Can a minivan actually be made cool? Kia reckons so with its surprisingly stylish new Carnival.

What is it?

The all-new 2021 Kia Carnival is, to you or I, a minivan, people mover, or people carrier depending on your terminology preferences. To Kia, though, it’s a vehicle being marketed as defining an all new class of ‘GUVs’ – Grand Utility Vehicles. Compared to your run of the mill minivan that’s a better advertisement for contraception than Durex could ever come up with, Kia believes that this new Carnival treads the line between the more stylish and trendy appearance of an SUV while still offering the immense practicality of a van.

The version test here is the SLi – one step down from the top of the range Platinum model – which is priced from $60,290 drive-away with a V6 petrol engine, although this diesel model comes in at a higher $62,290.

Why are we testing it?

Kia is making some bold claims about the luxuriousness and stylishness of this all-new Carnival, along with about how it drives. Having driven the old Carnival, a vehicle which impressed me immensely with its practicality but not with its dynamic abilities even in the slightest, I was eager to see just how this new model compared and whether or not Kia had accomplished what it’s claiming it has with it. Plus, the Carnival almost has the minivan market all to itself here in Australia given most manufacturers have abandoned it to focus on three-row SUVs instead, so it better be good if it’s going to draw buyers back to it.

There’s no doubt that by minivan standards it looks pretty slick and classy – although still ultimately like a minivan at the end of the day, as that’s ultimately inescapable – so it’ll be interesting to see just how it stacks up in reality.

What’s the 2021 Kia Carnival like inside?

The hallmark of the Carnival has always been its incredibly cavernous interior, and certainly, the new model is not wanting for any extra space. Able to seat eight people across three rows, even I at 6’2″ am able to fit perfectly comfortably in the third-row, and that’s with the second row all the way back. Slide it further forward just a touch and there’ll be absolutely no complaints from anyone in this thing, as the seats themselves are all pretty comfortable, too.

Worth mentioning is that the third-row of seats does fold flat into the floor and the second row can be slid and leant all the way forward, allowing for true van levels of practicality – as much as 2785 litres of space at most thanks to it being bigger in all dimensions than the old model, although even 627 litres is on offer with the third row in place thanks to depth of the cargo area. Admittedly, deploying and retracting the heavy rear seats isn’t the smoothest operation, but it works.

Being one of the higher end versions of the 2021 Kia Carnival, this SLi model gains plenty of handy convenience features including not only a power-operated tailgate but power-sliding rear doors as well, saving you from the trouble of having to pull the heavy things open yourself.

There are buttons in plenty of places too – by the driver’s knee, on the B-pillar for the rear passengers, and on the key fob – and simply pulling on the door handles lightly accomplishes the same task as well. Speaking of the key fob, it has a remote engine start feature for helping to warm the car up on a cold morning or cool it down when parked outside on a hot day before you get into it, too.

Up front, the 12.3-inch centre screen is certainly the star of the show as it runs a relatively slick operating system and houses a number of useful features including a 360-degree camera, a Cabin Talk function that allows the driver to speak more easily to rear passengers through a sort of intercom system, integrated satellite navigation, and wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Three-zone automatic climate control is also included, although curiously the controls for the second row have been moved up into the headlining of the car next to the right B-pillar.

What’s a shame is that there’s no digital instrument cluster available on any 2021 Kia Carnival trim level for right-hand drive countries as yet, although this will reportedly be added to 2022 model year vehicles. Hopefully automatic wipers are added then as well, as it’s a frustrating omission given just how many other automatic and power-operated things there are in the SLi variant. Sadly, the dual glovebox arrangement of the old model has been lost as well, along with the convex mirror for easily checking on how your passengers were travelling in the back.

Worth mentioning also is that stepping up to the Platinum version is what you’ll really want to do if you’re wanting to get the most out of the Carnival, as it features heated and ventilated seats up front and heated second-row seats, two sunroofs including a big panoramic one for the second and third row, a Bose audio system, a wireless phone charger, a rotary-dial gear shifter, and some other various cosmetic upgrades.

Even in SLi specification the interior presents fairly nicely, especially as the white trim on the door cards and centre console adds a splash of colour, while black leather is still sensibly used for the seats. There are some really smart bits of thoughtful design as well, such as fitting USB ports on the side of the front seats for if your kids want to watch something on, say, a tablet mounted to the back of the seat.

It’s a very cleverly-designed space, and that’s what’s obviously most important in a minivan. Is it luxurious? Compared to the old one, sure, but it’s not quite offering the sort of finishes you’d get in something like even a Mazda, and the clearly van-like driving position lets its aspirationally premium feel down a touch, also.

What’s the 2021 Kia Carnival like to drive?

If there’s one area the Carnival really needed to step it up, it’s in the way that it drives as the old model was certainly far from the most refined thing out there, with the massive amounts of body roll forever reminding you that you were behind the wheel of a van, and the diesel engine was a bit of a slug as well.

Although a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine making 216kW and 355Nm is the standard engine on offer, the 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel fitted to my tester is an updated unit. Although it only has an insignificant 1kW power bump to 148kW at the same 3800rpm and an identical 440Nm torque rating across the same 1750-2750rpm spread, it just feels more potent thanks to its better throttle response and updated tuning, and this also helps it achieve even thriftier fuel efficiency than the old model. Sadly it’s not that much quieter than the old diesel, however, with plenty of agricultural clatter to be heard when you attack the throttle with any real verve.

