Whether you own a business or are a member of a big family, sometimes you just need a bus to get bodies from A to B. And other times you need to get those bodies there in comfort, luxury and style.
Luxury people movers don’t make up a massive chunk of the market in Australia, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t an important part of the automotive landscape. Would you prefer to be picked up in a beat-up minivan or a sumptuous seven- or eight-seater?
We’ve chosen three of the latter for this comparison test: the all-new Volkswagen Multivan TDI450 Highline, which went on sale early in 2016; the impressive Mercedes-Benz V250; and the more affordable Kia Carnival Platinum.
Yeah, before you go slinging comments at the bottom of this page, a Kia can be luxurious. And let’s not forget that it is the only purpose-built people-mover here, where the other two are spin-offs of commercial vans.
Kia’s Carnival has been a popular seller with fleet and family buyers, though the lower-spec versions are the ones you’ll see as part of car-hire company fleets. On this test we saw half a dozen Carnival vans from Thrifty alone.
Volkswagen’s Multivan has been used as a fleet vehicle for years, too, and as with the Kia it is usually the entry-grade variants that attract more corporate custom.
The Mercedes-Benz V250 has a trump card, and it’s brand cache. Who wouldn’t prefer to be picked up for a wedding in something with the three-pointed star badge, after all? As we said in our recent review of the V250, it is a properly luxurious people-mover - one that feels like a Mercedes-Benz, not a blinged-up courier van.
The aim of this test, then, is to see whether there’s more to the Merc than just its badge, and whether the other two match up in terms of the levels of luxury on offer.
Pricing and specifications
Once upon a time, luxury was as much about how plush the car was as it was about how many option boxes were available to be ticked.
But in recent years, luxury carmakers have been forced to add more and more equipment to their offerings as competition has ramped up. Indeed, more Australians are buying luxury-branded cars now than ever before, and premium models are more approachable in terms of pricing, too.
As part of the criteria for this test, pricing is just part of the equation. Value is a better term to use, in fact, because these three vehicles are positioned across different tiers of affordability.
There’s a clear budget offering here in the Kia Carnival Platinum, but there’s a lot to be said of its value equation.
At $60,790 plus on-road costs, the Carnival is impressively wallet-friendly when compared against the $76,490 (plus costs) Multivan and the $85,900 (plus costs) V250.
For example, the Kia has equipment that the other two vans don’t, such as keyless entry and push-button start, ventilated (cooled) front seats, a heated steering wheel and an extra seat: the Carnival Platinum is an eight-seater as standard, while the others are seven-seaters. You can option an eighth seat in the Merc for $1750.
When it comes to other goodies, all three have the following luxury items: electric front seat adjustment; memory seat settings for the driver (Mercedes has passenger memory, too); heated front seats; tri-zone climate control; leather trim; reverse-view camera; parking sensors front and rear; satellite navigation; Bluetooth phone and audio streaming; alloy wheels (Kia: 19-inch; Mercedes: 18-inch; VW: 17-inch); auto headlights and wipers and tinted glass.
The Merc is the only one with a space-saving electric park brake, where the Kia gets an intrusive foot brake and the VW has an old-school handbrake, which is a bit of a stretch to reach.
The VW is the only one that misses out on an electric tailgate, and it’s arguably the vehicle that needs it most, given it is so much taller than the others. More on that soon.
The trio has media screens of different sizes – VW: 6.3-inch; Kia: 7.0-inch; Mercedes: 8.3-inch – and all three have colour driver information screens with satellite navigation instructions, digital speedometer readouts, and trip computer displays. Despite it being the smallest screen, the Multivan is the only model here with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, though all three have Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. The Kia misses out on the voice control technology that the other two have.
If the bus is being used for audio company executives, they’ll be impressed by the 15-speaker Burmester sound system in the Mercedes, which is heads and shoulders above the other two vehicles here. The Kia has a six-speaker system; the VW has eight speakers.
All three have strong safety credentials, including the full complement of airbags with dual front, front side and full-length curtain coverage (note: long-wheelbase VW Multivan models don’t have curtain airbag coverage).
