What if I told you that your big-family chariot duties are in fact not served by a large SUV, but something else? Something that doesn’t toe the line of popularity or style, but stays pointed on practicality and purpose? Something like this, a 2020 Kia Carnival.
And if you really dialled up the pragmatism, you’d wind up with this: the Kia Carnival S. It’s the cheapest take on Kia’s unabashed people mover, which we have often found to be the best in its segment.
I rate myself as a bit of a 'car enthusiast', but I am surprised how strongly I now feel for a base-spec, refrigerator-white people mover.
With an asking price of $42,990 plus on-road costs, you’re getting a lot of automotive real estate for the coin. The Carnival is 5115mm long and 1985mm wide, with room for eight aboard under that 1755mm roof.
Under the short snout is a transversely mounted 3.3-litre V6 petrol, which makes 206kW at 6000rpm and 336Nm at 5200rpm. It’s not your only choice of propulsion: a more miserly 2.2-litre diesel engine is also available, which makes 147kW and 440Nm, and brings a $2500 price premium.
S is the lowest specification, undercutting the Si by a hefty $5500. It’s not a complete econobox, however. The 7.0-inch infotainment display supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, while also giving you a good-quality reversing camera. There’s also two-zone air conditioning, reverse parking sensors, automatic headlights, lane-departure warning and adaptive cruise control.
Base specification also gets autonomous emergency braking, which helps with the five-star ANCAP rating attained back in 2016.
Compared to costlier models, the S has 17-inch steel wheels adorned with hub caps, basic finishes on the steering wheel and gearstick, as well as cloth trim and a less powerful six-speaker sound system.
Pushing 2146kg of kerb weight through the eight-speed automatic gearbox, the petrol-powered Carnival is a surprisingly sprightly (people) mover. Note that peak torque does arrive at a relatively high point on the tachometer, and it’s an engine only too happy to rev its heart out when you ask it.
Most of the time, however, there is enough mumbo in the petrol motor below 4000rpm for most driving activities. And typical of petrol V6 engines, it’s smooth, quiet and responsive, while matching well with the eight-speed auto. Having the extra revs and responsive power for overtaking and merging is certainly nice to have at times, giving useful shove during those manoeuvres.
Although effective, the biggest strength of this Carnival is not the driveline. Instead, it’s what lies inside. There’s a lot of it, and it’s just so damned practical.
Let’s start up front. The door bins are wide and voluminous, with space for a large bottle and a vast quantity of stuff that you probably don’t need to carry around. There are a couple of additional spots for storage in each door, along with another spot in the passenger foot well. You get a real sense of width and space in the Carnival, especially when sitting up front.
My current litmus test for longitudinal interior space turned up positive results, as well. With our five-month-old Lucy’s big rearward-facing capsule (Nuna Pipa Klik) fitted in, your front passenger still has leg room to burn. Quite often in large SUVs, they get cinched up against the firewall.
The centre console is big and felt-lined, sporting a 12V and USB power outlet. Between it and the dashboard, you’ve got two additional cupholders and some additional storage nooks. Materials are mostly hard plastics in this specification, but they are of varying colours and textures to help keep things interesting and less cheap-feeling.
The pale fabric colours are an interesting choice, and will probably show up dirt and grime faster than something dark. I can say, however, it is a little resistant to something like coffee being spilt on it. Sorry, Kia.
In the second row, this specification has only one USB power outlet. When you compare it to most large SUVs, there’s a prodigious amount of space on offer. There are two cupholders for those in the second row, along with two more if you fold down the middle backrest.
On the subject of cupholders, I counted a total of 14 inside the Carnival, when you include spots for bottles in the doors. Impressive, right?
Furthermore, the 40/20/40 split of sliding and reclining seats means you can shift space to where you need it. That comes in handy if you’re using the third row, which can accommodate three. It would be a squeeze, and perhaps more suited to youngsters. But slide that second row forward slightly, and you can happily fit two full-sized adults in the back with enough leg room and head room. Three adults in the back would be achievable, if only for short trips.
The third row is made complete by full-length curtain airbag coverage and four cupholders, along with air vents and two ISOFIX points, giving the Carnival true eight-seat accommodation.
SAE litreage numbers tell us there is 960L of storage space available with all the rows up. That’s a big number thanks to the smartly designed third-row design that when set up gives you access to a deep, usable boot space. Return to five-seat configuration and there is 2220L of space in the back. Yes, that’s huge.
With such a big, deep boot, Kia has moved the space-saver spare wheel, and slipped it under the body below the driver’s side sliding door.
When you compare interior apples with apples against large SUVs, the Carnival is in a league of its own. And in my opinion, it’s good enough to drag some buyers out of the ubiquitous choice of family truckster, if they let themselves have a closer look at the people mover.
The steering, ride and handling attributes are good for a big bus like the Carnival. The Nexen rubber isn’t afraid to chirp and squeal in protest, especially when under hard acceleration or pushing the limit of lateral grip. But at that stage, you’re driving the Carnival exactly how you shouldn’t be driving a Carnival. And up to that point, it remains mostly composed and easily controlled. The weighting and off-centre response of the steering feels bang-on, and the ride isn’t far off the mark either. You never really tend to notice it in general town driving, which I think is good praise.
Should you buy the diesel instead? Good question, and one that warrants some consideration. If you’re looking to be punching out lots of kilometres, then the diesel might be your best bet.
In terms of fuel economy, we got the Carnival down to 11–12L/100km on a mixed run of highway and town driving, throttling (mostly) for economy. But a heavier run around town saw the number at 14.2L/100km, and it can get up there in the stop-start traffic. Overall, it settled to 13.2L/100km against a factory figure of 10.8L/100km.
The Carnival is covered by Kia’s class-leading seven-year warranty, without a kilometre cap for private use (or a 150,000km limit for commercial use).
Kia’s servicing of the Carnival is covered by a capped-price program, which runs for the entire seven-year warranty at 12-month/15,000km intervals. During that time the bill will be $3646, averaging out to $520.86 per year. Scheduled services include costs like brake fluid, cabin filters, and tyre rotation where specified, too, but prices vary from visit to visit as a result.
The Carnival has always been a favourite family hauler at CarAdvice, and after using one as exactly that for one week, I can completely see the appeal of something so purpose-built and so focussed in its design. The sheer space (and practicality of that space) is easy to fall in love with, and it’s made easier by the general convenience of the ride and drive experience.
If you're willing to buck that all-consuming trend of sports utility vehicles, then the Kia Carnival lets you reap some huge benefits.
This low specification does a good job of including important stuff like a decent-sized and modern infotainment system, along with advanced safety tech. Some interior fittings and those steel wheels give away the game a little, but you can’t deny the value. And come on, 14 cupholders? That’s amazing.