ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When we write about minivans, it’s easy to focus on the Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey and Chrysler Pacifica, while mostly ignoring the other option out there: the Kia Sedona. It’s older than the other three, each of which has recently seen a refresh or, in the case of Sienna, a complete redesign. Now, Kia is changing the game, sunsetting the Sedona while launching the much splashier 2022 Kia Carnival minivan to replace it. The Carnival is hard to overlook, with its unique design and rich list of available content. With its introduction, we can no longer suggest you simply pick from the other three based on your needs. If you’re looking at buying a new minivan, you’d do yourself a disservice to continue ignoring Kia.
The Carnival’s styling is interesting, and the longer I looked at it, the more I came to like it. It doesn’t exactly look like a minivan. Give it some bigger wheels and a bit more ride height, and it begins to look a lot like a crossover. Specifically, as Autoblog West Coast Editor James Riswick pointed out, it really resembles a Chevy Traverse. Kia does, after all, mostly refrain from using the word “minivan” to describe the Carnival, instead referring to it officially as an MPV, or multi-purpose vehicle (which, coming full circle, is a term many markets have used for years in lieu of the word “minivan”).
And the Carnival definitely looks unlike the competition. The grille on our SX Prestige tester was made up of blocky chunks of material surrounded by a mesh of negative space. The hood, with its pair of sculpted lines and the first use of the new Kia logo, terminates in a horizontal line above the grille. That line extends above the headlights, and a character line brings it rearward to the horizontal rear lighting. Blacked-out A-, B- and D-pillars contrast with the chunky chrome C-pillar with its vanishing-diamond texture in this trim level. The shiny bumper valences and side skirts are a nice touch, and our tester’s black wheels completed the sporty appearance.
But the lowered stance and sliding doors are indicators that the Carnival is indeed a minivan, just like the Sedona it replaces. It rides much closer to the ground than that Traverse we compared it to above, which translates to easier ingress/egress, easier loading, and a more carlike ride. Of particular note is the cut line for the sliding doors, which lines up with that character line that extends rearward from below the hood. “Rather than shy away from the cut line for the doors, our designers embraced it,” said Joseph Choi, advanced project planning and strategy manager at Kia. We still wish Kia would have committed further to distancing from the minivan look and tucked this line away somewhere less conspicuous.
Inside, the Carnival is darn near palatial. In the top SX Prestige trim ($47,275 with destination), it features leather seating for seven occupants. The first and second rows are both heated and ventilated. That second row has a few party tricks, including the ability to slide the seats both fore-and-aft and side-to-side. These “VIP Lounge” seats also feature a one-touch button to put the chairs into “relaxation mode” — a deep reclined position complete with the deployment of leg rests. Those leg rests can be extended using another button, with the extra step ensuring you don’t squish your legs if you happen to be sitting too close to the seat in front of you. There are two power-sliding sunroofs to give a view of the sky, or you can enjoy videos on apps like Netflix or YouTube on the optional rear-seat entertainment system, with individual screens located on the front seatbacks. You can raise the manual sunshades on the windows for more comfort and privacy while you take a little nap, too. The third row is not so bad either, with sunshades and a center armrest with cupholders. While many of these features are shared with other minivans (the Odyssey’s side-to-side moving seats, the Pacifica’s dual-screen infotainment screen, the Sienna’s second-row leg rests), none offer so many distinctive and likable features in one place.
The SX Prestige trim also features a pair of 12.3-inch screens up front — a digital instrument cluster and an infotainment touchscreen, side by side in the same wide housing. The rest of the trims get analog gauges with a 4.2-inch TFT display between them. There’s a wireless charger for your phone, and numerous USB ports for each row of seating as well. The SX ($42,275) and SX Prestige have 115-volt inverters — one on the back of the center console and one in the rear cargo area — for accessories with a standard two- or three-prong plug.
All Carnivals are powered by a new naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 providing 290 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque. That output is sent to the front wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. Regardless of trim, the Carnival gets 19 miles per gallon in the city, 26 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined. That’s the same combined figure as the V6-powered Chrysler Pacifica and Honda Odyssey, but the hybrid-powered Sienna and Pacifica PHEV lead the pack in fuel economy by a considerable margin. The Carnival is also rated to tow 3,500 pounds, which is par for the course in the minivan segment.
Out on the road, the engine feels torquey, and is happy to spin the front wheels from a stop at full throttle. The engine sounds good, too, mostly quiet in normal running, but issuing a controlled growl under hard acceleration. The Carnival feels swift (especially after a recent drive in the Toyota Sienna), and never left me wanting when I needed to merge onto a busy expressway with a short on-ramp. I didn’t have this thing packed to the brim with passengers and cargo, but it’s easy to feel confident about this Kia’s ability to get underway with a full load, based on its accelerative alacrity.
The Carnival is surprisingly good to drive. I greatly appreciated the Toyota Sienna’s ability to provide a car-like experience from behind the wheel, and the Carnival is similar. It steers confidently, with a nice weight building up in the tiller through corners. The suspension is slightly on the taut side, giving a good feel of the road, with the downside of transmitting more road noise into the cabin. It doesn’t hold up as well as the Sienna when driven aggressively through corners, where body roll and understeer come into play, but who cares? It’s a minivan.
Like an increasing number of Hyundai and Kia vehicles, the Carnival offers a sweet bundle of driver assistance features meant to decrease stress and increase safety. Standard in the base LX trim ($33,275) are items including lane-keeping and -following assist, blind-spot monitoring, forward collision avoidance, and rear cross-traffic alert. EX ($38,775) and higher trim levels get navigation-based adaptive cruise control that can lower vehicle speeds ahead of upcoming curves, as well as Highway Driving Assist to help steer the minivan on well-marked highways with little to no input on the part of the driver. The SX Prestige is the only trim to get the slick blind-spot cameras that pop a video feed onto the digital gauges when you use the turn signal. It all works quite well making for smooth, easy driving even in heavy, stop-and-go traffic.
But really, the Carnival is just a nice place to spend time. The room, comfort, good looks and solid tech make it easy to live with, and the abundance of creature comforts on offer make it just as suitable for carrying adults as it is for ferrying children to their daily activities. It doesn’t offer hybrid efficiency or all-wheel drive (though AWD is something Kia is exploring for the Carnival in the future), but it probably doesn’t have to in order to garner the attention of potential customers. Especially in the luxurious SX Prestige trim with its VIP Lounge seats, the Carnival feels a bit like a limousine, but doesn’t ignore the driver’s needs. And, just maybe, this stylish MPV can win over those who need the space and the seats, but shy away from the image of a minivan.