The weekend—hillclimb weekend, 2022 Kia Carnival weekend, road trip weekend—had finally come. It was Friday, Aug. 13, 2021 and it was time to hit the road. The Mount Washington Hillclimb, an event that would see dozens of cars speeding up the windiest place on the planet, was set to begin on Sunday, Aug. 15. Leading up to that, it would be my job to get four friends and myself from northern New Jersey to Bethel, Maine, and back—a distance that ultimately clocked 945 miles. And I did it all in a minivan.
All of the reviews I write are, if anything, honest, and I honestly do not like most minivans. I think people try to purport them to be something they aren’t necessarily—better to drive and more functional than trucks—I think they generally are extremely unfashionable, and I think SUVs provide most of the same utility minivans offer. But because the Carnival was the machine I was assigned for my trek, I wasn’t going to complain. That little gripe session just now? Didn’t happen, don’t know what you’re talking about.
I went into things with an open mind. There has to be a reason why Kia still sells a minivan in the year of our Lord 2022 when crossovers and SUVs seem to be taking over the planet.
2022 Kia Carnival Specs
- Base price (as tested): $33,555 ($47,770)
- Powertrain: 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V6 | 8-speed automatic | front-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 290 @ 6,400 rpm
- Torque: 262 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
- Curb weight: 4,601 pounds
- Seating capacity: 7
- Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
- Fuel economy: 19 mpg city | 26 highway | 22 combined
- Quick take: Minivans might not be in vogue, but the Carnival is a lot of car for the money.
- Score: 6.5/10
Yes, Kia’s Carnival, previously called the Sedona, would be the vehicle for the grueling New England trek.
New for 2022, it’s bigger in every dimension than the old Sedona, it has more interior goodies than ever before, and it looks unlike most other minivans out there, with razor-sharp styling and SUV-reminiscent proportions. The engine, unlike the rest of the car, feels a little old, however it gets the job done adequately. Just the same, the transmission has eight speeds and despite being a little slow, it’s smooth and predictable. It reminded me a lot of the Kia Rio I had on loan before I ended up in the Carnival. It feels a little elderly in terms of the engine/chassis, but the parts work well together.
All of that, I thought, would add up to this being a comfortable ride, at least for my passengers. Behind the wheel, however, I wasn’t sure how much there would be to enjoy.
To start my journey, at 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 13, I drove 200 miles from Boston to pick the car up in New Jersey. Despite some hot weather and traffic, I made it, and after picking up all four friends—which always takes longer than you expect—I put in the address of the place we would be staying in Bethel. Google Maps told me a time estimate, and I stared blankly back at the screen. It said the drive would take over seven hours. I was expecting more like five and a half or six. Now you might understand why I wanted Super Cruise.
For the Passengers
There was no avoiding the journey ahead at this point, however, and before we even got started the Carnival began to shine… for my passengers. First of all, the rear cargo area is incredibly deep on account of the car being strictly front-wheel drive. There’s no rear differential or anything back there, and as a result, the cargo space, even with the third row upright, was more than adequate.
Similarly, the second row was very spacious, and equipped with what Kia calls “2nd-row Power ‘VIP’ Lounge Seats.” The two chairs can recline basically flat, have leg rests that extend upwards to support your calves, and they’re both heated as well as ventilated. If you’re a bit taller—anywhere around six feet—you’ll find trouble extending fully in the middle row. However, if you’re shorter, it’s perfect. Even without the leg rest’s full extension, you can still put your feet up a little bit.
As the only person driving the Carnival, I saw my odds of enjoying these seats to be slim, and that brings me to another point.
Minivans are great if you have kids, right? Forgive me for being ignorant of the lives of modern children, but my hypothetical child (I do not have children) is clearly not worthy of the Kia’s middle-row seats. Listen, I love the kid, but my son, if I had a son, would fold out the seat, make a castle out of french fries on it—a great castle, I love your castle, son—and then fold it back up again. When the ventilation comes on, the car will go from smelling like a gymnasium to a gymnasium with an attached McDonald’s—sort of like how Taco Bell and KFC are occasionally in the same building. Same basic concept, just a little more diverse.
My point is: Who are the second-row ultra-luxury seats really for? They were great for everyone I had back there, but they were all adults. Unless you haul your friends around 600 miles every weekend, or you have Victorian children who are simply miniature adults, this thing isn’t great for the classic minivan use case—which is doing a lot of short- to medium-length commuting. Besides that, kids are dirty and messy and don’t care about first-class airline seats.
Maybe the Kia would be an awesome rental car, but “awesome rental car” is about the worst praise you can level at any vehicle, and the Carnival is better than that. The captain’s chairs were amazing, but I’m just curious about the sort of regular, non-commercial consumer who would check the luxury lounge seat box. A regular second row without these ultra-plush thrones is available, to be clear, but that doesn’t make me stop questioning who these seats are for to begin with.
Clearly, however, most of my time was bound to be spent in the driver’s seat.
For the Driver
Kia’s usual suite of driver aids worked acceptably well, although not as good as I remember on the K5 GT. That being said, they’re above average for the industry, better than what Toyota has to offer, certainly. The lane-following does indeed follow the lane quite well, the lane-keep buzzes to make sure you stay attentive, and the radar cruise control follows targets with ease.
Driver aids aside, the Carnival rode very smoothly. If my rock-hard 2002 BMW M3 is a zero on the ride quality scale, and the Aston Martin DBX with triple chamber air suspension is a 10, then this is around a 7.5. Potholes offered no punishment—although there was still a little body roll—and overall it was great, especially on the highway.
In Connecticut, we stopped at a Subway to get some food east of Waterbury. Once again, the rear seat passengers had it easy. The Kia doesn’t have meal trays—the automaker didn’t go that far—but it is much easier to consume a sub in the back seat. There are more readily accessible cupholders, more space to move around, and if you’re gonna get shredded lettuce anywhere, it’s perfect. Yes, I vacuumed the car before I returned it.
Contempt for the rear passengers growing, I flipped on the rear-facing interior camera to make sure there was no trouble going on back there. The inmates in the back got rowdy once they realized where the camera was, so I turned on the “Passenger Talk” intercom to ensure the unrest would end peacefully. If you’re looking to buy a Carnival or you already have one equipped with this feature, the microphone for the third-row intercom is in the rearview mirror. If you don’t talk directly into it, your voice will not reach the feeble eardrums of the miscreants in the back.
Gizmos explored, we continued on our journey until we reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We stopped for gas there before continuing, so this is a good spot to talk about a serious weak point for the Carnival: the fuel economy. I had to stop for fuel after around 275 miles, which isn’t great. Throughout my trip, in fact, I averaged just 22.6 miles per gallon, and almost all of my driving was done with cruise control engaged on the highway. For reference, that’s 6.2-liter Cadillac Escalade territory. I’m not sure why the 3.6-liter V6 was so thirsty, but this minivan needs a more modern drivetrain. A smaller engine with turbocharger, a hybrid system; something to quell the thirst.
The Carnival’s mileage isn’t any more awful when you stack it against the Honda Odyssey and regular Chrysler Pacifica, but just keep in mind that the Pacifica is available as a plug-in hybrid.
Poor fuel economy in the rearview mirror—though not forgotten—the trek north in the dark continued. In a burst of manic energy and very loud music played with all of the windows down, we pulled out of Portsmouth. The stereo system in this car isn’t amazing, but it’s pretty good, featuring 12 speakers. That’s slightly above average as compared to something like a family sedan, but arguably just adequate for a car its size. Again, more than good enough for some meddling kids to appreciate. With the music keeping us all awake and the miles gradually slipping past, we crossed into Maine. Kennebunkport passed, then Portland, then Grey, then Oxford, until finally, we arrived at the house around midnight. My 14 hours of driving were over, at least for now.
Impressing Some Cavemen
The next morning I awoke, had a breakfast sandwich that tasted like the way feet smell, had some bad coffee, and visited some friends who were hiking the Appalachian Trail. It was just a coincidence they were here at the time we were, so when they asked to be taken into town to get some supplies, I had plenty of room in the Kia for them.
Having not shaved or been inside a car in several months, they were like cavemen in both appearance and demeanor. And as such, the three were nothing short of amazed by the luxurious second row, especially enjoying the fact that the seats could lay almost flat and the video games (probably designed for children) on the rear-facing entertainment monitors. Again, very similar to discovering fire.
When we arrived at the hillclimb the next day, we immediately learned two things. The first is that apparently you’re supposed to show up in a Subaru WRX. Everybody else was in a Subaru WRX. The second was that you get a “THIS CAR CLIMBED MOUNT WASHINGTON” sticker at the base of the mountain. I put the sticker on the Carnival, obviously, and I could’ve turned around right there and gone home. But then the sticker would’ve been a big fat lie.
After overcoming questionable sticker ethics, the Carnival and I had no choice but to climb the mountain. This was where the 290-horsepower V6 really shined. It had plenty of power to make it to the top. I bet it would probably summit Mount Washington faster than an ND Miata, but I’m saying that really just to pick a fight in the comments.
It also cornered better than expected, despite handling like a minivan. Nothing about it seemed unhappy with climbing the mountain. Everything—the soft suspension, light steering, plenty of usable power, an adequate eight-speed transmission—worked smoothly together.