While all three have reverse-view cameras, Mercedes has a surround-view system to make parking even easier. Kia goes even further, with a surround-view camera as well as selectable front-view and kerb-view cameras, and it the only vehicle in this test with a rear cross-traffic alert system to warn drivers of oncoming traffic when reversing out of perpendicular spaces.
All have adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning systems, though the Kia misses out on autonomous emergency braking. All three have blind-spot warning systems, while the Mercedes and Kia both have lane-change assistance, too. The VW and Merc both have driver drowsiness detection.
All three vehicles have LED headlights with auto high-beam lamps to make night driving an enlightening experience.
Sizing them up
Look at these three parked alongside each other and their differences become crystal clear.
The Kia Carnival is considerably lower to the ground than the others, and it’s notably wider, too. The VW is tall – like, ‘watch out in car parks’ tall – and the Merc is the longest both from nose to tail, and between the wheels.
Here are the figures for all three:
- Kia – length: 5115mm; width: 1985mm; height: 1755mm; wheelbase: 3060mm
- Mercedes – length: 5140mm; width: 1928mm; height: 1880mm; wheelbase: 3200mm
- Volkswagen – length: 4904mm; width: 1904mm; height: 1970mm; wheelbase: 3000mm
So, the VW is tall and skinny, but it doesn’t feel as tight inside as either of these two because of its clever packaging. The Mercedes doesn’t feel as long as it is, and it actually feels the narrowest of these three. And the Kia feels more car-like than either of the others because, well, it is.
Indeed, a number of passengers said as soon as they sat in the Kia that it was more like an SUV than a van, due in part to its raised-but-not-upright position on the road and its sleeker windscreen pillars.
The disadvantage of that car-like silhouette, however, is that it’s harder to get in to and out of.
The Volkswagen, for instance, has a side door gap that measures 1011mm wide and 1247mm high, meaning far less stooping is required to get in the back seats than in the Kia, which – surprisingly – has bigger doors than the other two vehicles (1200mm wide and 1470mm high), but the space once you’re inside requires you to sit and slide rather than hunch and scramble, with a lower ride height but more intrusive sills and a much lower roof line. The Mercedes’ doorways are narrow, at 837mm wide, but the aperture is reasonably tall, at 1220mm.
The boot openings, too, vary greatly. The VW’s – as mentioned above – is massive, with the tailgate spanning 1438mm wide and 1262mm tall, and not far behind that is the Kia, with a tailgate spanning 1440mm wide and 1175mm from top to bottom. The Mercedes’ tailgate measures 1337mm wide and 1195mm tall.
Boot space is important for mini-bus buyers, and there’s plenty on offer in these three.
The Kia features third-row seats that fold away flat into the boot cavity, which liberates a maximum 2220 litres of luggage room in five-seat guise. With the rear chairs in place that drops to a still impressive 960L; and if you need to haul just stuff rather than people and gear, the Kia offers 4022L of space with the rear row stowed and the second row outboard seats folded forward and middle seat removed. Because yeah, you can remove the middle one if you need to.
The Merc betters the Kia in terms of cargo carrying, with 1030L of luggage space with the seats in place, and up to 4630L with all the seats out, because you can remove all the seats in the Merc, not just the middle one in the second row. The other neat thing about the V250’s boot space is that it has a removable shelf, which, when in use, allows you to stack luggage easily. The shelf even has a hidden cupboard in it with Mercedes’ clever collapsible crates that are great for stopping your shopping from spilling over.
Volkswagen doesn’t do a claimed volume for its boot space “because of the multiple ways it can be configured”. Makes sense. Instead it works in dimensions with all the seats removed, because it’s possible you just want a posh parcel pusher: the figure is 5.8m
The VW is, as well as being the biggest in most regards, the heaviest of these three. It tips the scales at 2303 kilograms unladen, which is more than the Carnival (2150kg tare mass) and the V250 (2145kg kerb weight).
There are two cockpit considerations in this test – practicality and prestige.
