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by Daniel DeGasperi

Shifting a big family on a budget must rate as one of the toughest and most rewarding tasks in the automotive landscape.

Here the brand new Kia Carnival and the most popular contender in the people-mover class, the Honda Odyssey, pack in eight seats with space to spare all for the price of a demonstrably less roomy SUV.

Both have to keep the most precious cargo – your children – not only safe, but entertained, while providing thoughtful storage and seating options that would leave sports car engineers stumped (let’s just say the Porsche Macan and any sports SUV competitor aren’t exactly cleverly packaged).

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 16b

In this day and age, we also don’t want to see people-mover drivers in despair about how a van drives – they should be comfortable-riding, confidently planted, quiet and smooth.

Yep, this is a big task and big ask for price tags of $37,610 (Honda Odyssey VTi) and $41,490 (Kia Carnival S), with both stickers plus on-road costs.

These are the entry-level versions of the latest popular Japanese and South Korean contenders in the rather small people-mover class. We know everyone is moving to an SUV these days, but no SUV within cooee of this price can shift eight occupants.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 13b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 15b

Another question to answer is whether you should choose one of these people-movers over a similarly sized Nissan Pathfinder or Toyota Kluger even if you only need seven seats.

Kia may have lopped off the ‘Grand’ part of the Carnival name for this third-generation model, but you are still getting a helluva lot of metal for your money.

Try a ginormous 5115mm in body length, the equivalent to a Holden Caprice, while a 1985mm body width measurement stretches further out than that local limousine; and those figures compare favourably with the 4840mm-long/1800mm-wide Odyssey, unless you’re parking around town of course.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 20b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 12b

Honda tempts buyers not only with a $3880-lower price, but also a lighter kerb weight of 1776 kilograms compared with a hefty 2100kg for its rival.

The reason that is important is because in the family budget stakes (please stay out of this, Joe Hockey) the Honda claims to be considerably more fuel efficient. It uses a small 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine to move its lesser mass, and drinks 7.6 litres of regular unleaded per 100 kilometres in combined cycle conditions.

Kia chooses to use a 3.3-litre V6 that claims to slurp 11.6L/100km in the same official laboratory test; and if you cover an average of 15,000km per year like most Australians, with fuel at $1.30 per litre at the time of publication you’ll need to spend $2262 per year at the bowser versus $1482 for the Honda.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 18b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 19b

Often lab figures don’t translate accurately to the real world – a smaller engine may have to work harder to move people, for example – so we’re keen to load these people-movers up for a dense urban test loop (fittingly via Australia’s largest new display home village, Homeworld). We then headed out onto the freeway and imitated a CarAdvice holiday drive to the country, to get some real world fuel figures.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that some of the difference in thirst can be offset by overall operating costs.

The Carnival requires annual or 15,000km servicing at a capped-price cost of $1307 to three years/45,000km; compared with the Odyssey’s six-month or 10,000km servicing regime at a cost of $1702 (to three years/60,000km).

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 59b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 37b

You also get a seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty with the Kia, compared with only three years (but limitless kays as well) at camp Honda. Said camp instead wants to lure you into its smaller people-mover by providing more standard equipment for less money.

You get 17-inch alloy wheels as standard, for example, where the Carnival S wears dowdy hubcaps over its steel wheels. Both come with dual-zone air-conditioning with separate fan control for people in the rear, but only the Odyssey offers climate controls with an automatic temperature function.

Each includes cruise control and a colour touchscreen, but only Honda covers its steering wheel in leather and its 7.0-inch display trounces the 4.3 inches of its competitor. It also exclusively gets satellite navigation as well; albeit the kind you have to run off your iPhone data and be in 4G range to utilise.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 65b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 42b
Above: Kia Carnival (top) and Honda Odyssey (bottom).

To get that sort of kit in the Kia – alloys, leather wheel, nav, climate control and other minor equipment – you need to spend another $4000 on the middle-grade $45,490 Carnival Si. If you’re going to do that, though, you can almost stretch to the $46,040 Odyssey VTi-L that’s absolutely loaded with leather, a sunroof and the like.

Gone are the days where the South Korean brand plays the strongest value card, though it does get one jab at its Japanese opponent by exclusively including rear parking sensors in addition to the reverse-view camera thankfully featured on both.

Still, the Carnival S is the bigger people-mover, and when you open the front door you’ll be greeted with among the softest and most supportive front seats of any car in any class. The plastics quality and textures are bordering on premium, even if the equipment level spells base model.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 62b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 38b
Above: Kia Carnival (top) and Honda Odyssey (bottom).

The Odyssey VTi has harder, flatter front seats that are too far tilted forward for this tester’s preference (a problem solved with the electric adjustment of the plusher Odyssey VTi-L), and the harsh plastics are not to Kia standards.

Although a strip of woodgrain and leather wheel helps you feel as though you haven’t bought the base model, the Honda’s touchscreen is quite uninuitive compared with the simple controls on the small touchscreen of its rival.

