The MPV has to be the unsexiest type of vehicle. It’s the opposite of a low slung and svelte sports car in form, and the multi-purpose vehicle’s mission in life is also the opposite of exciting. These boxes on wheels exist to ferry as many humans as possible. Like a school bus, just smaller and the kids are all yours. But we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do, and nothing beats the MPV as a family car.

Of late, certain MPVs have become VIP transporters, gaining prestige in the process. The Toyota Alphard and its sportier Vellfire twin is a common sight in town, usually with blacked out windows, filing in and out of building lobbies. It seems like every other rich man has one in his fleet.

So, there are two uses for the humble MPV: family transport and bossmobile. This separation is important, because I feel that the Kia Carnival plays one of those roles better than the other.

Mr. MPV

Let’s start with points that are universal. I think everyone can agree that the new Carnival looks good. I’ll go even further and say that it’s the best-looking MPV our market has ever seen. It’s striking, it’s macho, it looks very premium, and crucially – it doesn’t look like the Alphard, or a box.

I feel that there are two factors at play here – proportions and features/detailing. The fourth-generation Kia Carnival is a big car – that’s obvious the first time you see in the metal – but you don’t need tape to tell that this is a different shape from the Alphard.

Pull out the tape and the Kia is indeed significantly longer (+210 mm at 5,155 mm) and wider (+145 mm at 1,995 mm) than the popular Toyota, while being 120 mm lower (1,775 mm). It’s not as low slung as the wagon-like RB Honda Odyssey, and interior space is not compromised. At 3,090 mm, the Kia’s wheelbase is 90 mm longer than the Alphard’s.

The Kia’s proportions goes a long way in the looks department, which is embellished by the bold and very original face. The placement of the headlamps (spot the bulbs camouflaged in the grille) and shape of the LED daytime running lights are wild, but the overall look is somehow cohesive.

Nice rear ends are very rare, and the Carnival’s butt is simple and sleek. It’s dominated by a full-width red bar, although the actual tail lamps are that long. The new borderless Kia logo sits proudly at both ends, and the MPV gets a sprinkling of SUV flavour to suit today’s tastes – see the silver skid plate-style trim at both ends, black lower body panels and roof rails.

The fin-like C-pillars are a fine flourish to cap a great design, like the blue cabochon crown on a Cartier Tank. It’s satin finished and features a 3D diamond texture that’s repeated on the dashboard. This big Kia can take more than 18-inch wheels, but that’s what we get and it’s fine.

I feel that the Carnival looks best in dark colours, like the Panthera Metal grey we have here, but it’s in Astra Blue that the MPV shines the brightest. The Carnival reminds me of the current Lincoln Navigator – open a new tab and Google that luxury American SUV.

Drives as well as it looks

But it’s “all about the drive” right? It’s never so in an MPV, but in the driving department, the KA4 Carnival finishes miles ahead of the Alphard, or Estima. Surprisingly, the Carnival is quite a pleasure to drive. While not quite a “driver’s car” in sedan or hatchback terms, it can be considered so for what it is – a big MPV with many rows. The drive is pleasing in any category, I’d say.

The big difference with the Alphard starts with the driving position, which is lower and more car-like. You don’t need more than a spin around the block to notice that the Kia’s suspension is not as soft and floaty as the Alphard – once again, it feels more car-like and connected to the ground, so to speak. The steering has not much outright feel – which is actually a good thing in such a car – but it has more weight and feels less “virtual” than the Alphard’s glassy helm.

Perhaps you might think that the combo of firmer suspension and meatier steering isn’t advantageous for an MPV as it would in a hot hatch, but it is. The high-speed highway ride is more constant and stable, which translates to comfort, and it’s easier to steer with more precision and smoothness.

The recent media drive was a daytrip from Shah Alam to Ipoh and back, and I shared driving duties with three other colleagues. The Slim River to Bidor stretch on the old road is fast but rather uneven, is patchy at places and with some surprise big dips too – it’s a stern test that can catch out cars with too soft suspension, but the Carnival showed good composure and body control.

The powertrain also puts in a good showing. The 2.2 litre turbodiesel makes 202 PS and 440 Nm of torque from 1,750 to 2,750 rpm, and what you need to know is that it delivers lots of in-gear firepower, making the Kia a brisk big car. Having eight actual gears also means that the big torque is multiplied as you accelerate. Wheelspin at toll booths is possible (tried this just once for giggles, we were civilised throughout) and getting up to highway speed is a cinch.