After an uneventful drive, we peaked. The car physically and me personally. That was because, after some car shuffling and friends who needed to use the bathroom, I was finally able to wiggle my way into that second-row seat. Rear privacy shades up—even in the third row—and with heated seats engaged, this minivan revealed itself to be the perfect home away from home on a road trip.
Comfortably parked, we watched as car after car scurried up the mountain road. Travis Pastrana seemed unafraid of the risk of plunging thousands of feet into a rocky mountain abyss that day because he set an all-time record to the top once in the morning… and then again in the afternoon.
There were a lot of Subarus, most of them pretty average with the exception of Pastrana’s machine. Other interesting vehicles included a classic Datsun, a very nice-looking Saab 900, and a Lotus Exige.
A Home Base
As a stationary home base from which to watch a hillclimb from, the Carnival is pretty tough to beat. I thought, man, I could sleep in this thing. And in the two hours between the first and second heats, I did.
The Kia was a great car to sleep in, although, again this is where a hybrid system might’ve come into play. We had to turn the car on and off to keep it warm enough to sleep in. A good plug-in setup would have offered enough battery power to keep the car warm, or at least run the heated seats. That would’ve been nice to do in order to avoid so much idling. Maybe sleeping in a car isn’t something you do on the regular, but the Carnival was well-suited for it. It just could have been better.
Other nice things in the back of the Kia were the roof-mounted HVAC controls for the rear seats and USB ports mounted to the driver and front passenger seatbacks. There were also USB ports for third-row passengers as well, a 115-volt outlet, and a regular 12-volt socket. Beyond features, the interior was also very well put together, with leather, metal-looking plastic, and soft-touch surfaces everywhere.
Unfortunately, however, my time to enjoy these things without having to drive was over. That same day of the hillclimb, we had to head back down to New Jersey. The cars had finished their runs, the race was over, it was time for a late-night slog back down south.
It’s Priced Well, Though
And a slog it absolutely was. Over the course of the weekend, I did 25 hours of driving and it was not something I particularly enjoyed doing. No matter how luxurious the Carnival’s second row was, it was still a minivan. And that’s the thing with vehicles like this: they’re not supposed to be fun. They’re for utility—ferrying people is always going to be a chore, especially without the far more advanced driver aids from automakers such as General Motors to alleviate some of the strain.
Sure you can argue that a minivan is just as utilitarian as an SUV, but I’m not sure if the “minivans are uncool” image will ever go away. They just aren’t aspirational the way a big powerful SUV is. Automakers are clearly trying to address this by adding luxury features, sharper styling, and a slew of tech to make minivans more appealing, but I just don’t see them as beyond something that’s “given up.” In fact, I would rather have a new SUV… if this thing’s price wasn’t so appealing.
As optioned with all its bells and whistles, the Carnival stickered at an MSRP of $47,770, including destination, up from a base price of $33,555. If there’s a car that you can get more for your money with, I would like to see it. For under $50,000, you can carry five or seven passengers in extremely high comfort, along with plenty of luggage and gear, and if somebody in the back says they don’t have a USB port to charge their device with, they’re lying to you. Get a good look at them with the rear-facing camera. Turn on the intercom. Scream, “Liar!”
As an objective package, the Carnival has its flaws but is overall quite good. The ultra-lux, middle-row captain’s chairs—a $5,000 optional extra as a part of the SX Prestige trim—decreases usability somewhat since a regular, three-seat bench is available. The fuel economy isn’t great and all-wheel drive isn’t even an option; these are things serious enough to be dealbreakers for a potential buyer. Therefore, the Carnival is good, but it needs to lean into that utility and thrift to be great. It’s already affordable for what it is, so make it fuel-efficient so those savings stick around. It’s already extremely practical, so make it all-weather capable with an AWD system. There’s already an excellent base to build on. Just give it a more modern powertrain and it would be hard for any parent to say no to.
After a thousand miles, I still wasn’t 100 percent sold on minivans, but I get why they’ve stuck around for so long. When you design a vehicle like this around on-road practicality without any compromise necessarily towards streamlined looks or off-road capability, you can concentrate a lot of value into one platform. The minivan, especially one like this that’s front-wheel-drive only, is very much a product of a world of well-paved roads and easy commuting, designed for the jobs that come with that world. At those things, it excels, but somehow it’s just a little too suburban for some people, including me. You’re sort of like an expert on doing very mundane things when you own a minivan; a pro on the ins and outs of the Panera Bread drive-thru, an esteemed professor on the art of getting the very last drop out of a printer ink cartridge. That’s not something most people want to be associated with.
The Carnival is definitely that, but it also has enough potential as a platform and aesthetically to be something more. It’s so close to breaking the minivan shell. It just needs a quirk, a focus, something it’s especially good at. It doesn’t have it right now, but I have no doubt it just might in the future. After all, it climbed Mount Washington! That’s gotta mean something, right?
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