Bluetooth works effortlessly in either people-mover, for either phone or audio streaming, though only the Odyssey includes an HDMI input which you’ll need to use to access the nav after firstly downloading a Honda app on your smartphone, then secondly using a supplied cable to plug it in – it is very messy.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 72b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 40b
Above: Kia Carnival (top) and Honda Odyssey (bottom).

The Carnival counters by adding a third USB input, mounted behind the centre console for rear passengers (shown above, top) in addition to the twin USB ports offered by both contenders up front.

The biggest area in which the Kia trumps the Honda is storage space. Its console storage bin is so deep and long it has an armrest covering it in addition to a sliding mid-level tray that can be accessed without lifting the armrest; or you can slide it back under the armrest to access the full storage box again without lifting the armrest. It is quite brilliant.

The Carnival also has twin console cupholders, an upper and lower glovebox, really long door pockets each with bottle holders, and even a duplicate long pocket on the right side of the passenger’s footwell that houses a second 12-volt outlet, complementing the one in the large storage box.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 69b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 41b
Above: Kia Carnival (top) and Honda Odyssey (bottom).

The Odyssey, by contrast, only has a lower glovebox, small door pockets each with a bottle holder, and a storage tray with pop-out cupholders; it is housed underneath the transmission selector but can raise out of the lower dashboard at the press of a button to bring it closer to passengers.

Doing so means the Honda’s most brilliant aspect, which is the ability to walk through from the front seats rearward, is restricted.

It is a similar story further back.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 71b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 48b
Above: Kia Carnival (top) and Honda Odyssey (bottom).

Although the ‘captain’s chairs’ you get up front in the Honda each have a fold-down armrest on their insides, the outboard passengers on the bench behind get none; where you do in the Kia. It is a necessity, too, as the flat-panel sliding van doors on both means there is nowhere to rest your arm.

The Odyssey’s bench is split 60:40, and happily the ‘40’ part is on the passenger side, which equates to the kerbside. It means that little kiddies needing to get into the third row can tilt and slide forward the smaller bit of the middle bench.

Cool, too, is the fact the passenger’s side sliding door is electric, and can be opened either by the press of a keyfob button or a switch beside the driver.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 78b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 54b
Above: Kia Carnival (top) and Honda Odyssey (bottom).

To access middle-row cupholders, however, the centre portion of the backrest has to be folded down, negating the usage of the seat.

By comparison the Carnival has individual middle chairs, and the cupholders for those passengers are located on the back of the centre console, which is both handy and clever (though there are also a further two on the back of the middle chair just for good measure).

The Kia may not get an auto-opening door, but its mechanism to allow passengers into the third row is inspired. At the touch of a lever it flips each outboard seat base vertical and swings the backrest up against it, allowing superb ingress and egress compared with the more restricted Honda.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 79b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 55b
Above: Kia Carnival (top) and Honda Odyssey (bottom).

Every rear seat is more comfortable in the Carnival, with particularly the outboard middle row having proper side support and a deep base. The Odyssey’s seats are as hard and flat as those in the front, and if you go one row behind it gets even worse, with the hip of the outside third-row passenger being pressed up against a wheelarch that is thinly covered with velour trim.

Suprisingly, given the difference in dimensions, each people-mover is close for outright space.

It’s actually the Honda that has marginally more headroom in both rear rows, though the Kia both has substantially more interior width and toe space under the front seats (where its rival allows one foot under each front seat, but has a raised lump in the floor that restricts the other).

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 80b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 81bAbove: CarAdvice family of testers, from middle then rear row, left to right, include deputy editor Dan DeGasperi, new cars editor Tim Beissmann, company accountant Masi Ghadri, national sales director Benn Sykes, and founder Tony Crawford, in the Kia Carnival (top) and Honda Odyssey (bottom).

The fan control for rear passengers is engaged by the front passengers in the South Korean contender, where the Japanese van gives middle row riders roof-mounted controls for the fan speed only (but not the temperature, which is still controlled up front). It is pleasing to see air vents and roof grab handles for both rows in addition to bottle holders in each van door, and cupholders for the third row (two for Odyssey, while it’s all party and quenched thirst in the Carnival that provides four!).

Disappointingly, only the Kia has the superior child seat fitment of ISOFIX anchor points recently legalised in Australia, and the alternative top-tether system in the Honda has its third-row mounts on the roof, versus the more preferable mountings on the rear of the backrests with its foe. We hope the Japanese brand updates their people mover with ISOFIX very quickly.

You’ll also be able to pack everyone’s bags in more easily in the Kia, thanks to a whopping 960-litre boot even when all seats are up, versus just 330L for its rival that has a lower, easier loading lip but is nowhere near as deep and cavernous.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 76b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 53b
Above: Kia Carnival (top) and Honda Odyssey (bottom).

The Honda also has only a single-piece third-row bench that folds flat into the floor, where the bigger contender has it split 60:40 so you can maximise luggage space on one side and use a seat or two on the other.

That being said, the Carnival’s folding mechanism requires a hefty pull of a lever then grab of a rope to raise the backrest. Almost magically, the Odyssey’s wide bench feels so much lighter, requiring only a press-down of the base when it’s hidden in the floor, before it acrobatically twirls up into place.

