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Kia Carnival 2021 review: Si petrol

The Kia Carnival, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the people mover.

Daily driver score

4.2/5

Urban score

4.2/5

The seven-seat SUV’s rise in popularity makes sense. SUVs are on trend, a lot of them now look fantastic, and many of them are as good around town as they are on the freeway, or when sent on some light off-roading duties.

This has had a side effect of shrinking the people-mover market. Now seen as dorky and unnecessary, the poor people mover has contracted in popularity to the point where there are few options left, and few of them are tailored as well for the Australian market as cars like the Toyota Tarago once was.

Kia faces those adverse conditions head on with its new-generation Carnival. Now the most popular people mover in Australia, this new one enters the scene with SUV-like looks, the brand’s dramatic new design touches, and a better practicality promise than ever.

Should it win your heart over a seven-seat SUV? Let me make the case as to why it might.

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

The Carnival hits the market in not one, not two, but four trim levels. Already offering an awesome amount of choice for what could be a quite niche product, we’re testing one in mid-grade Si guise with the V6 engine option.

Wearing a drive-away price of $55,790 (Kia doesn’t deal in before on-road MSRPs any more) this Carnival undercuts Toyota’s gigantic new Granvia (starts from $64,090 MSRP) by a significant margin, while sitting above the slightly smaller, soon-to-arrive Honda Odyssey update, which will wear an MSRP of $51,150 for an equivalent top-spec Vi LX7.

It has a12.3-inch multimedia touchscreen. It has a12.3-inch multimedia touchscreen.

You can probably tell from the images that the Carnival’s new design language wouldn’t look quite as amazing without such standard spec items as the full LED front lighting and 18-inch alloy wheels. Other impressive spec items include a 12.3-inch multimedia touchscreen, 4.2-inch supervision cluster (notably no digital dash, though), wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support with built-in navigation, an eight-speaker audio system (up from the base Si’s six), dual-zone climate control for front passengers with a third single-zone area for rear passengers (including third-row vents in the roof), leather trimmed wheel and shift-lever with less-good base cloth seats, and keyless entry but no push-start ignition.

The Carnival ahs dual-zone climate control for front passengers with a third single-zone area for rear passengers. The Carnival ahs dual-zone climate control for front passengers with a third single-zone area for rear passengers.

Apart from some odd omissions, then, the Carnival Si is pretty well equipped and sits comfortably between its rivals. The two things that really detract are the lack of push-start ignition (seriously, how many cars don’t have this now?) and the fact that the base cloth seats are spongey enough, but have a particularly average design. All Carnivals also have healthy active safety suites, but we’ll cover that off in the Safety section of this review.

Is there anything interesting about its design?

Can a people mover really be trendy? Kia dares to find out, with the Carnival just the second car to wear its latest design language. There are some who will never find a people mover attractive, but you have to at least see the Carnival in the metal before you judge. I think our test car looks particularly fetching in the Snow White Pearl premium paint (a reasonably-priced $650 option). There’s something very satisfying about the way the striking, angular design - with its abundance of subtle black highlight pieces - complements this particular shade.

The LED DRLs intricately and seamlessly line the edges of its face. The LED DRLs intricately and seamlessly line the edges of its face.

From the front three-quarter, the Carnival meets the eyeballs with the prowess and stance of an SUV. The grille and squared-off A-pillars give it that illusion of toughness, with the LED DRLs intricately and seamlessly lining the edges of its face.

It’s instantly reminiscent of the Sorento, without being exactly the same, giving it a healthy dose of its own character.

The side profile is unavoidably a van. The side profile is unavoidably a van.

The side profile is unavoidably a van. It’s a giant oblong, there’s no way around it, but the massive sheet metal has been shaped by highlight pieces to stop it from being a solid block of car, like Toyota’s Granvia. The way the cutaway for the door runner, typically an eyesore on vans like this, integrates with the rear lights and beltline is a stroke of design genius. To really round out the side profile, Kia has framed the rear window with a real highlight piece, rendered in satin silver, imprinted with a hint of its new motif, which is found in the interior not just on this car, but the Sorento, too.The slimline LED light clusters run from the sides all the way across the back, giving this car a strongly defined line through its body, no matter where you view it from. In a final statement of Kia’s intent, the Carnival badge is rendered in a new, Porsche-esque cursive font.