Obviously practicality is important, because these big buses need to be able to cart people comfortably, and that also means occupants should be able to get in and out of the thing without too much pain or hassle.
Each has dual electric sliding side doors, with buttons to open them from the driver’s seat, as well as on the keyfobs, too. There’s a bit of cool factor to that.
As you could probably have guessed from our size-up details above, the bigger the van, the easier it is for ingress and egress. But seat layout and flexibility has a lot to do with that, too.
The car-like cabin of the Kia means it feels much lower in traffic – not like a sports car, but notably more squat than the other two vans here – but it suffers a little for vision from the driver’s seat, particular over-shoulder viewing.
While there might not seem to be as much glamour in driving a delivery van that has been converted to carry passengers, the two vehicles of that type offer much better vision from the driver’s seat. The VW, with its more upright windscreen, offers the best forward vision of this trio, while parking is easier due to its large side mirrors, and its lower-set rear seats means the rearview mirror isn’t as filled by faces or foreheads (or head restraints) as it is in the Merc.
The VW is thoughtful in terms of the cabin layout, with a dashtop storage bin and double glovebox, and a pair of small pop-out cup holders, a large gap between the front seats for backpacks or handbags, and massive door pockets that can house bottles and other loose ends, but they are quite a long reach down. The seats are a bit flat, too.
The Mercedes has the worst up-front storage of these three, with low-mounted cup holders that could see the carpet lacquered in latte. There is a storage bin in front of the cup holders, a small glovebox and decent door pockets, but that’s about it – oh, except the sunglasses holder, and neither of the others have one of those.
The Kia claims the middle ground, with a double glovebox (the top one is a bit shallow), covered centre cup holders, copious door pockets and a large covered centre console box, which could prove a game changer for some buyers as neither of the other two have this convenient feature. There is also a magazine holster on the passenger’s side of the centre console, and that section also houses a 12-volt outlet.
Charging is an important consideration for buyers of this types of vehicle, and the Kia is very family-friendly. There are USB and auxiliary inputs up front, a secondary USB point for charging only in the second row, and an additional 12-volt outlet (plus another in the boot).
The Benz has a pair of USB inputs and a 12-volt outlet up front, as well as a pair of 12-volt ports in the back. There is no USB point for rear passengers.
Pictured above: Volkswagen Multivan
The VW also misses out on a rear USB input but has a 12-volt point that’s accessible in the third row, and up front it has a single USB outlet and additional 12-volter.
As mentioned previously, each of these vehicles has a colour-screen media unit, with the VW and Kia offering touch sensitivity and Merc’s version operating through a control dial with what looks like a codpiece on top.
All have Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, but the interfaces and ease of connecting phones varies between vehicles. The Kia’s system is quite a cinch to get the hang of, the VW follows closely behind, and the Merc falls to the back of the pack.
Pictured above: Kia Carnival
That controller isn’t as simple as the touchscreens of its rivals, and the extensive menus of the Comand interface means it can be a little slow to load, let alone learn. The Kia’s screen is slow to load, too.
The biggest disappointment for both the VW and Kia is that their screens can appear washed out by sun glare, meaning trying to read instructions on the navigation screen or change radio stations at a glance can be a challenge. The upright tablet-style monitor of the Merc doesn’t suffer the same fate, and its screen looks the most crisp and high resolution of the three. The Merc gets pulled back a notch by lacking speed limit notifications as part of the navigation system, and its maps look a bit outdated.
Pictured above: Mercedes-Benz V250
Thankfully, the driver info screens in all three vehicles are exceptional.
Communicating with those in the back is easier in the V250 and Multivan than in the Carnival, as the two German models have a loudspeaker relay system with a microphone near the driver that pumps their voice to the back of the cabin. Neat. The Kia gets a parent’s mirror that allows the driver or front passenger to keep an eye on what’s happening in the back, and neither of the others have that convenient feature.
These three are all very different in terms of rear-seat comfort and convenience, but there’s one that stands taller the others (literally and figuratively).