For the campers among you, both get a 12-volt outlet in the boot; though the Kia’s is mounted low near the floor where the Honda’s is positioned within reach of DVD player-wielding kids.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 73b

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 52b
Above: Kia Carnival (top) and Honda Odyssey (bottom).

So we’ve established the Kia Carnival is bigger to boot (literally) and more cushy than its rival, but what if you don’t need all that space and weight? If your kids are young, the Honda Odyssey could work a charm. Clearly it’s time to hit the road.

On first impressions, one thing is clear: the Carnival is not only cushy in its seats, but also its bump absorption.

This is one classy, sophisticated people-mover that has a suspension that works with its chubby 65-aspect tyres to great effect. Travelling only one-up, it feels fractionally too firm, but with a full load on board it provides a near-flawless blend of comfort and control.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 22b

It just so happens that the Odyssey’s suspension also reflects the hardness of its seats.

Rather than being firm and disciplined, its suspension is wooden and jarring, and seemingly modelled off a po-go stick the way it springs up and down even over small bumps.

Its tyres are slightly less chubby (55-aspect) but not by enough to warrant such a divergence in comfort levels. Over our urban test comprising speed humps, potholes, dips and divots, every passenger complained about being uncomfortable in the Honda. Conversely, in the Kia conversations flowed naturally (and not just about the car) as everything was soaked up confidently and quietly.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 25b

Get onto a typical bumpy country road, and in the third row of the Odyssey I almost hit my head over certain bumps and started to feel queasy, where the Carnival proved a model of insouciance.

The Honda is also a noisy operator.

Up front you’ll hear the engine buzzing away more noticeably, and although the automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) does a fine job of disguising the paucity of power with a load on board, the game is given away by its lack of refinement.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 26b

Sitting in the driver’s seat of the Odyssey and travelling on a coarse-surfaced urban arterial, the thrum and drone from behind your ears will make you think you’ve left a rear window open.

Sitting in the back, you hear plenty of roar up through the wheelarches, which makes it feel like a commercial van with seats screwed in.

All isn’t quite lost for the Honda, however.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 30b

Being a smaller unit (block), the Odyssey is easier to manouevre around town than its supersize-me counterpart. It also has the better steering weight and feel, and the stiff suspension keeps bodyroll in check while the chassis itself is more agile and feels more lively.

Credit should also go to Japanese engineers for making just 129kW of power and 225Nm of torque work so well in such a heavy car, even when loaded up. This is a very effective drivetrain that doesn’t feel much slower than its more powerful, but heavier rival. The downside is if you want to lug anything behind: the Honda’s 450-1000kg towing capacity is well down on the 750-2000kg of its rival.

The Carnival has 202kW and 336Nm, the latter produced at an astonishingly high 5200rpm. That torque figure itself isn’t much for a car weighing this much, let alone how high it is produced in the rev range.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 5b

Yet Kia engineers have tuned the six-speed automatic transmission to near perfection; it grabs lower gears instantly and holds them, making the big V6 feel far more effortless than it should. When you do use plenty of throttle, the engine is sweet-sounding, but refined and distant as it should be in this type of car.

What we want to be less mute is the steering. While pleasingly light and direct around town, the old-school hydraulic power-assisted steering has been tuned to have some resistance on the centre position yet go lighter as lock is wound on, which is disconcerting.

The handling is only let down by Kumho Cudgen tyres that lack grip, because with a three-metre-long wheelbase, this bus is otherwise quite stable and planted.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 1b

In fact, that description flows through every facet of the new Kia Carnival. It is so self-assured, from the quality interior with thoughtful storage, great seats and stacks of space, to the refined and willing drivetrain, lack of road noise and comfy ride.

The biggest issue is its economy, which over an urban/freeway/country blend came in at 13.7L/100km compared with 10.4L/100km for the Odyssey.

It certainly narrowed the gap in real world conditions, but tellingly when we started our half-hour urban loop in traffic with seven people on board, the trip computer in the Carnival read 22.5L/100km versus 16L/100km.

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey 8b

Only Kia offers a turbo-diesel option that claims about the same economy as the petrol Honda while having plenty of torque, but that is another $2500 option. At that point the Carnival is starting to get expensive, and while you can offset some of that with cheaper servicing, it is still averagely equipped.

Until now the latest Honda Odyssey has only had smaller rivals to be compared with, such as the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso, Toyota Prius V and even Kia’s own, smaller Rondo (read that full comparison here). It eclipsed them all for space, but struggled in terms of overall comfort and refinement, as it has here against a contender that now also beats it for room.

The new Kia Carnival may be more expensive and under-equipped, but it is much better value overall. It is also now convincingly the best people-mover you can buy and a valid alternative to any large SUV.

Click the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.



KIA CARNIVAL BREAKDOWN

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey : Comparison review
  • 8
  • 7.5
  • 9.5
  • 6.5
  • 7.5
  • 8.5
  Submit an Owner Car Review

HONDA ODYSSEY BREAKDOWN

Kia Carnival v Honda Odyssey : Comparison review
  • 6
  • 6
  • 7
  • 7
  • 8.5
  • 3.5
  Submit an Owner Car Review




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