Back With A New Spin
After 8 years of absence from the Singapore market, the all new Kia Carnival makes a much anticipated return to the fold, in the form of what Kia has coined a Grand Utility Vehicle - and grand it is. Succinctly put, it is essentially a full sized MPV masquerading in an SUV’s clothing, giving it an appeal that is closer to a Range Rover as opposed to looking like other MPV stalwarts like the Toyota Vellfire and Alphard. There is a truly unique value proposition being offered here, with the Carnival providing all the practicalities of a massive MPV, without the mundane demeanour of most other MPVs in the market. In fact, the Carnival is a beast of a vehicle, dominating the roads with its staggering frame which measures more than 5m in length and almost 2m across. It is a sight to behold, and captured quite a few stares while I was driving it around town during my test. There are still a few tell-tale signs which betray the Carnival’s guise as a dominating SUV, but for the most part, I’m starting to believe Kia have managed to pull off the seemingly impossible task of making an MPV look desirable.
In Singapore, there is nothing quite like the Carnival that straddles the space between MPV and SUV. The closest thing right now is probably Mazda’s new CX-8, which is a very large SUV that offers captain seat style seating in the 2nd row, but sticks with standard door formats and a 3rd row you will still need to climb into. In that, it seems the Carnival would be the first of its kind in the Singapore market. However, this format isn’t new to some notable markets around the world. SAIC-Volkswagen in China has the brilliantly designed Volkswagen Villoran, and the Chevrolet Suburban and the related Cadillac Escalade have been omni-present in North America, which happens to be one of the Carnival’s key markets, where it will appear as the Kia Sedona. I’m not sure if Lawrence Fishburne as Morpheus is still the face of Kia in North America, but I would definitely enjoy a TV spot commercial where Morpheus, along with Neo, Trinity, and the rest of their ragtag crew pile into a armour plated version of the Carnival (Sedona) to save Zion from extinction - but enough of my childish musings and on with the review.
Design seems to have been a major consideration in building the Kia Carnival, given that it is trying to achieve a look and feel that deceives its primary nature, and Kia has done a good job at it. The front end features a stoic and robust looking features, including a prominent but not ostentatiously large front grille as well as a flat, SUV-esque bonnet. From the front, the Carnival really does look like a muscular SUV that is capable of some mild off-roading. Even the headlamps are built straight into the front panel without a headlamp cover, as is the way with most of our more demure “civilian” cars.
However, that is not to say that the Carnival does not look upmarket. From the side, the Carnival cuts a sleeker silhouette, with a lower roofline, higher floor clearance, and a visibly overhanging “tail”, once again adequately pulling off more SUV vibes. However, from the rear, the full sized tailgate does give things away, and from the rear, the Carnival still looks like a garden variety MPV. Overall, I think the Carnival is a good looking thing. It isn’t necessarily pretty, but the size of the car does lend itself well to its new-found cosmetic features, and from a few angles, reminds me a lot of the Range Rover Velar.
The most convincing part about the Carnival’s portrayal of an SUV is from the driver’s seat. Most of the marquee Japanese MPVs around the same size, have a very van-like driving position about them, but when seated in the Carnival, the look and feel of the bonnet ahead of you, coupled with a very car-like cockpit makes this space feel extremely convincing as an SUV. Top marks to Kia for pulling this off. In terms of driving position, I found that there was just a tad too little adjustment offered on the steering wheel position. On such a large car with plenty of room for seat adjustment, I found that I could not get the steering wheel to pull out quite enough to be proportionate to my range of seat adjustment. One thing that I found quite impressive however, was the air-conditioning system in the car. Air vents were huge and the blowers did an impressive job at circulating air throughout the aircon vents available all the way up till the 3rd row, controllable either through the dashboard console, or through a separate zone control panel in the 2nd row. This may seem like a trivial point, but is actually extremely important in the hot weather found in Singapore.
Material use around the car is decent, and visually, looks quite premium. However, it is in no way opulent, and you do get the impression that the use of premium materials in this car is selective. That said, areas with a high frequency of contact, such as the seats, armrests, and steering wheel all seem to be prioritised, which is good. The build quality in the cabin is decent, though you do get some very slight rattles in the door panelling when going over rough patches of road. You do get some cheap feeling plastics around the cabin, but it is not unexpected in this segment, and therefore should not be overly scrutinised. Overall, I would say that the cabin quality is on par with the rest of the Japanese MPVs in the market, if not a little bit better - and definitely heaps more stylish.
Technology in the car is controlled through a 12.3” touchscreen infotainment unit with Apple Carplay and Android Auto capabilities, though this is only achievable through USB connection. I was a little bit disappointed not to see a full digital driver’s display in the car, as it would have rounded off the cabin very nicely. That said, assuming cost had to be prioritised around the car, the Kia Carnival more than makes up for this with other creature comforts like ventilated seats, which I absolutely adore. Aside from that, the Carnival also comes equipped with other useful features such as wireless smartphone charging, multiple USB ports all around the car, retractable built-in sunshade curtains, and a power outlet in the centre console. Perhaps the most noteworthy of all, are the extra USB ports located on the back of the front row seats, which are perfect if you are intending to secure a couple of Ipads onto the back of the front seats, for the entertainment of your young ones in the back.
