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MPV. SUV. LCV. Three acronyms. Three different styles of vehicle designed to shift large families.

The Multi-Purpose Vehicle (MPV) camp is represented by the Kia Carnival that accounts for about half of all people-mover sales in Australia. Released in 2015 in third-generation form, the Korean eight-seater has been given an update for 2018.

Wearing the seven-seater Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) badge is the second-generation Mazda CX-9 introduced in 2016.

Okay, technically, the Volkswagen Multivan is also an MPV, but we’re putting it in the Light Commercial Vehicle (LCV) camp as ostensibly it’s a multi-seat variant of the Transporter van.

Our specific Kombi 70 Special Edition is a new variant of the latest-generation Multivan released in 2015, marking 70 years since the world’s most famous campervan was first previewed.

Think of it as more of a retro tribute rather than a spiritual successor (which is tabled for a 2022 release and previewed by the I.D Buzz concept). The Multivan isn’t a pure monobox design, while its front-drive, front-engine layout makes it back to front in engineering terms. And no sitting over the front axle, no split or bay windscreen, or even CND peace badges.

Still, history and hippies aside, it’s good to see the Kombi name back in showrooms – for the first time since the 2008 Kombi Beach.

Time to grab multiple passengers for a multi-faceted test of our trio of people-movers.


Pricing and features

Our specific models are variants aimed at large families with a largish budget of $60,000 to $65,000.

The Volkswagen Multivan Kombi 70 is at the upper limit of that bracket, though its $64,990 sticker is a drive-away deal for a vehicle limited to 120 units. Based on the $52,990 Comfortline, it justifies its premium easily with the inclusion of on-road costs as well as a two-tone paintjob, Alcantara upholstery, fake-wood flooring and a Good Night package that includes a novel bed conversion.

Mazda’s CX-9 Azami, the range-topping trim grade, costs from $60,790 if you’re content with just the front wheels being driven, or from $64,790 if all-wheel drive is desired.

In between is the Kia Carnival Platinum CRDi, also a flagship model, at $62,790. A $2500 saving is possible by opting for a V6 petrol engine over the four-cylinder turbo diesel.

Current drive-away pricing (July 2018) adds only $1500 to the Mazda’s cost, but more than $5000 to the Kia.

Commonalities comprise LED headlights and daytime running lights, front/rear sensors, foglights (LEDs in the Mazda), window blinds, blind-spot monitoring, and autonomous emergency braking (now standard on all Carnivals as part of the MY18 model).

From there, however, the Multivan Kombi is quickly left behind on the standard-equipment count.

The CX-9 Azami and Carnival Platinum share some noteworthy features: adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert, high-beam assist, electrically adjustable front seats, automatic tailgates (hands-free with the Kia), three-zone climate control, navigation, and good-quality audio systems (Bose for the Mazda, JBL for the Kia).

Autonomous emergency braking is missing from the Multivan, standard on the CX-9, and as part of an MY18 update is now included on all Carnival models.

The CX-9 leads the equipment race by exclusively providing a windscreen head-up display, sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, heated front and second-row seats, and full leather seats. It’s missing the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone-compatibility available on the Kia and VW, though it is coming as part of an update due in August.

The CX-9 also sits on the biggest wheels here: 20-inch alloys. The Carnival Platinum features 19-inch alloys and the Kombi dons 18-inch retro ‘Disc’ wheels.

The Carnival’s upholstery is “leather appointed”, mixing genuine and artificial leather, while the Multivan Kombi gains that Alcantara seat trim over the regular Comfortline’s cloth.

The Mazda and VW will both keep an eye on your fatigue level, while the Carnival is the only model here with ventilated front seats (while matching the CX-9’s heating function) and a surround-view camera.


First row

Ironically, while the Carnival has dropped the Grand part of the name, the people-mover has never looked grander inside.

The Kia’s front cabin presents smartly with the (non-changeable) matching two-tone plastics and upholstery. Many of the plastics are hard, though at least the texturing is likeable and soft materials are used for main touchpoints. The Platinum model’s wood trim that’s applied to the dash, door trim and steering wheel just may not to be everyone’s taste.