Pictured above: Volkswagen Multivan
The Volkswagen has a brilliant cabin. No, brilliant is an understatement. It’s genius.
With the ability to slide and swivel the second-row captain’s chairs or even remove them if you need, and the fact you can flatten the third-row bench to assemble a makeshift bed is a very nifty – if a little silly – thing.
The VW is the only one here that you can fit three adults across the back row comfortably, with brilliant levels of head, leg and shoulder room. The two middle row chairs are comfortable and accommodating, too, but sliding them fore and aft is best done with weight in the seat.
The VW is also the only vehicle that can realistically double as a meeting room. There’s a clever multifaceted expanding table that can be slid fore and aft, has magazine/tablet holders, enough room for a laptop, and a quarter of drink caddies.
Pictured above: Mercedes-Benz V250
The Mercedes offers similar flexibility with its seating arrangements (no bed, though) but its smaller body means space isn’t as copious for those in the second and third rows as it is in the VW. The Multivan also features big drawers under the second-row seats, which the other vehicles don’t have.
The third row, in fact, feels a little cramped for width compared with the VW, despite the three full-sized seats, and while the roof is still a way above the occupants’ heads, the narrowness of the cabin has an effect. While there are bottle holders down near the doors, no occupants in the back of the Benz have cupholders easily available to them, nor are there any decent storage options available in the back, or clever drawers for hiding toys.
Pictured above: Kia Carnival
Further, those in the third row will need to be careful when the second-row seats are lowered back into place, as the two chairs tilt forward in a single piece but don’t slide as part of the same movement, and the back linkages need to be dropped down with some force to lock in place. In short, feet are at risk of being hit, particularly if a boisterous child were to slam one of the seats down on their jandal-clad accomplice.
The Kia can’t match the business van vibe of the other two. The Korean model’s seats are designed so they can only face forwards at all times, but the removable middle seat means it can be a little more exclusive if required. Happily, all three middle-row seats can be slid fore and aft individually, too, and the centre spot in the second row features a flip-down centre armrest with cup holders.
The brilliance of the Kia’s smaller-feeling cabin, though, is its second-row outboard seats, which feature a very clever folding mechanism. Pull the lever and the seat drops the head-restraint and flips the seat base up, allowing the backrest to pancake forward to make getting in to the third row easier. Sure, it’s not as easy as in the VW, but there’s definitely more of a corridor between the second-row seat and the doorway in the Kia than there is in the Merc.
Pictured above: Kia Carnival
It’s a shame, then, that the Kia is so tight in the back row. Sure, it would suit two smaller adults or three really small children (who may not be able to see out the window because of the rising beltline of the Kia), but it’s narrow and feels more cramped due to its lower seating position and higher second-row seat backs. It’s also a much more knees-up seating position for adults, and the amount of toe-room in the back is pretty tight comparatively.
All three vans here have roof-mounted ventilation for all three rows, with a rear-zone climate controller accessible to those in the second row. Lighting is available to all three rows in all three cars, too.
In terms of child seats, all vehicles here have top-tether and ISOFIX anchor points: the VW has four ISOFIX (all outboard rear seats) and five top-tether (all rear seats); the Kia has three ISOFIX (outboard right side rows two and three, plus second-row left side) and four top-tether (both second-row, middle and driver’s side in third row); and the Benz has four ISOFIX (outboard seats both rows) and five top-tether.
Pictured above: Mercedes-Benz V250
Of course, all seats have three-point seatbelts, with both the Kia’s second- and third-row middle-spot belts dropping from the roof-lining, while the Benz and VW have integrated belts in their third row middle seats, which are less fiddly.
The VW and Kia both have sunblinds in the back, too, and both of those vans feature opening side window in the doors – the Kia’s are full-sized electric units, where the VW’s are smaller sliders. The V250 has no blinds, and the side windows don’t open.
The Benz came in to this test as a hot favourite when it came to the levels of luxury expected, and it makes a startling impression.
The finishes inside are spectacular, including a lovely wooden dash panel, silver trim linings and the light leather trim (which was already marked).