All models feature an eight-speed torque converter automatic (worth nothing that this updated diesel is now typically backed by a dual-clutch in cars such as the Sorento) and front-wheel drive as standard. The auto mightn’t deliver the most crisp gear changes imaginable, but its smoothness makes it a good fit in something like this. The fact there’s no all-wheel drive option is a shame, though, as the torque of this diesel engine is enough to easily break the front tyres loose without really trying.

The biggest improvements to be seen are when it comes to the steering and suspension tuning, though, as this was where the old model faltered most. Making the switch from hydraulic to electric power steering and featuring a locally-tuned suspension setup, and while I won’t pretend that it handles like a hot hatch, it’s infinitely better than its predecessor.

Do consider, though, that the steering tune is still Korean-spec and focused more on comfort and ease rather than a tight, engaging feel, although I personally find it to fit well with the character of the car as a result. With a local steering tune not able to be developed in time prior to its launch, you can expect one at some point along the way, be it as part of a model year update or a more major facelift.

The body roll through the corners is limited to no more than would be considered acceptable thanks to a firmer spring rate, yet the ride quality is still on the money for a vehicle you want your passengers to be comfortable in. That body-roll reduction will help big time with any motion sick passengers when you come up to, say, a roundabout which is something the old model would always lean drastically through.

Does it manage to not feel like a van? To an extent, although given the low ground clearance it never exactly feels like an SUV either. Certainly, it does shrink around you a touch when you get behind the wheel, but the width of it in particular is inescapable, with only the length being what disappears. Regardless, it’s a huge step up from the old model dynamically, which goes a long way to improving passenger comfort as well.

How do the numbers add up?

It’s hard to benchmark how the 2021 Kia Carnival stacks up price-wise at this point, as it effectively has the market to itself currently. With the departure of the Toyota Tarago from the Australian market last year, its replacement in the big T’s lineup, the HiAce-based Granvia, is aimed more at chauffeur and airport transfer use than at families, and it’s pricing that starts at $62,990 before on-roads for a base six-seater and stretching all the way to $74,990 for an eight-seater VX model puts it well above the Carnival.

The other Toyota option more commonly seen on Aussie roads are imported JDM Alphards, but these will set you back over $100,000 if you’re buying new. Admittedly, it is more expensive than the Honda Odyssey, which costs between $44,250 and $51,150 before on-roads, but that is a smaller vehicle that only seats seven, not the Carnival’s eight.

Compare that to the Carnival, which starts at $50,390 drive-away for a base S Petrol and tops out at $69,990 for a Platinum Diesel, it’s easy to see how it’s managed to outlast the competition in the Aussie market. Although the prices are up by thousands across the range, the premium feels worth it given how much more polished a vehicle this is, too. It still manages to undercut the eight-seat Hyundai Palisade SUV, which will position itself as somewhat of a rival by circumstance, which ranges from $60-75k before on-road costs although its diesel version does at least offer all-wheel drive.

As far as this SLi Diesel is concerned, I actually think it offers the best bang for your buck in the range at $62,290 drive-away, and although the Platinum may be tempting with its huge standard features list, the SLi still features all of the key ones you’ll want.

The 2.2-litre diesel is worth the $2000 premium over the V6 petrol as well, I reckon. Using a far more meagre 7.9L/100km during my 330km with the car (against an official claim of 6.5L/100km) compared to the V6’s 9.6L/100km claim which will be in the double digits in reality, it’s one of the few modern diesel engines that hasn’t really had DPF issues, so it’s not hamstrung by that in the way that many are. The smoothness and torque of it makes it an ideal fit for something like this, and while its sound is tractoresque, it’s a small price to pay.

Being covered by Kia’s seven year unlimited-kilometre warranty is sure to offer good peace of mind also, and seven years of roadside assistance and capped price servicing is thrown in as well, although do be aware that servicing costs for diesel models at an average of $538 per visit every 12 months/15,000km is higher than the $458 average visit for petrol versions.

So, what’s the verdict?

When it comes to transporting eight people with ease, there’s not many better ways of doing it than in the 2021 Kia Carnival. Try as the Palisade (and its Kia Telluride sibling in North America) might, the design of a people mover like the Carnival with its big sliding doors just makes the job easier, and in terms of price, it’s in a league of its own against Toyota’s dealer-offered and privately-imported minivans, too.

With its surprisingly classy styling and far more polished dynamics, it marks a massive step up over the outgoing model as well, although entry-level variants aren’t quite the bargain they once were. My money would definitely be on the SLi Diesel here though as it’s simply the smart pick of the range.

A minivan you don’t have to be embarrassed to be seen in? I think Kia might have just managed to accomplish it here.

2021 Kia Carnival SLi Diesel Drive-Away Price: $62,790
  • 7.5/10
    Performance - 7.5/10
  • 8/10
    Ride & Handling - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 9.5/10
    Practicality - 9.5/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: Easily seats eight in total comfort, power-operated sliding doors and 360-degree camera are welcome convenience features, handles much better than its boaty predecessor, impressively frugal
Cons: Diesel engine makes an absolute racket, van-like driving position, no auto wipers or digital gauge cluster, diesel more expensive to service than the petrol V6

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Kia Motors Australia for five days with a full tank of fuel.

Patrick Jackson
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