All the controls are laid out logically and there’s not only a consistency to the switchgear design, but there’s also tactility to buttons and dials. One new button is the electric park brake, which thankfully eliminates the Carnival’s antiquated foot-operated version.

The front seats provide plenty of comfort, and there’s excellent all-round vision, with the driver’s right-side over-shoulder blind spot helped by the second row’s elongated window.

And storage is simply an Aladdin’s cave of placement options: dual gloveboxes, two (rubber-matted) trays bookending the gear lever section, two cupholders, large doorbins with dividers, passenger-side compartment, and a large console bin with sunnies tray and another USB port and 12V socket to add to those in the centre stack. There’s also a flip-down wide-angle mirror to help parents keep an eye on their mischievous offspring.

Perceived quality is a step up in the CX-9. Mazda seems intent on proving Volkswagen isn’t the only mainstream brand capable of introducing a dash of premium-ness to its interiors. The dash design – achieving style without looking contrived – is complemented by smart chrome surrounds and trim mixing neutral-coloured matt plastics and gloss-black panels.

There’s the most generous amount of soft-touch materials of any cabin in this group, and the beautifully smooth leather steering wheel feels great in the hands.

The MZD Connect system’s centre console control panel – complete with rotary controller – adds another classy touch. If only the dial/joystick felt more expensive. The heating/ventilation dials also lack the tactility of the Kia’s.

Mazda’s SUV can’t match the storage options of the Carnival, yet it’s hardly impractical. The glovebox is usefully sized (if you’re happy to leave the owner’s manual at home or place it elsewhere), the doorbins are wide, there’s a deep storage tray ahead of the gear lever, two cupholders, and the twin-lid console bin is also handy – especially as it includes two USB ports and an AUX point.

A sunroof is standard, too, though a panoramic version would give the cabin more natural light.

After the car-like seating position of the Carnival, the CX-9 leaves you in no doubt you’re in an SUV – which will be perfect for those buyers craving the higher lookout. Great seats, as well.

There’s no disguising the Multivan is merely a Transporter van converted for carrying people rather than cargo. It’s a big step into the cabin, where you pop yourself into a driving position that is bolt-upright. At least it provides the kind of commanding view of the road that any SUV driver would appreciate.

The cushioning is comfortable, too, and both front seats provide armrests. The Alcantara upholstery standard in the Kombi 70 is fairly posh. It’s a torrent of hard plastics typical of a commercial vehicle and the dash design sides on functionality rather than flair.

That includes the somewhat small and now dated-looking infotainment touchscreen. The Multivan is yet to score Volkswagen’s new-generation Discover Pro media systems. No navigation, either, which is disappointing for a $65,000 vehicle.

There’s some compensation with the App Connect set-up that provides either an Apple iOS or Android interface depending on the smartphone you’ve plugged in.

Good storage is expected from a van, and the VW isn’t a letdown in this respect, with its upper and lower door pockets, twin (compact) gloveboxes, shallow lidded dashtop tray, and a centre stack that integrates cupholders and a pull-out (cooled) bottle holder. The seats also gain side bins.

The auto gearshift lever is positioned above that, which creates a distinct advantage for the Multivan in this group: the front occupants can walk through to the rear cabin.

NOTE: In all photo sets, the Carnival is shown at top, followed by the CX-9 and the Multivan.

MORE: Visit our comparison gallery for a full suite of photos


Second row

The CX-9 is the odd one out here. It’s the only vehicle with conventional rear doors. The Carnival and Multivan provide access to the rear cabin via electrically operated sliding doors, on both sides. These can also be operated via the key fobs or a button near the driver. The Mazda’s rear doors open wide, though.

Step into the middle rows and none of the vehicles scrimp on limb space. Not surprisingly, the Multivan that stands nearly two metres tall provides the most airspace above heads (though the Carnival comes close). Plenty of useful storage in each second row, too, as well as versatility.