Pictured above: Volkswagen Multivan
But as fellow tester Tegan pointed out on the day: “You get distracted by the prettiness, but then you notice the stuff that’s missing. It’s like make-up.”
It is the most convincing in terms of looking like a luxury car inside, but it simply doesn’t stack up in terms of practicality when compared with the VW.
If space is luxury, then the Multivan easily wins the interior battle. It is bigger inside and easier to enter and exit, and the materials and finishes are definitely prestigious enough.
The supple leather trim on the seats, high-quality plastics throughout and the fit and finish inside was exceptional.
The Kia? Well, it falls a little short on both fronts. It isn’t as roomy by virtue of its design, and nor is it as luxurious.
The materials on the dash and doors are nice, and the leather on the seats is decent, but none of those finishes match the offerings from Germany. There is some prettiness – the finishes on door arm rests and the piano black on other surfaces – but the other plastics marked quite easily on test, and there were some mismatched fit lines in the Kia, which wasn’t the case in the VW or Benz.
In short, the Kia was the cheapest car on test, and it felt it.
On the road
All three of these big vans are diesel-powered, because pulling power is what’s needed for lugging large loads of passengers.
The smallest engine in terms of capacity is the Volkswagen, with its 2.0-litre bi-turbo four-cylinder unit. The fact it doesn’t have only one turbo means it can churn out more grunt than its competitors despite its size discrepancy, though, with 150kW of power (at 4000rpm) and 450Nm of torque from a low 1400-2400rpm.
Despite being the lightest vehicle on test, the next largest in terms of engine capacity is the Mercedes-Benz, with its 2.1-litre (though they insist on rounding up from 2143cc) four-cylinder turbo diesel producing 140kW at 4200rpm and 440Nm at 1400-2400rpm – an identical torque band to the VW.
And the vehicle with the largest engine here is the Kia, with its 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel mill pushing out a middling 147kW of power at 3800rpm and equal-second-best 440Nm at 1750-2750rpm.
None of these vehicles can be had with a manual gearbox: the Volkswagen has a seven-speed dual-clutch (DSG) transmission; the Mercedes has a seven-speed automatic transmission; and the Kia has a six-speed automatic transmission.
The Kia and VW are front-wheel drive, though you can option an all-wheel-drive version of the Multivan Highline for an additional $3500. The Benz is rear-drive, just like the Vito van range.
There’s no other way of putting this: the Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen aren’t as good around town as the Kia, and if you’re going to spend the majority of your time stuck in traffic, that should be enough for the Korean brand to secure your business.
The V250 can be slow off the line, with both transmission lag and turbo lag combining to make for some “wait, wait, go!” style take-offs.
The Multivan takes that frustration to a whole other level, though, with serious hesitancy from its DSG transmission. Not once over the course of a week with the car did this tester have confidence in knowing what sort of take-off would occur in traffic. On occasions it takes off with a momentary hesitation, while at other times it can feel like the engine is about to stall, such is the labouring of the gearbox. It actually did stall once in reverse, which is something we’ve never encountered before.
Strangely, the Kia’s higher peak torque curve doesn’t detract from the drive experience. There’s little lag to speak of down low in the rev range, and the six-speed automatic does a tremendous job of ensuring smooth progress from a standstill. The other two can’t claim that.
Interestingly, it’s the only vehicle on test without engine stop-start, which is another contributing factor to the hesitancy from a standstill of the German models.
Fuel use is claimed at just 6.3 litres per 100 kilometres for the V250, but on test we saw a much higher figure of 9.3L/100km across a mix of 500 kilometres of city, highway and country road driving.
The Kia also used 9.3L/100km on test, though its fuel use claim is not quite as ambitious, at 7.7 litres per 100km.
But the biggest drinker on this comparison was the VW, which used 9.7L/100km. This was well and truly above the company’s claimed 6.5L/100km figure.
Another thing on fuelling that might be worth noting for business operators – only the Kia allows the driver to fill the vehicle without disturbing the front-seat passenger. The other two require the front door to be open for the filler flap to be released.