Again, not everybody is going to be sold on the look of a people mover. My partner certainly didn’t fancy it. I understand that, but the fact that Kia has built one not just to look interesting, but actually as a design statement is worthy of applause.

Our test car looks particularly fetching in the Snow White Pearl premium paint. Our test car looks particularly fetching in the Snow White Pearl premium paint.

Even the inside is stylish, with its low dash highlighted by scaled satin silver panels, gloss black, and that massive multimedia screen. Although the Si doesn’t have a digital dash cluster where the design leads you to think it should, there’s something satisfying about the way the analogue dials are inset into the gloss. Rounding it all out was a two-tone finish in our car, and a lovely integrated climate panel.

I’ve talked it up a lot, but the Carnival Si isn’t without its failings. It’s rude that this car gives you a turnkey ignition yet has a plastic filler panel where the push-start should be, and again the downright average design of the seats, with their lack of side-support, lack of pattern work, and blunt edges, feels really out of place in such an upmarket-styled cabin.

How practical is the space inside?

Very. Have you seen the size of this thing? Even then, it’s possible to make poor use of all that space. That’s hardly something Kia is known for, though. As you might expect, almost every thought has been given to maximising the usefulness of the Carnival’s cabin, and there are surprise finds, like the USB ports on the backs of the front seats for second-row passengers.

The front seats are manual adjust in the case of the Si, but have a huge range of movement, thanks to long rails and a tall roof. The steering also has telescopic adjust, although the way the instrument binnacle is placed might limit certain adjustments.

The front seats are manual adjust in the case of the Si. The front seats are manual adjust in the case of the Si.

There are a whopping nine cupholders and four bottle holders in the Carnival’s cabin, with two cupholders in the centre console and two bottle holders in the doors, mirrored for second-row passengers. The third row, meanwhile, scores three bottle holders (two on one side, one on the other).

Front passengers can also make use of a large centre-console box, and two bays to suit phones or wallets, one under the climate controls, which also houses three USB ports, and one in front of the console box.

The cabin has enough length and width to make the entire middle row useful. The cabin has enough length and width to make the entire middle row useful.

Second-row passengers have access to their own climate zone, accessed via a panel on the right hand side roof, plus the aforementioned USB ports on the backs of the front seats. Adjustability is good for this row, too, with long rails.

The key advantage of the Carnival is being able to sit eight adults in relative comfort. The cabin has not only enough length for everyone to have healthy knee room, it has enough width to make even the centre seat in the middle row useful.

The key advantage of the Carnival is being able to sit eight adults in relative comfort. The key advantage of the Carnival is being able to sit eight adults in relative comfort.

Accessing the third row could be a little easier, with some manual sliding and adjustment needed for the second-row seats. It would be nice to see a one-press release here, but the Carnival is still a stellar offering for the amount of space on offer.

Where the Odyssey and Granvia fall short, the Carnival still offers a cavernous 627-litres (VDA), larger than most mid-size SUVs, with all the seats up. Interestingly this space is a bit narrow but deep, as the space-saver spare wheel is stowed under the right-hand side sliding door; a notable advantage of the Carnival’s front-drive layout. With the third row stowed, you get a huge 2785L space, and still have room for five people!

Even the boot is absurdly large. Even the boot is absurdly large.

 

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?

The Carnival has an uncharacteristic-for-a-people-mover 3.5-litre V6 non-turbo engine, producing a whopping 216kW/355Nm. Power is not something any V6 Carnival owner is going to complain about.

The Carnival has a 3.5-litre V6 non-turbo engine. The Carnival has a 3.5-litre V6 non-turbo engine.

 

All of that thunder is sent through the front wheels alone (alarming, I know) via an eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission.

Those concerned about the potential fuel implications here can always choose the alternate 2.2-litre diesel engine option.

How much fuel does it consume?

The fuel consumption of such a large engine pulling a car with such a big footprint is intimidating. It’s rare to see consumption figures hit double digits, but the Carnival gets pretty close, with an official combined figure of 9.6L/100km. Its ‘urban’ official is all the way up at 13.2L/100km.

Over my week of varied testing, I was pleasantly surprised to land on a figure of 12.3L/100km during driving I’d consider to be mostly urban. This is still high for today’s standards, but again, if fuel consumption is a big factor for you, it’s probably worth considering the diesel, as it clips the official combined figure all the way down to 6.5L/100km.

The Carnival has a reassuringly large 72-litre fuel tank, and this petrol V6 version will happily consume entry-level 91RON unleaded fuel.