For seat arrangements, it’s the turn of the Multivan to be different. It features two captain’s chairs that can be slid along a floor rail (on fake-wood flooring for the Kombi variant), swivel to face the rear bench, or be removed completely. As an option, buyers can pay extra for chairs incorporating integrated child booster cushions. That also completes full walk-through capability from front to third row.

Kia’s centre row can be turned into a walk-through set-up by removing the narrower middle seat (which includes flip-down armrest with cupholders).

All three middle seats slide fore and aft individually. The position of the Mazda’s middle bench – in a 60/40 configuration – can also be adjusted to balance leg room between the second and third rows.

It’s the only vehicle here without a completely flat floor, though, with the transmission tunnel interfering with the ultimate comfort of the centre-middle seat. Less of an issue if a kid is occupying that seat, of course.

The Mazda exclusively provides a heating function for the second row (outer seats) and one-touch electric windows, while it shares a third zone of climate control with the Kia. It also features two USB ports in the armrest’s storage compartment, whereas passengers have to fight over one port in the Carnival. Still, that’s one better than the no-charging-zone Volkswagen.

All three vehicles are standard with window blinds.

MORE: Visit our comparison gallery for a full suite of photos


Third row

Accessing the rearmost seats in the Carnival and Multivan is an easy affair. The Kia’s second-row outer seats feature a clever folding mechanism: simply pull the side lever and the head restraint drops and the seat base flips up, allowing the seat to tumble-fold forward. In the VW, the captain’s chairs, again via a lever, tip and slide forward.

Three adults can fit across the rear benches of both the Carnival and Multivan. The Volkswagen is the most comfortable, with the most space for heads, knees and shoulders. The bench also features reclining, though the Kombi misses out on the centre armrest featured in higher-spec Multivans.

There’s an unusual lumpiness to the Kia’s outer seats, too, which detracts from their ability to provide long-distance comfort. Plenty of head and foot room, though.

Three adults will find even more shoulder room in the Multivan. They each get a storage box underneath bench, too, while the bench flattens/manoeuvres to help form a bed with a (removable) board bed extension bolted into the boot. It’s part of a Good Night package that also includes fabric blinds and a washable bed cover.

Mazda’s CX-9, with its more compromised third row, is made to look like a part-time people-mover in comparison. With smaller side windows and less space, life is more claustrophobic for rearmost passengers. A lack of vents up back also seems neglectful.

Yet, the CX-9 is also no 5+2-seater like some ‘seven’-seater SUVs. There is sufficient leg and head room for adults to get reasonably comfortable, even if their hopes would be for a shortish trip.

MORE: Visit our comparison gallery for a full suite of photos


Boot space

It’s not uncommon for luggage space to come at the expense of a third row of seats, which is the case with the CX-9 that offers only a 230-litre boot. Roof boxes or roof carriers will be needed for bigger trips away if all seats need to be occupied.

If only five seats are needed, however, the 50-50 rear seats fold flat to create 810 litres of cargo space – significantly more than Mazda’s mid-sized, five-seater SUV, the CX-5. The second-row seats also fold, if not completely flat.

VW’s Multivan is barely any more generous, and the boot space is further restricted if the bed-extension board is kept in the back. Volkswagen doesn’t provide a cargo volume figure.

The rear bench slides forward on the floor tracks if luggage is a greater priority than third-row leg room, while the bench and captain’s chairs can be removed completely to effectively turn the Multivan into a Transporter van.

The Kombi misses out on an automatic tailgate standard on its rivals here. It simply has electric latching.

Raising the Carnival’s tailgate reveals the best boot of the trio. Wide and super-deep to offer 960 litres of stowage space. Collapsing the 60/40 third-row seats, which is simple though not entirely effortless, expands the Kia’s luggage-swallowing ability to more than 2200 litres. Tip the second-row’s outer seats forwards and remove the middle-rear seat and that nearly doubles to a voluminous, van-like 4022 litres.

