When I'm not writing about cars, I'm playing tennis. You've probably gathered this with my various references to ferrying around team mates on the weekends or if you're silly enough to follow my social media (@jwongwong11 on Instagram, #shamelessplug).
For the past three or four years I've headed up to Yarrawonga on the border of Victoria and New South Wales over the Easter weekend for the annual tennis tournament the town's local club has been hosting for well over a century.
This isn't your average local tennis club with a handful of poorly-surfaced en tout cas courts (clay), either.
Like many country towns up north, things aren't done on a small scale. Yarrawonga Lawn Tennis Club has more than 20 well-maintained grass courts and a handful of hard courts on its own, but for the Easter tournament it converts the neighbouring footy oval into even more tennis courts, boosting the number to over 50 in total.
It's a fantastic event that attracts nearly 1500 entrants, plus their families and friends, across a number of events covering open, graded and junior standards in singles and doubles.
This year, I was designated driver for six of my friends, three of whom still don't have their driver's licenses (cough cough, including my brother, cough), so I needed something fairly big that could comfortably seat seven over a long journey while also having enough room for luggage – tennis bags are bulky things.
Most SUVs lack a lot of boot space behind the third row, and unless you get a full-size crossover or off-roader, the rearmost seats aren't particularly accommodating either.
So, instead of going for style I chose substance, and took the recently-updated 2019 Kia Carnival Platinum. Our tester was fitted with the 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine, which puts the starting price at $62,790 before on-road costs (you can also opt for a 3.3-litre V6 for $2500 less)
Now before you knock me for choosing a mummy van, let me tell you why the Carnival is the perfect vehicle for the job.
It has proper seating for seven, and even has a small eighth seat should you need to cater for an extra bum, there's a massive 960 litres of boot space even with all three rows in place (SAE measurement), and in Platinum guise there's every luxury item a large family or group of mates could ask for.
Without going into the ins and outs of the spec sheet – this isn't a full review, after all – the Carnival Platinum scores features like leather seating, an eight-speaker JBL sound system, tri-zone climate control with vents for all three rows, heated and ventilated front seats, along with a full suite of driver assistance systems like autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control with stop&go, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and a 360-degree camera system.
There's a stack of kit, and in flagship specification the Carnival looks quite gangster – the full-LED lighting, chromed 19-inch alloys and rear privacy glass make it look pretty expensive, at least in this reviewer's opinion.
But, I wasn't so concerned with the vehicle's looks; there was a task at hand.
The drive from Melbourne to Yarrawonga is 280 kilometres from my home in the eastern suburbs, and takes a smidgen under three hours.
Packing everyone and everything in comfortably proved to be a little tougher than I initially thought. Despite the Carnival's decent cargo volume with all seats in place it still required a bit of thought and planning when stowing all our luggage, which included bags of clothes, tennis gear and groceries.
It turned out some stuff needed to be stored in the cabin, squished underneath legs or seats.
Access in and out proved to be relatively easy for all my adult passengers, though, thanks to the powered rear doors – a fun party trick, mind you – and the excellent outboard rear seats in the second row that fold and slide forward to offer 'walk in' access to the rear.
Once we were all packed in, we set off on our road trip.
Despite having seven adults on board plus all their luggage, which easily would have been 400-500kg, the Carnival's 2.2-litre four-pot diesel seemed unbothered, offering good response during the first leg of urban commuting through Melbourne's north-eastern suburbs.
Outputs are rated at 147kW ( at 3800rpm) and 440Nm (between 1750-2750rpm), and are more than adequate enough to shift the Carnival's near 2.2-tonne kerb weight with decent pace.
The eight-speed automatic which formed part of last year's mid-life refresh is a smart, quick-shifting unit that offers a good spread of ratios so the diesel is always in its torque band, then settles the revs once at cruising speeds.
Once we got onto the freeway, the Carnival would happily sit in eight gear humming at a little under 2000rpm, rarely needing to suddenly kick down or shuffle between ratios when going up hills.
We were pretty impressed with overall refinement, from the well-subdued engine noise to the limited amount of road and wind noise entering the cabin. The music was turned right up for most of the journey, anyway, and the eight-speaker sound system offered clear audio at all volumes.
Ride comfort was also excellent. Likely thanks in part to Kia's local suspension tuning program, the Carnival offered a cushy, comfortable ride that ironed out the patchy surfaces of Victoria's Hume Highway with little fuss, even with a full cabin of passengers and luggage.
Worth noting is the great body control, which came to the forefront on a section of Benalla-Yarrawonga Road which forms the last leg of the trip.
There were several large humps and hills, yet even when faced with a with a sudden drop at the signposted 100km/h, the Carnival levelled out very quickly and didn't hit the bump stops on impact. Very impressive for a big, heavy bus.
We concluded the trip to Yarrawonga with an indicated fuel consumption reading of 8.2L/100km, which is pretty bloody good when you consider the way up is generally up hill, and the amount of weight the Carnival was carrying.
As for the actual getaway, we had a lovely AirBnB in the new Silverwood Estate which backs onto a golf course and Lake Mulwala.
The serene surroundings of our accommodation were a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Yarrawonga Lawn Tennis Club for the four days of competition, which turns into a hive of activity.
It was also interesting to see the types of cars in the car park. Plenty of people use Toyota LandCruisers and Prados to tow their caravans up north, while others drive Klugers. Adding a bit of contrast to the mix were a slew of Kia Carnivals just like our tester, with the majority also being top-spec Platinum models – interesting.
Hundreds of matches are played on those 50-something courts each day, with singles played on Good Friday, doubles played on Easter Saturday, and mixed doubles completed on Easter Sunday. Finals are saved for Monday before everyone heads back home.
I personally had mixed results, losing first round in both the B Grade singles and A Grade mixed doubles, but had a stroke of luck in the men's B Grade doubles.
This would be my fifth year participating in the tournament, and for the first time I actually won something – more so thanks to my great partner Mitch, of course.
Having taken plenty of happy snaps, it was time to go home. Like our trip up, the Carnival proved once again to be a fantastic tourer.
We hit one bit of holiday traffic which delayed us by about 10 minutes, though the Carnival's stop&go function for the adaptive cruise control system made sure the tedious low-speed driving wasn't a complete chore.
As the trip back is more downhill compared to the opposite direction, the Carnival showed an indicated readout of 7.8L/100km once we arrived back home, which is a fantastic result given we were carrying the same amount of people and similar levels of luggage as the trip to Yarrawonga. We actually managed to travel there and back without having to fill up, though only about 70km of range was left when we got home.
Once all the driving was done, there were few complaints about the Kia Carnival. It's wonderfully luxurious and refined, has all the features and tech you'll ever need, and has a punchy and economical drivetrain that's at home on the highway or around the suburbs.
We probably should have tacked on a roof pod or towed a small trailer for extra storage, and a rear-seat entertainment system like the one available on the US-market Sedona would have been great to keep passengers entertained – though both could have been addressed with better planning.
Meanwhile, avid tennis players regardless of age or ability should definitely jot down the Yarrawonga Easter tournament in your diary, as it's a fantastic long weekend getaway for families and groups of friends.
Click on the photos tab for more images by Bailey Opie, Ethan Khamly and James Wong