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

For this Carnival, the lion’s share of Kia’s active safety items are standard, even on the base car. This includes auto emergency braking up to 85km/h with pedestrian and cyclist detection up to 65km/h, lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, driver-attention alert, and safe-exit warning.

Good stuff, and it’s especially nice to see the Carnival’s curtain airbags cover even the third row, something that its seven-seat Sorento stablemate misses out on. There is also a driver’s knee airbag, making for comprehensive coverage in the event of an actual collision.

What is missing is today’s common new centre airbag which – depending on the size of the car – could be crucial for a five-star ANCAP safety rating. The Carnival is yet to be rated, so watch this space.

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

Kia’s stellar seven-year warranty continues to lead the pack, ahead of the industry-standard five years, and here in the people-mover space it is without rival.

Kia’s stellar seven-year warranty continues to lead the pack. Kia’s stellar seven-year warranty continues to lead the pack.

Also included are seven years of roadside assist and a capped-price-servicing program.

Regardless of engine option chosen, the Carnival will need to be serviced once a year or every 15,000km, whichever occurs first.

The service schedule for our V6 varies between $324 and $779 per yearly visit, or a total cost over seven years of ownership of $3596, averaging out to about $449.50 per year. It’s not the most affordable ownership prospect, but it's certainly not unprecedented in this class, or for a V6 powerplant.

What's it like to drive around town?

The Carnival might be gigantic, but from the driver’s seat the Korean brand has done an exemplary job of making this eight-person barge not only feel just like an SUV, but a reasonably agile one at that.

The steering, ride, and overall responsiveness are excellent from the Carnival, and the brash V6 in this version tugs its huge body along with enthusiasm. Excellent visibility and featherweight steering make it a breeze to point around corners and even park, although ultimately, you’re reminded of the sheer length of it when peering into the rear-view mirror or negotiating tighter city streets.

This eight-person barge feels just like a reasonably agile SUV. This eight-person barge feels just like a reasonably agile SUV.

It’s almost comical how fast the Carnival is, and how good it sounds under heavy acceleration, with big V6 engines now largely relegated to performance cars like the Stinger. Thankfully though, some formula of transmission tune, traction control, and weight balance generally keeps the front wheels from unexpectedly spinning when handling the large torque number on offer, an often unwelcome surprise that previous Carnivals were prone to.

Where Kia has most improved this version is the excellent handling and almost luxurious ride. I say “almost” because the Carnival seems to have soft springs but firm dampers. This grants it some pretty unreal body control in the corners, considering its shape, but its otherwise floaty ride is interrupted by smaller, sharper bumps penetrating the cabin.

Still, this is nothing short of a Korean limousine for eight. If you can look past the Si’s pretty average seat trim, the Carnival really is the best-to-drive people mover on the market by some margin.

Even its benefits over an equivalent Sorento or other seven-seat SUV are notable. Apart from its stellar practicality offering, when driving the Carnival around a crowded city you’ll also have the benefit of sliding doors to provide access to the rear rows easily, even in tight parking lots. And the interior is just as nice to look at and use when cruising on the freeway as this same design in the new Sorento. While a seven-seat SUV might be good for when you’re in a pinch or with some extra kids in tow, I know which Kia product I’d rather have if there was a possibility I’d often be ferrying six or more adults.

Kia’s Carnival rightfully asserts its place at the forefront of the people-mover market. It might be huge, but it’s still brilliantly packaged and put together in such a way that it’s surprisingly easy to live with, even in close quarters.

Priced between its rivals and with a compelling safety offering, too, the only reasons you should be choosing a seven-seat SUV over one of these is if you’re seldom going to use the extra row, you plan on actually using all-wheel drive capabilities, or you’re staunchly against vans.

$51,190

Based on new car retail price

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Daily driver score

4.2/5

Urban score

4.2/5
Price Guide

$51,190

Based on new car retail price

Disclaimer: The pricing information shown in the editorial content (Review Prices) is to be used as a guide only and is based on information provided to Carsguide Autotrader Media Solutions Pty Ltd (Carsguide) both by third party sources and the car manufacturer at the time of publication. The Review Prices were correct at the time of publication.  Carsguide does not warrant or represent that the information is accurate, reliable, complete, current or suitable for any particular purpose. You should not use or rely upon this information without conducting an independent assessment and valuation of the vehicle.