I'm not shy about my affection for minivans. And so, despite having no kids and still being in the middle of a pandemic that makes it dangerous to spend time with other people in small enclosed spaces, when Kia asked if I wanted to spend some time with its new $32,100 Carnival minivan I said yes. Because, as already noted, minivans are wonderful.
They're handsome, too, at least when we're talking about the Carnival. Kia's designers went with a two-box shape and embraced the boxiness. To my eye the proportions are spot-on, particularly in profile where its shape falls midway between hatchback and station wagon, but scaled up by 20 percent.
Distinguishing features include the brand's big "tiger nose" grille up front and, since our text car was the Carnival SX (MSRP: $41,100), a textured chrome panel on the C pillar that gives you something interesting to look at up close. My photos fail to do justice to the optional ($495) ceramic silver paint, which sparkled with pink and gold flecks in the sunlight. Together with the SX's black alloy wheels and the silver accents, it all works rather well.
The inside is voluminous in the way you want a people carrier to be, and it's even available in either an eight-seat layout (as was the case for our test Carnival) with a middle row that slides and can be removed or as a seven-seater with a pair of reclining, heated, and ventilated captain's chairs for the middle row. In both cases, the third row can fold flat into the floor to increase cargo room from 40.2 cubic feet (1,138 L) to 86.9 cubic feet (2,460 L). The third row is also only really a three-seat row for small children.
As I've written before, Kia's UVO infotainment system is actually pretty decent, with a UI that at times reminds me of the old days of pre-OS X Macintoshes. Being an SX trim, our test Carnival also had screens built into the seatbacks of both front seats. These have a kids mode, and the screens can also mirror a phone via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Each row has its own USB-A ports, but phone casting also works wirelessly, and there is a wireless charging pad built into the center console.
Beyond that, there's a good suite of advanced driver assistance systems as standard, including automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitors, rear cross-traffic alerts, lane keeping (adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go is standard on EX and SX trims), and headlights that automatically dip for oncoming traffic.
It's a great minivan, but I've got one complaint
Behind the tiger's nose (or under the hood if you prefer), there's a 3.5 L V6, which generates 290 hp (216 kW) and 262 lb-ft (355 Nm), sending power to the front wheels via Kia's in-house eight speed automatic transmission. It's rated at a combined 22 mpg (10.69 L/100 km), which means it's time for my one big complaint about the Carnival: Why didn't Kia at least make it a hybrid?
It's not like Kia (and corporate sibling Hyundai) doesn't know how to electrify a vehicle; its hybrids are some of the best in the industry, and its probably the mainstream OEM that's closest to Tesla in terms of electric powertrain efficiency. But for some reason, just like the highly popular Telluride and Pallisade SUVs, you have no alternative here but pure fossil power. To make things worse, the Carnival shares a platform with the Kia Sorento SUV, and that is an efficient hybrid!
The Carnival is level-pegged with the Honda Odyssey in terms of efficiency, but it's blown away by the 35 mpg (6.72 L/100 km) hybrid Toyota Sienna and plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica (which will do about 28 miles on a full battery before you even need to bother the engine and 30 mpg, 7.84 L/100 km, even when the battery is empty ).
An electric motor would also improve the driving experience. Not that it's lacking—the lower center of gravity in a minivan compared to a three-row SUV gives the minivan an inherent advantage in terms of handling, and the ride was smooth and absorbed road imperfections well. Kia says that the Carnival is stiffer than the old Sedona it replaces, thanks to more high-strength steel in the chassis. It's also got more sound deadening and insulation to keep the inside calm and serene at highway cruising speeds.
But as anyone who's spent time in an electrified car knows, the instant torque of an electric motor is hard to beat, particularly with bigger, heavier vehicles. The automotive rumor mill does suggest that a hybrid and eventually even a full battery electric Carnival could appear once Kia wraps up the Stinger production line, but I must stress that Kia itself has said nothing to that effect.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin