First drive: 2022 Kia Carnival comes to town masked as an SUV

June 1, 2021

A teenager at the drive-thru said he liked my car. I lowered my sunglasses; he was sincere. Later, a couple stopped me in the Costco parking lot. 

“What is that?” 

“It’s a Kia.” I explained how the new badge with futuristic script replaced the circle on the liftgate.

“I thought so,” the man said.

“It’s nice,” the woman said. 

“But what is it?” they both said. 

I pressed the button on the fob and the rear door slid open in that singular way. 

“It’s a minivan!?!”

Believe it. Kia boasts not just a new badge but a design swagger that has transformed the pedestrian Sedona minivan into an alluring family hauler easily mistaken for an SUV. Sliding doors aside, Kia might have struck that design balance for shoppers who need a minivan but want an SUV.

The successor to the Sedona fits between the Sorento mid-size SUV on which it is based and the slightly larger Telluride SUV in Kia’s three-row stable. Though the Carnival lacks all-wheel drive, it’s the roomiest and most utilitarian, and the miniSUvan is loaded with the kind of safety tech and features that should make even the staunchest minivan hater take a closer look to see what their close-mindedness is missing. 

Kia squares off its minivan in SUV shapes, with a tall, broad grille and a hood with tall sides, buff wheel arches housing up to 19-inch black alloy wheels, and black rocker panels with chrome inserts. Integrated roof rails trail into a rear roof spoiler on the squared off back end, and down low fake skid plates bookend the front and back. A kinked light signature runs under the standard LED headlights and down the body through the track for the sliding door that is the only clear giveaway of its minivan DNA. That and the low rear bumper. A triangular metallic plate on the pillar above the track draws attention to where Kia is trying to avoid attention, and that diamond-patterned finish resurfaces in the cabin to similar, questionable effect.

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

It bonds the upper and lower dash with a shininess that draws the eyes and fingertips. It feels like a flattened, smoothed cheese grater. It lacks the smudginess of the glossy black plastic on the doors, console, steering wheel, and climate control panel that downgrades the cabin’s mixed materials. The glossy black center stack uses a touch-sensitive climate panel that intensifies the smudginess and adds absolutely no functionality over tried-and-true buttons. 

All that shiny black plastic appears to blend into the dash sash of a 12.3-inch touchscreen and 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster on my tester’s top SX Prestige trim. The tech is fantastic, partly because of the clear, intuitive layout, but partly because it’s easy to change the settings of all the various driver assist features.

The adaptive cruise control with lane control enables about 45 seconds of hands-free driving on the highway, and it evenly modulates getting back up to speed as well as braking without the abruptness of other systems. A blind-spot camera in the cluster helps see cyclists and cars coming up on either side. The alert for active lane control has three sound settings from low to obnoxious. It should be no secret that Kia and its sister company Hyundai have in-car tech better than many luxury brands but without the markup. 

The internal safety systems can border on the obnoxious as well, but for good reasons. If you’re in back with the liftgate open, a small beep accompanies you. It could get annoying rooting around in the detritus of minivan life that occupies 40.2 cubic feet of space behind the third row—larger than any other minivan or mid-size SUV. Once you step away the beep intensifies until the gate automatically closes itself. Back inside, in the lounge behind the front seats, the second row captain’s chairs won’t recline all the way if weight is sensed in the third row. 

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

These “VIP Lounge Seats” are a key part of the SX Prestige and the main reason I would recommend not getting it. They slide fore and aft, as well as side to side, which provides plenty of flexibility, but the power recliners and power footrests that extend up like a La-Z-Boy are more for the showroom than the road trip. With the seat slid all the way back and no one able to fit in the third row, my 5-foot-2 inch kid couldn’t get her feet up without hitting the front seat. Grade schoolers aged out of car seats might get comfier, but not with anyone behind them. And the seats can’t flip forward or be removed, so you’re stuck going down the aisle to get into the third row. 

Two small things I love about the front seats are the USB ports on the seat sides so second-row passengers can unplug and not step all over the cables, and a power slide button the driver can press without reaching to move the passenger seat forward and back. These small things are super convenient. 

Opting for the SX trim instead of the Prestige provides plenty of features, including a rear-seat entertainment system in the front seat backs, an eighth seat that can be collapsed into a cupholder console, and it spares you $5,000. 

This is the Carnival’s biggest charm. Even fully equipped, with excellent dual power sunroofs that can be controlled from the front seat, the SX Prestige tops out at $47,770, including $1,175 destination. That’s at least $2,200 less than a similarly equipped 2021 Toyota Sienna and 2021 Chrysler Pacifica with front-wheel drive.

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

2022 Kia Carnival

But the Carnival can’t match the flexibility of the Pacifica’s standard Stow ‘n Go seats that tumble into the floor, or the Sienna’s standard hybrid system that returns 36 mpg combined. If those aren’t must-have features, the Carnival compels with the calm, quiet ride provided in part by its strut and multi-link suspension. It doesn’t lean into turns as much as I expected, and unwanted lateral movement is kept to a minimum, which is unusual for a minivan. 

The Carnival uses a new 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 290 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque, topping the minivan class. Acceleration off the line in Sport mode is quick enough to bust a move; if you want it, you got it. The 8-speed automatic transmission shifts through gears seamlessly, and doesn’t get confused when pressed for highway passing moves. The biggest knock to this potent powertrain comes at the pump, where it gets an EPA-rated 19 mpg city, 26 highway, 22 combined. The Carnival can tow 3,500 pounds, same as many crossover SUVs. 

The 2022 Carnival only pretends to be an SUV to draw attention. Once it reveals all its minivan glory on the inside—cavernous space, excellent standard safety features, luxury-leaning appointments, and a smooth nap-inducing ride—the Carnival is worth coming back to time and again. 

Kia provided a Carnival to test drive for a week.

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