For a vehicle that measures more than 5m long and almost 2m wide, passenger hauling capabilities are first class in the Carnival. Depending on the variant, you will be able to transport 7 or 8 with ease. With all the seats up, you will still have 627 litres of cargo space, which means that the Carnival is fully equipped for a road trip with a full passenger load plus cargo. In the 7 seat variant, the 2nd row reclining seats, complete with the ottoman leg rests are super comfortable, and seem to have a wider range of adjustment in the recline than most other MPVs I have been in, which is great. In 8 seater configuration, you will have the choice to reverse the 2nd row seats to face the 3rd row, creating a lounge-like setting that is both a unique feature of the car, and also very practical, as it is extremely easy to move in between the 2nd row and 3rd row. If you are purchasing this car to transport your little ones, the 8 seater configuration will allow for easy access to your child, while putting you in perfect position to keep your eyes on all the other ones in their respective car seats, locked into the 4 ISOFIX points found in the car. There is a good amount of automation to help you tackle the amount of hardware in the car, with automatic tailgates and automatic sliding doors coming as standard. One feature I found most pleasing was the one-touch return button on the recliner seats, which allow you to return the seats to the original position just by holding down one single button.
The fact that Kia has managed to configure this level of practicality into an SUV-looking package is impressive, but there are indeed some minor compromises that had to be made. To accentuate the SUV styling of the Carnival, the car features a lower ceiling height, and SUV floor height, giving the car a sleeker and more stretched out feel. The downside to this is that climbing into the Carnival takes a little bit of effort as the step up is higher than it is with other MPVs (In contrast, the Honda Odyssey, with its low floor trumps the Carnival here). The lowered ceiling height also means that most individuals will have to crouch a little more when entering the car. This isn’t a deal breaker, but it does mean that the Carnival is more suited to transport a young family with children, than it is for carrying your elderly parents.
The Carnival will come equipped with a 2.2 litre Smartstream Diesel power unit paired to an 8-speed automatic, getting you from 0-100km/h in a respectable 10.7 seconds. This is impressive considering the sheer size of this people mover. I had initially thought to myself that it would be nice if the Carnival had come with some sort of a 2.0 litre turbo-petrol power unit, but after driving the car, it becomes evident that the 440Nm of torque supplied by the turbo-diesel unit is the right choice for this car, which easily copes with the Carnival’s 2,187kg kerb weight.
The Carnival really excels as a cruiser, where it is super comfortable and the engine runs at a leisurely 1,500 rpms while travelling at about 90km/h to 100km/h. The Carnival is well insulated, and blocks out most of the road noise, as well as the usual and expected clattering of a diesel engine. The suspension set up on the Carnival also feels firmer than most other MPVs, which works really well. I enjoyed the stability offered while thundering through long corners, and it offers significantly better driving dynamics than the limp and unexciting suspension setups of most other MPVs. I enjoyed the Smart Cruise Control system found in the Carnival, which comes with 4 different distance settings which you can use to keep a safe distance from the car ahead of you. When used concurrently with the Lane Following Assist function, the car effectively safely steers itself through the various curves and bends on the expressway. While there are cars on the market whose lane keeping assistance systems tend to “bounce” you between the two lines of the lane, the Carnival does not. It seems to pick the inside line of the curve, and hugs it, which is infinitely more pleasant and comfortable. You also feel quite reassured with this system, as you are able to feel when the car is “catching” the inside line.
Perhaps what I find most impressive about the Carnival though, is the way that it drives in start-stop traffic around town. While most large vehicles struggle with this bit of the journey, the Carnival is extremely well calibrated, almost never needing to rev past 2,000 rpm even when trying to move off the line. The healthy amount of torque and power delivery coincides wonderfully with decisive upshifts in the transmission. Though not in any way exciting, the Carnival never feels sluggish, and as I was going about my daily activities with the car, I almost never had a need to push the car past 2,000 rpm - To me, this is the most standout part of the entire test experience, and almost unheard off in other large vehicles.
The Carnival offers a very unique proposition to a person in need of MPV hauling capabilities and practicality, but desires the visual appeal of an SUV. It is indeed a very large vehicle that can be challenging to park, but if that doesn’t bother you, I think it offers more practicality over a sustained period than something like a Mazda CX-8, Skoda Kodiaq or SEAT Tarraco. I also really enjoyed the road presence that the Carnival offered. In the Ceramic Silver paint job and blacked out rims on the test car, the car really looks like a battleship, and other cars would often automatically get out of the way if I was coming up behind them on the outer lane. - Intimidating and badass.
If the Carnival is supposed to fill the gap between large SUVs and full size MPVs, then I think the car does that job perfectly, as it will definitely apparel to existing large MPV buyers who have been waiting for something cool looking to come along without sacrificing practicality, as well as large SUV buyers who realise that their cars offer “brochure practicality”, but not “real world practicality”.
Credits: Words by David Foo. Photos by Clifford Chow & David Foo