2023 Kia Carnival Review: Don't Dismiss The Minivan

  • SUV-styling is slick
  • Incredibly practical
  • Smooth and refined driving
  • No electrification means economy is only average
  • No all-wheel drive option

Spare a thought for the humble minivan, long maligned and unfairly so. Much like the station wagon, memories of drab family transportation have soured generations of new car buyers, leaving models like the Kia Carnival facing an uphill battle.

Then again, today's minivans aren't so humble anymore. While you can pick up a family hauler with plenty of seats for somewhere in the low-30s, splash out and the modern van is an altogether more lavish place that gives fancy SUVs a run for their money. After all, why pay upwards of $350k for a Rolls-Royce Cullinan with power rear doors when you can have the same convenience on your Kia?

While that comparison may be tongue-in-cheek, the days of the minivan being a bland bus are long gone. This 2023 Kia Carnival SX Prestige, for example, brings a lavish second row with recliners for its $47,395 (plus $1,295 destination) sticker price as tested. That's all because van-makers have realized that if they're going to stay competitive, space alone isn't the answer.

Intentionally misleading

You might mistake the Carnival for an SUV at first glance, and Kia's design team would consider that a win. In an attempt to preempt "Oh, I could never buy a minivan" close-mindedness and hopefully bypass it, the switch from Sedona to Carnival branding (in the U.S.) with the fourth-generation vehicle also brought some intentionally SUV-inspired style cues.

That included a more defined hood, rather than the swooping bullet train-esque silhouette most minivans adopt, along with more muscular and squared-off proportions. It's longer, too, by 1.6 inches — three-quarters of that going into the wheelbase — and Kia threw in some glitzy detailing like the textured panel framing the C-pillar.

Base LX trim cars (from $33,200 plus $1,295 destination) get 17" wheels, while EX (from $38,700 plus destination) and above get 19" versions. All trims have power rear doors, though only EX and SX (from $41,900 plus destination) trims have a power tailgate. Automatic LED headlights are standard on all trims, with the flagship SX Prestige kicking that up to LED projector lights; it also has dual sunroofs. Oddly, no trim gets automatic windshield wipers.

Practicality shines through

As standard, the Carnival LX has seven seats, while all other trims have eight. An SX Prestige Seat Package swaps the second row bench for two VIP lounge seats, with footrests and both heating and ventilation. The downside is that the seats are fixed and, though they'll fold forward, they can't be removed.

So much of the Carnival experience makes practical sense. The side doors power-slide open at the touch of a button, after pulling the door handle, or remotely from the key fob. They're not so slow as to be tedious if it's raining, and they make sidling into the Kia much easier in narrow parking spots. The third row of seats, meanwhile, tumble flat with the pull of a lever. Or, you can fold them and push them forward, revealing a sizable bin that allows easy moving of taller items that need to stay upright, like plants. 

Kia's Passenger View system, beaming a live video feed of the second and third rows to the infotainment screen, sounds like a gimmick, but combined with the Passenger Talk system it could make the difference between controlling an unruly brood and seeing them go into a sugar-fueled frenzy.

Do you want cheap or do you want luxury?

Kia's entry Carnival LX trim goes light on the gadgets. There's a 4.2" instrument display and an 8-inch infotainment touchscreen, manual air conditioning, plus a mere 6-speaker audio system, though you do still get wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and seven USB ports spread across all three rows. An LX Seat Package trim adds heated front seats.

EX and above trims have a 12.3-inch infotainment system with SiriusXM, WiFi hotspot, Passenger View and Talk, wireless charging, rear window sunshades, and tri-zone climate control. EX and SX get an 8-speaker audio system; the SX Prestige swaps that for a 12-speaker Bose system.

SX and above trims get ventilated front seats and two 115V AC outlets: one in the second row, one in the trunk. Only the Carnival SX Prestige trim gets leather seats and, oddly, a heated steering wheel. The rear seat entertainment package, with a pair of displays for the second row, is an extra $1,000 upgrade SX trim and above.