As for dynamics, all three feel their respective sizes on the road. That is to say that the Kia feels much more nimble than either of the two van-based models.
Its lower centre of gravity means there’s a lot less body roll through corners, no matter what speed you’re travelling.
The Kia’s ride compliance was very good, particularly when the front axle encountered sharp bumps. In the VW and Mercedes, the front axle could sting the suspension in such instances, causing the nose to crash down in an unsophisticated way.
Also unsophisticated was the evidence of rattles in the Mercedes and VW – both creaked more over bumps and groaned during cornering movements much more than the tight-feeling Kia.
The Kia’s steering is a little heavy at low speeds, when exiting intersections for example, but it was the most involving at higher speeds due in part to the limitation of body roll.
Both the V250 and the Multivan smashed the Carnival for the turning circle test. Where the latter required a three-point turn, the other two completed a single movement U-turn.
The Mercedes-Benz’s steering was light and lacking much in the way of feel, which was the opposite to the VW, which had the best steering feel of these three vans. There was a good amount of weight to it, and nice communication to the driver’s hands over mixed surfaces, too.
The Volkswagen’s ride was generally very comfortable at speed, but broken pavement or sharp edges lead to some stumbling and jolting through the front end.
All three suffered issues in terms of brake performance. The Kia’s brake pedal is a little dull in terms of feel, though it pulled up reasonably confidently; the Mercedes’ brakes were poor, with a long travel to the pedal and a lack of response at higher speeds; and the VW’s brakes were sharper – which is better, in theory, just so long as your passengers don’t get car sick easily as the pedal can be difficult to modulate.
None, then, are excellent to drive, but the car-like qualities of the Kia mean it would be the driver’s choice. If only it were the passenger’s pick, too…
Whether you’re buying for fleet or family purposes, you’ll want to know whether your mini bus can be serviced easily, and that it is covered if something goes wrong.
Unfortunately, none of them are cheap to maintain, but the Kia simply cannot be bettered in that regard. With a seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, seven years of roadside assistance and seven years of capped-price servicing, it easily has resale value and the long-term owner in mind. And all of that is transferrable if you sell it before the period ends, too.
That service program, however, is somewhat expensive. Visits are due every 12 months or 15,000km, and the average visit cost over the seven-year plan works out at $523. Thankfully, Kia has an extensive network of 125 dealers and service centres.
Volkswagen has an even more widespread presence in Australia, with 136 dealerships across the country. And while its warranty is shorter (three years/unlimited kilometres), it has a decent capped-price program lasting 90,000km or six years. With intervals every year or 15,000km, the average visit cost is also high, at $619.
The Mercedes-Benz requires maintenance every 12 months or 25,000km (which will appeal to hire-car fleet buyers), and over five years the cost works out at $4980 for the Silver Service plan (not including brakes and wiper blades, but including oil, filters, spark plugs, coolant and wheel balancing/rotation). That’s dear. And it doesn’t have the dealership spread of the other brands, with 62 outlets around the country – if you’re a rural operator, that could be the difference between a yes and a no.
This test showed that each of these vans has strengths and weaknesses that will ultimately determine which one suits certain buyers best.
The Volkswagen Multivan is easily the roomiest van here, as well as being the easiest to get into and out of, and it offers the best vision from the driver’s seat. Its engine is very strong, but the urban drive experience is seriously hampered by the DSG transmission. So if you need a big country bus for this, er, big country, it could be right for you.
The Mercedes-Benz nails it for wow factor. It looks the business inside and out, and certainly offers a comfortable experience in most situations. But like the VW it can be slow to react in the urban environment, and it is very pricey. If bling is your thing, though, it can’t be ignored.
The Kia is arguably the best all-rounder here in terms of driving. It is far more amenable at city speeds than the other two – perhaps that’s because they’re honed for highways in their home nation – and its engine is a powerhouse. It is, however, not as easy to get into gracefully, and that could well be a deal breaker for some buyers.
Take your pick. All three of these vehicles offer levels of comfort, style and luxury, but to varying degrees, and for varied prices.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Mitchell Oke.