Kia Carnival: Playing Catch-Up, but Nicely Laid Out

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Kia Carnival: Playing Catch-Up, but Nicely Laid Out

Introduced just over three years ago, the Carnival was surprisingly impressive - considering it was a first effort by a newcomer to minivans. Kia had taken numerous cues from the segment leaders, Ford's Windstar and Chrysler's Voyager/Caravan but try as Kia did, Carnival was turned down by Kia's U.S. dealers as not quite ready for prime time.

With Carnival II, Kia has had three extra years to perfect its product, which will now be U.S.-bound. While it faces no competition in its home market, it's quite a different story in the United States, where Carnival will be up against no less than 15 other competitive nameplates. That's the major leagues.

So how does Carnival II stack up against Caravan, the segment leader? In the tale of the tape, it's in the middle of the pack, falling right between Caravan and its stretched wheelbase sibling, Grand Caravan. Seven centimeters taller than Caravan and sitting higher off the ground, Carnival provides the better view, but this virtue also makes it slightly more difficult to get in and out of the van.

Its exterior styling is contemporary but unremarkable, a "me too" look that fails to advance the minivan design concept, proving just how difficult it is to improve on the benchmark, Caravan/Voyager. But Kia engineers have obviously paid homage to the Chrysler product: Just look at the design of Carnival's twin sliding side doors. However, while Chrysler and Ford have graduated to power sliding doors and rear liftgates, Kia finds itself one step behind with manual doors. It's no big deal because I, for one, am perfectly happy with muscle-powered doors, but it's indicative of the catch-up game Kia is playing.

Inside, Carnival II matches the competition and there's a lot to like here. It's a spacious cabin with pleasing shapes and textures and acceptable fit and finish quality. Headroom and hiproom dimensions are very generous, if not class-leading. Domestic models are available in six, seven and nine-seat configurations, but just try sitting in one of those two folding jump seats between the front and middle row seats. It's sheer torture, but relief comes in the way of big tax breaks and carte blanche to use the bus-only lanes on the expressways (nine-seat minivans are classified as buses.)

There are no other major complaints in the ergonomics department, except for the climate control. The digital temperature and blower indicators seemed a bit distant - just out of the visual comfort field, making them difficult to read. The gear shifter is located on the center stack for convenient step-through access between the driver and passenger seats. There's a myriad of bins and receptacles to keep you organized. But one thing I did lose was count of the number of assorted holders, binnacles and convenience features. According to Kia, they total no less than 60, and I'll take their word for it.

Kia claims numerous firsts for Carnival; among them are dual LCD video displays including one overhead screen that will keep the kids entertained and quiet. But by far the most noteworthy is the rear video camera used for parking assistance. Slip into reverse gear and a coin-sized camera located just over the rear license plate sends a rear view to the driver's LCD monitor.

The engine of choice for domestic buyers is the 2.9-liter turbocharged intercooled diesel. You'll have to live with the usual diesel demons - vibration and valvetrain clatter - that will be exorcised at the fuel pump. A much quieter diesel with the very latest common rail fuel injection system will be available soon which I'd wait for. Quieter, smoother operation is available at slightly higher cost in the 2.5-liter V-6 LPG engine which pumps out 150 ps, 30 more than the larger diesel. It's also offered in a gasoline version. There's also a 3.5-liter V-6 borrowed from Hyundai, but it's only for export models.

The bare-bones six-seater Trip starts at 14.1 million won ($10,846) while the top-of-the range seven-seater Park GSL outfitted with a 2.5-liter gasoline V-6 and every conceivable option hits the ceiling at 29.8 million won. Price of the nine-seater Park Diesel as tested: 25.7 million won.

Next Week: Saab 9-5 Aero

by Oles Gadacz

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