All three boots feature a 12-volt socket, with the Kia and Volkswagen sharing a total of three throughout the interior, one extra over the Mazda.

The CX-9 and Carnival add shopping bag hooks, and the Kia is the only model here with a pull-out LED torch.

MORE: Visit our comparison gallery for a full suite of photos


Driving

We loaded our comparison vehicles with six people including driver for a repetitive urban loop – mimicking a family journey around town – to allow us to gauge the effectiveness of both engine performance and suspension quality.

And while the Carnival shines for practicality, it lost some of its gloss here. The Kia’s ride can be busy – allowing too many small- and medium-sized bumps/dips to be felt – while rearmost passengers complained of the rear suspension becoming bouncy over speed humps. It’s a similar situation if driving the vehicle solo, though the ride feels slightly more settled at higher speeds.

The steering is reasonably effortless, which will be important to many buyers. It’s prone to some kickback, however, and there’s a wishy-washy feel around the straight-ahead position, so the steering isn’t as precise as it could be.

The Multivan isn’t exactly soothing, either, as it rides fairly stiffly. It proved to be slightly more comfortable than the Carnival with a full load on board, though, and no major quibbles with the smooth and consistent steering.

There’s a clear leader for refined driving manners here. Despite sitting on the biggest wheels (20 inches), the CX-9 is surprisingly compliant – unperturbed by even the poorest of road-surface quality.

The CX-9 exhibits many of the dynamic traits that make the CX-5 one of the best-driving SUVs, which consequently make it the most confident-handling vehicle in this group by some margin, too.

It’s a noticeably bigger car than the CX-5, though, even if it feels relatively compact after driving the Multivan. Some buyers might find it intimidating, or at least daunted by the prospect of trying to manoeuvre it around a multi-storey car park.

The Carnival is actually fractionally longer and wider, yet its lower, car-like driving position psychologically offsets the sense of being in a large people-mover.

Carnival Platinum buyers have a choice of petrol V6 or the four-cylinder turbo diesel fitted to our CRDi test car. And the latter is the pick. The diesel is not only notably more economical – 7.6 v 10.8 litres per 100km – but it offers a stronger mid-range for easier everyday driveability. It’s a smooth engine, too, though at low revs there is a touch of turbo lag and it sounds a touch gruff.

An eight-speed auto that this year replaces the former six-speeder teams well with the engine.

The Kia’s engine is also more refined than the Multivan’s TDI340 turbo diesel, which is grumblier while also feeling slower and laggier at low speed. The VW’s outputs of 103kW and 340Nm just don’t feel enough for shifting a 2.2-tonne vehicle, especially when passengers are added.

It’s another area that betrays the VW’s van origins, though it would have benefitted from the torquier (450Nm) twin-turbo TDI450 diesel available higher up in the Multivan line-up.

Progress is better once the speedo has started to climb, with the seven-speed DSG gearbox changing gears with slick swiftness. We just wish it didn’t have a habit of shifting down a gear with the slightest lift of the accelerator, when there would be sufficient response with the previous, higher gear.

Mazda’s CX-9 is a one-engine-only affair, but it’s a pearler. The 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol is wonderfully punchy, with its 170kW/420Nm outputs capable of hauling the SUV along with far more conviction than its rivals, whether it’s just a driver aboard or passenger capacity is at a maximum.

It’s hushed in its operation, too, though more enlightening is the response it delivers from almost anywhere in the rev range – especially considering its turbocharged nature. The front wheels can chirp if you’re over-eager with the throttle when accelerating away from standstill, reminding you that you’re not in the AWD version of the CX-9.

This is the kind of petrol engine that could have the potential to make diesels redundant, though it’s certainly not as economical. The CX-9’s official fuel consumption is 8.4L/100km (8.8 if you opt for the AWD version), though our trip computer suggested average use will head comfortably into double figures.

It runs on regular unleaded, though. And for buyers concerned about weekly fuel costs and with a heart set on a seven-seater Mazda SUV, there is a solution.

