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Does the Kia Carnival represent a return to fashion for...

Business Maverick

A Vroom with a View

Does the Kia Carnival represent a return to fashion for the long-forgotten MPV?

As a kid growing up in Europe in the 1980s, there were certain cars I thought were just about the coolest things on Earth. First, and probably unassailably the car of the era to me, was the Peugeot 205 GTi, a fabulous-looking little pocket rocket that is rightly regarded as an ’80s motoring icon. It’s a key pillar of my sense of motoring good taste that I loved these things actually in the ’80s, not just since. My experience of them was to see them screeching past my dad’s lumbering Mercedes 200 D on the autobahn.

Back in somewhat more blue-collar Yorkshire, the pocket rocket of choice was the Ford Fiesta XR2i. I remember driving sedately up the coast towards Bridlington and Scarborough one Sunday with my grandfather at the wheel of his Talbot Solara, when a tearaway screamed past in his XR2i. “Who does he think he is, Stirling Moss?” Grandpa asked of nobody in particular, while reaching for another boiled sweet to hand back to his grandson in the back seat.

Back in those days, in not-so-monied circles, dream cars were the Ford Sierra Cosworth, XR3i, and the Lancia Delta Integrale. My parents, however, had eyes for a different machine. I specifically remember, on one of those long hot drives to Italy from the Yorkshire cold, when we first saw the new Renault Espace on the French autoroute. It must have been 1984 or so. Well, it was a spaceship compared with the three-box sedans and the workaday estates common on European roads at the time. Vast, spacious, airy and clever, suddenly they were competing with Volvo estates for posh people’s money. For families, they were revelatory.

These days, I can see why. As a dad of four, ordinary transport is no longer possible, as we need a minimum of six three-point seatbelts to travel as a family. Add grandparents or kids’ friends and a load of camping gear, some cellos, a double bass, foldaway cots, exploding volcano school projects and heaven knows what else, and it’s clear to see why we bought a Volkswagen Kombi.

Much like the Mercedes V-Class and Ford Transit offerings, the Kombi is a commercial vehicle repurposed for carrying people. It’s a minibus, and it’s why there is quite so much space, and why the boot is so large even with eight seats occupied. For us, it’s perfect.

It’s a point I will return to, but the kids love the Kombi. I mean, they really, really love it. They love a van because they can bring their friends, they don’t have to compete and bicker over elbow space, and they can sit a goodly distance away from their annoying parents. With one of the commercial minibuses – the Kombi, the V-Class and the Ford Transit – there is simply no bigger or capacious family accommodation.

Until recently, there was an ageing Korean competitor – the Hyundai H1. But that’s gone now, transforming from a minibus into a space-aged-looking Korean multi-purpose vehicle (MPV), the Staria. The Staria, like the original Espace back in France in 1984, is built on a passenger platform, and that comes with all kinds of benefits in terms of drivability, noise vibration and harshness, safety, comfort and fuel efficiency.

I’ve not yet had a go in a Staria, but it was quite a moment for Team Parker when the new Kia Carnival arrived for testing. The Carnival shares the Staria’s Kia/Hyundai modular platform, but is a wholly different visual execution. Whereas the Staria, from passing inspection at least, really goes back to the ’80s Espace for inspiration in terms of envelope-pushing design and gigantic glasshouse windows, the Carnival opts for a sleek, modern, lower minivan look, more in keeping with the American tradition of minivans.

The Carnival is yet another car from the brand that sets various standards. The Carnival is such a good family car. The model I drove was a seven-seater affair with a rear bench and two business-class-style seats in the middle row.

It is a gigantic thing, almost 5.2m long (not far off half a metre longer than a current-model Land Rover Discovery), with a front-wheel-drive setup. It’s a vastly spacious and comfortable car, and has a huge, deep boot you’d need a Kombi to beat for sheer cavernous capaciousness.

Because it sits on car underpinnings, not a commercial platform, the ride and steering is tuned for humans, not 600kg of masonry, and as a result it is smooth, quiet and efficient. Even the base model (a touch under R800,000) has enough toys and safety kit for most families, and the top of the range has pretty much everything you’ve ever thought of, for just over the dreaded six-digit number. For that you get electric sliding doors, air-conditioned seats and a raft of active safety kit.

All the models come with the same 148kW 2.2-litre diesel motor and a slightly fussy eight-speed automatic gearbox. It’s a good motor, though – new from the firm – and I found it to be appropriately punchy and very efficient on the highway.

It occurs to me that the Carnival could be the standard bearer for resurgent MPVs. I see a lot on the roads. Kia reckons the segment grew 15% last year, as much as any numbers are useful amid Covid’s destruction. With an all-new Volkswagen Caddy on the way to join the shiny new Korean duo, and the Mercedes, Ford and Volkswagen minibuses, perhaps people will look at the prices of small luxury SUVs (more than R700,000 for a diesel BMW X1) and the sheer quantity of car you can get for not a whole lot more. For this much space and luxury in an SUV, you’d need seriously deep pockets.

If you look at how family SUVs are used, in almost every way an MPV like the Carnival is better. All it can’t do is the off-road stuff, and seeing as most of us do little more than trouble the occasional dirt road a couple of times a year, we have to be honest and ask ourselves how much we’re willing to pay for this automotive vanity. Really; you’re a parent. You’re not doing the Dakar Rally. Get an MPV – the kids will love you for it. The Carnival is a great place to start looking. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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