Review: 2022 Kia Carnival SX Prestige
I was given the Kia Carnival to review some eight weeks after the birth of my second child. Who better to evaluate a minivan, my editors thought, than a harried parent? It’s a nice theory frustrated by the exhausting reality of life with two kids under the age of three. As I perused my notes from my time with the Kia, I realized I hadn’t jotted down the exact paint color, which made me realize, in something of a panic, that I’m also not really sure what my newest daughter’s eye color is. I think they’re both a grayish brown. [The Kia was Astra blue. Get some sleep, dude. –Ed]
That said, my life situation does uniquely qualify me to tell you something else: Why parents hate minivans, and why the Kia Carnival has a legitimate shot at overcoming that hatred.
The common assumption about parents and minivans is that we’re worried about how we come across. Maybe some are, but I think that theory generally says more about how tastemakers perceive suburban families—as vapid, appearance-obsessed morons. Most parents I encounter can barely be bothered to shower, let alone cultivate an image.
No, the problem with minivans is about something deeper than how others perceive us. It’s about how we perceive ourselves. To be a young parent is to have one’s whole sense of self washed away in the whitewater rapids of a helpless human’s needs and wants. I used to be the sort of person who listened to records. Now the vinyl collection is wedged next to the dresser and diaper Genie, my 180-gram pressings of Son House and John Coltrane accumulating a fine layer of fecal dust. My Miata? Double-parked by the stroller and yet-to-be-assembled balance bike.
I know, I know—kids are a blessing, and this is all selfish whinging. Point is, I can’t really fathom spending $50K on yet another thing that constantly reminds me of the fact that I’m no longer me. Not many people can: There are just four minivans left in the market: the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Pacifica/Voyager, and this Kia. In 2021, the Jeep Grand Cherokee alone nearly outsold them all combined.
Automakers are, of course, aware of all this and have been trying for decades to play a double game. On the one hand, they continue to up the ante on the family-centric feature theater. Stow away seats! Vacuum cleaners! Flat screen TVs! On the other they insist minivans are somehow cool (see: Toyota Swagger Wagon), and not what we all know them to be. Such efforts usually result in some variation of this:
Except Kia seems to have cracked this code. Here at last is a minivan that doesn’t look like a minivan, but also, just as importantly, doesn’t look like it’s trying too hard not to look like a minivan.
Scan up and down its handsome flanks and you’ll find few cheap SUV callbacks: The stance is low, with minimal gaps between the wheels and wheel wells; there’s almost no cladding; the grille is (by contemporary standards) modest. Some cues are vaguely nautical—the stainless steel C-pillar would look at home on a luxury yacht. No doubt, optional touches on our top-spec SX Prestige model (LED headlights, 19-inch wheels, and a blacked-out roof) help create the desired impression. Yet I’d go so far as to say this van looked more expensive and drew more attention than its $47,770 all-in price warrants. Throughout the week I had the Carnival, people went out of their way to compliment the vehicle while also wondering what it was. “Your daddy got a nice new car!” gushed one of my older daughter’s preschool teachers (setting her up for disappointment when, days later, she climbed back into my dingy hatchback).
It’s no secret that Hyundai/Kia has poached some of the industry’s best-known designers in recent years, from Luc Donckerwolke (known for the Lamborghini Murciélago and Gallardo) to SangYup Lee (2006 Camaro concept). Yet as one retired designer once told me, every major automaker employs legions of creative, highly skilled people; the real difference is to what extent they’re allowed to work without interference from executives, marketing folks, and so on. Judging by the Carnival’s exterior, Kia is letting the talent take the lead.
The Carnival’s interior is a bit more conventional but no less impressive. Even a $27,000 Sportage does a passable impression of an Audi cabin these days, so it’s no surprise that our loaded Carnival is better than passable. Materials, graining, and trim are all top-notch. The dashboard and center console wrap around the driver in very un-minivan fashion, and in the uppermost trim, both first and second-row occupants get pampered with heated and cooled seats. The 12.3-inch center touch screen, standard on all but the base trim (in which it’s 8.0 inches), can relay footage of the kids in back and, for parking, a 360-view of the exterior. Some of the tech ventures into kitsch territory—do we really need to see radio stations displayed in renderings of old-timey vacuum tubes? But even the gimmicks inject a bit of fun and occasion to the proceedings.
Don’t worry, there’s plenty of minivan functionality here. Third-row seats fold flat. Doors slide at the touch of the key-fob button. Cupholders sprout from every conceivable crevice. And the van is roomy. Oh, Lord, is it roomy. It was all I could do to submit an audible moan of pleasure when I heaved our bulky stroller behind the third row and the thing just disappeared below floor level.
The ecstasy wanes some when you get moving. The powertrain is pleasant enough—the grunty 3.5-liter V-6’s 290-hp and eight-speed auto are more than a match for 4600 pounds of van. Yet road imperfections intrude on the ride with noticeable thumps and the occasional jarring crash, and there’s a slight but unmistakable delay between your steering inputs and what the rest of the vehicle actually does. Making minivans ride and handle well has never been easy. After all, they’re big and heavy and have two giant holes punched in their unibodies for the doors. (Not for nothing did it take segment pioneer Chrysler more than a decade to introduce a second sliding door.) Kia seems to have done its level best to meet these challenges, putting the Carnival on its new “N3” architecture and using more ultra-high-strength steel than in the outgoing Sedona van. It’s worth noting I was driving in Michigan during peak pothole season (right after first spring the thaw), and that lower-trim Carnivals come with 17- rather than 19-inch rims, which might ride better.
Yet it’s also worth noting that when I drove a Honda Odyssey for comparison a week later along the same route, far fewer of potholes upset the ride. While we’re on the subject: The Odyssey manages to steer like a smaller, nimbler vehicle than the Carnival, and its 3.5-liter V-6 is slightly but unmistakably smoother than Kia’s. It’ll be obvious to anyone that drives the two back to back that Honda still engineers a better minivan.
And yet, when I picked up our nanny in the Odyssey—a top-trim Elite model with smart-looking 19-inch wheels—she asked with an edge of disappointment in her voice why I’d gotten a minivan. “To compare to the Kia I had last week,” I said. To which she responded, “That was a minivan?”
2022 Kia Carnival SX Prestige
Price: $33,595 / $47,770 (base / as-tested)
Highs: Handsome, convention-defying design.
Lows: Disconnected steering, occasionally harsh ride.
Summary: A minivan that makes you feel good about driving a minivan.