The new CX-8 (so new that is wasn’t launched at the time of conducting this comparo) is a bit shorter and narrower than a CX-9, but has virtually identical passenger space, while it’s powered exclusively by Mazda’s well-known 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel. Fuel consumption? Even better than the Carnival and Multivan: 5.7L/100km.


Running costs

At the time of writing, there’s little difference between the price of unleaded petrol and diesel. So, the Carnival and Multivan would cost less to fill up than the CX-9 whether you consider official consumption or likely real-world figures.

The Kia and Volkswagen also each have an 80-litre tank – six litres more than the Mazda – to allow both people-movers to exceed 1000km hypothetically between pit-stops, whereas the CX-9 would fall a touch short of 850km.

Comparing servicing costs would be simpler if Mazda’s intervals weren’t limited to 10,000km (or 12 months, whichever is sooner), whereas Kia and Volkswagen space them out according to the average annual mileage of 15,000km. Still, there’s no doubt that Multivan owners will be forced to shell out more.

Volkswagen’s capped-price plan totals $1704 over three years (or up to 45,000km), compared with $1380 for Kia’s servicing for the same period/mileage. After three years or a maximum of 40,000km, Mazda will have charged $1114.

An exorbitant $1194 charge for the Multivan’s fourth scheduled service contributes to costs blowing out to $3367 over five years (or 75,000km). By that time/odo’, the Carnival’s charges will have accumulated to $2510.

Mazda’s $1796 for five years looks generous in comparison. It’s just important to remember that there will be extra costs if more than 50,000km has been clocked up during that time.

The Japanese brand also charges extra for roadside assistance, whereas it’s inclusive on both the Carnival (extended 12 months after every official service) and Multivan (for the length of the three-year warranty).

Warranties see a convincing advantage for the Carnival – seven years that makes the three years offered by Volkswagen look well off the consumer pace. Mazda, to its credit, has just recently upgraded from three years warranty coverage to five.


VERDICT

If moving seven people or more on an almost daily basis is a primary requirement, your choice from this trio is realistically between the Volkswagen Multivan Kombi 70 and Kia Carnival Platinum.

The Multivan offers the greatest flexibility. The swivelling middle-row chairs create a mini-lounge effect (even more so with the optional table installed), while those seats plus the third-row bench can be removed completely to turn your VW from people-mover to furniture mover.

It also gives you options for where you sleep when on the road. Want to save money or too far to the nearest motel? Simply assemble the onboard bed.

The van origins are all too apparent, though – notably with its rather agricultural diesel, plethora of hard plastics, and lack of key active safety features such as autonomous emergency braking. The Multivan also feels relatively old here, despite the latest generation having been released only in 2015.

AEB across the range is just one of the welcome updates for the Kia Carnival.

If CarAdvice ever expanded into airport shuttle services (of which there are no plans!), the Carnival would dominate our fleet. Not only is there plenty of space for up to eight occupants, but there’s genuine room for their luggage behind the third row, too. Neither of its rivals here can match its abundance of storage options, either.

We’d certainly embrace the seven-year warranty like any owner.

If only its driving manners were more refined. Despite local suspension turning, as with all Kias, the Carnival’s ride isn’t as comfortable as it should be, especially around town. The steering also lacks precision.

These flaws are highlighted by the Mazda CX-9’s polished abilities. As with the smaller CX-5, this is a Mazda SUV that provides the driver with satisfyingly smooth, well-weighted steering and reassuring handling. Ride quality is also a stand-out. The CX-9 Azami is among the most compliant vehicles we’ve ever tested on 20-inch wheels.

Its turbo petrol engine also trumps the diesel engines in every area except economy.

The absence of air vents for third-row passengers isn’t ideal, though the rearmost seats are otherwise useful in how they provide proper space for two adults if necessary. For the average Australian family, this provides handy extra seats when needed, and when not, there’s about double the boot space of the super-popular CX-5.

Factor in the strongest equipment line-up here and a competitive price tag, and the CX-9 overcomes the fact it has the least spacious cabin out of this trio to stack up as the better all-round package.

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