Only one engine choice, and that's frustrating

Though Kia offers the Carnival with a few different engines around the world, none are electrified; the U.S. gets a signal example from the list, the 3.5-liter V6 with an 8-speed automatic transmission. It brings an acceptable 290 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque to the school run; front-wheel drive is the only option, with no all-wheel drive version available.

With a curb weight in excess of 4,700 pounds empty, seating configuration depending, it'll come as little surprise that the Carnival is no drag racer. Instead, it feels progressive and steady in building pace, the tuned-for-comfort suspension leaving things level and stable yet never encouraging enthusiastic driving. Honestly, I don't think that's a bad thing, whether you're toting queasy kids or demanding execs.

The 3,500 pounds of towing capacity is probably going to be of more interest to the average Carnival customer, anyway. That matches what Toyota and Honda's minivans offer, though it falls short of the 5,000 pound rating that a Kia Telluride offers with its slightly larger V6.

Average economy, above-average space

As for economy, the EPA quotes 19 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway, and 22 mpg combined. In my own highway-skewed mixed driving I saw over 26 mpg on the Carnival's trip computer. Honda's Odyssey and the gas Chrysler Pacifica are also rated at 22 mpg combined.

Really, though, you can't help looking at the Carnival and wonder why Kia left electrification by the wayside. Yes, there's the upcoming EV9 three-row all-electric model, but meanwhile Toyota opted to make all of its Sienna minivans hybrids — with a whopping 36 mpg combined as a result — and you can have the Chrysler Pacifica as an excellent plug-in hybrid.

With all the seats up, the Carnival offers 40.2 cu-ft of cargo space. Sacrifice the seating, and that expands to just over 145 cu-ft. That's good for the segment, though I wish Kia's second row seats were a little easier to adjust forward and back: it takes two hands, one to pull out a handle, the other to shove the seat on its rails. 

A strong safety package as standard

All Carnival trims get forward collision-avoidance assistance, blind spot warnings and assistance, lane departure warnings, lane keeping assistance, lane following assistance, and rear cross-traffic collision avoidance assistance. Rear parking sensors come on all trims (with SX adding collision-avoiding auto-brake) and front sensors on EX trim and up.

Only Carnival SX trims get a 360-degree camera and Kia's clever camera system that beams a live view of the adjacent lane to the driver's display when you hit the turn signal. Navigation-based adaptive cruise control is standard on EX and above, as is Highway Driving Assist (HDA). While it's still a hands-on system, Kia's blend of lane-keeping and adaptive cruise does leave long highway jaunts feeling less stressful.

Ultrasonic sensors keep track of when you've inadvertently left kids (or pets) in the back seats, flagging up a warning when you park up. There's also safe exit assist, which sounds an alarm if you're about to step out into oncoming traffic.

2023 Kia Carnival Verdict

Overlooking minivans like the Carnival when you regularly have people or things to transport, and automatically assuming you need an SUV, feels like a decision based on fashion rather than common sense. And, while I can understand lackluster memories around minivans of old might sour your new car shopping today, the reality is that today's vans are leagues ahead of the creaky Plymouth Voyager you still have nightmares about.

That's not to say the Carnival is people-moving perfection. Kia's seven- or eight-seater is comfortable and refined, and in higher trims positively lavish, but without even a mild hybrid option its economy is only average. Meanwhile, those drivers in states where winter brings snow and ice might find the absence of a Carnival AWD option frustrating.

Where Kia's van is successful, though, is in a somewhat more intangible way: all the minivan flexibility, without all the minivan feel. The rationalists may be shaking their heads about now, but there's no denying that fashion and gut reaction shapes sales as much as features and fuel economy. While the SUV may be the current go-to, unless you actively need off-road ability then the Kia Carnival simply does a better job of moving people in spacious comfort.