New car review: Kia Carnival SLi Diesel

When it comes to hauling a horde, Kia’s new Carnival proves once again that there’s no better tool for the job.

Kia recently released its fourth-generation Carnival people mover, claiming it brings a range of significant improvements to what has been an enduringly popular model in an admittedly small segment. 

The new Carnival comes in four well-equipped grades – S, Si, SLi and Platinum – with a choice of either a 3.5-litre GDI petrol V6 (216kW/355Nm) or 2.2-litre CRDi turbodiesel four-cylinder (148kW/440Nm).

The so-called “Smartstream” diesel carries a $2000 premium over the equivalent grade V6. 

Recommended retail pricing starts at $46,880 for the V6 S, rising to $66,680 for the diesel Platinum. 

All versions send drive to the front wheels via a smooth eight-speed auto which has been designed in-house by Kia.

This latest Carnival is based on the same new mid-size platform that also underpins the impressive new Kia Sorento. 

The platform combines with a slightly larger body which features fresh new SUV-inspired styling influences, particularly evident from the C-pillar forward in the front and side profiles. 

Compared with the outgoing model, the new Carnival cuts a stronger and more contemporary line.

The front overhang is now shorter, with the wheels pushed out to the extremities for a more muscular stance, while the base of the A-pillar has been moved rearwards to help create a longer bonnet line, which aids the overall proportions. 

The latest iteration of Kia’s “tiger nose” grille gives the front end a more distinctive and premium look and there are plenty of other nice design details, including a rear wiper that stays hidden until it’s in use.

Kia Carnival 2021 SLi

The Carnival’s new body is marginally wider and has grown in length by 40mm, with 30mm of extra rear overhang that benefits third-row passengers and cargo space.

The wheelbase is also 30mm longer, contributing to even more family-friendly proportions in what was an already generously sized cabin. 

Large families will appreciate the Carnival’s standard eight-seat layout with all seats featuring a seatbelt warning and chime along with three child restraint points in the centre row and two more in the rearmost row. All five child seat points are ISOFIX compatible. 

An impressively versatile seating arrangement means the Carnival’s roomy interior can be configured for different passenger and load-carrying duties. 

All three middle-row seats slide fore-aft individually and the centre seat in that row can be reversed or slid fully rearwards when the third row is not in use.

Unlike many family-sized SUVs, where the third row is better suited to children only, the Carnival’s seats are perfectly viable for adults and they fold neatly into the floor and out of the way when not being used. 

With the second and third rows folded, the Carnival delivers a capacious 2785 litres (VDA) of cargo space, so should also be a hit with the Ikea flatpack crowd.

Even with a full complement of passengers on board there’s still a deep and useful load space behind the third row measuring 627 litres in volume (to the upper edge of the seat back).

That’s significantly better than your average seven-seat SUV.

Kia has also lowered the load-lip lift-over height by 26mm over the old model, making loading into the cargo area a touch easier.

Higher grade SLi and Platinum models are equipped with a smart hands-free power tailgate with auto-close plus smart power-sliding side doors which makes the task of loading and unloading passengers and luggage easier.

Kia Carnival 2021 SLi

A safe exit assist system sounds a warning chime and prevents the power sliding doors from opening if it detects a car approaching from the rear on either side. 

It’s an excellent addition, particularly given the likelihood younger members of the clan inhabit those rear seats. 

While that feature and a few others are not available on all models, Kia has otherwise ensured all grades of the Carnival are loaded with an impressive array of safety and driver assistance tech. 

The SLi tested here adds rear cross-traffic collision avoidance to the standard rear cross-traffic alert, along with LED front fog lights, an electro-chromatic auto-dim rear-view mirror, front park sensors (also standard on the Si), and a 360-degree around-view camera display. 

However, despite its impressive on-paper safety credentials the new Carnival hasn’t yet been rated for crash safety by ANCAP.

Inside the cabin the Carnival boasts a suitably premium look and feel, with good quality materials and an impressive new wrap-around dashboard that incorporates a large and contemporary looking dual-screen setup housed in a single casing. 

In all but the base model this setup means a 4.2-inch digital driver instrument cluster complemented by a 12.3-inch touchscreen which incorporates infotainment and navigation controls. 

Thankfully, touch-sensitive climate control switches are retained lower down the centre stack, which we think is a better design option than burying them in the touchscreen’s infotainment menus and potentially causing driver distraction. 

The lack of rain-sensing wipers on any model is a surprising omission, as is the fact that inductive wireless phone charging is only provided on the Carnival Platinum.

A space-saver spare tyre stowed in a cradle under the mid-floor area and accessed from the traffic side of the vehicle also earns a big thumbs down.

Otherwise, occupants are well catered for with practical touches including a range of storage options, nine cup holders, USB ports, air-conditioning vents in all rows with individual controls for the middle row, and a fold-down worktable in the centre of row two. 

Kia Carnival 2021 SLi

Despite the somewhat bewildering racetrack-oriented TV advertising campaign for the new Carnival, buyers shouldn’t expect this 2100kg diesel-powered bus to drive like a sports car. 

It doesn’t. 

But the Carnival does manage to impress with its reasonably engaging driving dynamics that should more than satisfy most buyer’s expectations.

The turbo-diesel engine is smooth and responsive thanks to boasting 85Nm more peak torque delivered lower in the rev range than the petrol V6.

Having all of the engine’s muscle available between 1750 and 2750rpm ensures good driveability and the diesel is also more frugal than the petrol, sipping 6.5L/100km in the combined cycle versus the V6’s 9.6L/100km. 

That thrifty diesel figure is also down almost a litre on the old model’s 7.6L/100km with Kia claiming the engine is also lighter and one of the cleanest diesels it has ever produced.

Like other Kia models, the company’s local ride and handling team has finessed the Carnival’s road manners with the new model underpinned by substantially revised independent suspension front and rear.

As a result, it strikes an agreeable balance between comfortable ride quality and sure-footed handling.

A new electric power steering system replaces the old model’s hydraulic setup, proving well weighted and agreeably quick in its responses. 

People movers might struggle in the fashion stakes compared with SUVs, but when transporting a tribe, the latter is more like a Swiss army knife, trying with only moderate success to be too many things at once.

A people mover by comparison is a purpose-designed tool to do a better job of ferrying humans in safety and comfort.

In this regard, the new Carnival measures up admirably, its thoughtful design and execution mounting a cogent case for larger families to avoid becoming slaves to SUV fashion stakes and instead get the hoard on board in this genuinely impressive eight-seater.  

Key stats

MLP: $58,880 (drive-away $62,290).

ENGINE: 2.2-litre turbodiesel four cylinder.

ANCAP CRASH RATING:  Not yet rated.

FUEL CONSUMPTION (combined cycle, litres/100km):  6.5 (170g/km CO₂).

FOR: Likeable, practical, and efficient family transport, eight seats, five child restraint points, well equipped, long warranty.

AGAINST: No rain-sensing wipers, space-saver spare poorly located.