the Carnival feels ahead of the curve when it comes to carving out space for cross-cultural pollination straight from the heart of the broad boulevards that pierce the heart of Gangnam.
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