In some ways, the Carnival is a more effortless drive than the Alphard, which naturally aspirated engine and CVT pairing requires more trying, even if it’s smooth. Speaking of refinement, the CRDi-powered Carnival is perhaps not at the Alphard’s level of insulation, but it’s so much more refined and less commercial vehicle-like to drive than the Hyundai Grand Starex (I haven’t tried the new Staria).

That’s the reason why the Starex doesn’t figure when evaluating the Carnival; they’re just so far apart in sophistication despite the on-paper similarities. As for the Alphard, to be fair, it’s made for the Japanese market and was never intended to be a global model. As such, the way it drives is exactly what is required/wanted by the clientele. We’re using it as a reference because the Toyota is the benchmark big MPV in the Malaysian context, and the RM196k Kia wants for the Carnival can buy you a used/recond Alphard (a brand new official one from UMWT starts from RM368k for a Vellfire 2.5L).

Premium design, delightful touches

It’s not just in the driving department that the Carnival differs significantly from the Alphard. As mentioned briefly above, the view out from the cockpit is also different, as both the perch and the cowl is lower. The driving position is less van-like than in the Alphard and Starex.

The dashboard has a nice modern design with the Mercedes-Benz-style dual-screen layout, except that the Malaysian-spec Carnival has an analogue instrument cluster. The design clearly had a screen in mind, so the dials might look a bit funny from the sides; but once on the move, you’ll probably forget about it as the steering rim perfectly frames the cluster, which by the way is very legible but probably a tad basic-looking.

I like that there’s a healthy serving of physical controls, even if most are of the touch-sensitive variety – there are already many things fighting for the attention of MPV drivers (demanding passengers, the car’s size, etc) so thankfully the functions are all buried in the screen. Speaking of that, we get a wide 12.3-inch display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. According to my audiophile colleague, the sound quality is surprisingly decent.

I’ve noted a few points in the surprise and delight column, mostly small design details that add up to make the car feel that bit more special. The Jaguar Land Rover-style gear selector look adds novelty and a premium feel; look closer and you’ll see a nice crystal effect and knurling on the sides (repeated on the other knobs and steering controls), which goes well with the diamond-patterned main trim piece. The latter looks good and is even better to touch, but can be a source of glare at specific angles.

There’s more – the new Kia logo on the steering boss is brushed, the leather seats have a cute “leafy” perforation pattern and the speaker grille on the door cards have “fade”. nice little touches. I also like the two-tone interior – IMO, tan brown adds to the premium feel as well as airiness, and the latter is good for a family car. However, both my polled colleagues prefer all-black for practical reasons. You?

Another thing that caught my attention was the width of the cabin, highlighted by the big centre armrest and door cubbies that can fit a phone, a wallet and a drink. Also, the front passenger has his/her own lock/unlock button on the door, so there’s no need to lift an arm, literally.

Anything missing? I feel that ventilated seats would have been a good addition on this tourer. Kia was a pioneer in offering this practical little luxury in the mass market with the Cerato in 2013 so this isn’t an unreasonable ask. Oh, and a digital meter panel would suit the dash layout better.

The reason behind the omissions is of course cost. It’s always a balancing act when it comes to spec and price, and Kia Malaysia would have had to pick carefully to achieve a sticker price of below RM200k (the previous-gen 11-seater was RM180k). As such, we’re getting the new Carnival in a less-luxurious but more tax-friendly 11-seat layout. Therein lies the biggest divergence from the Alphard.

The seating conundrum

More seats = less space. There’s no way around this, which is why the Alphard Royal Lounge, Lexus LM and Kia’s own Carnival Hi Limousine have only two seats behind the front row. Here, there are three, making it four rows and 11 seats in total. The Carnival’s considerable length makes it possible to actually fit 11 people, but everyone will have 1990s Bas Mini levels of space. If you’re too young, that means not much at all. Zero luggage space too if all seats are erect.

Realistically, very few buyers would use all four rows of seats; I foresee that the default configuration for most would be three rows up, and the last row permanently folded flat for a large boot. Eight seats should be enough for most – the Carnival is quite upmarket and won’t be bought as a bus, like some companies do with the Starex.

The middle and third row seats can slide and recline, and their centre seats (which only have lap belts, by the way) can be folded away to create a walkway, or folded down to be a “table” with cupholders. Arranged as such, with plenty of legroom for four rear occupants to play with, the Carnival is at its best.

By the way, the third row seats are smaller than those on the second row; they’re best left for the smallest sized people in the family, just like in a regular three-row MPV. Also, there are are two Isofix child seat mounting points, which is two less than in the previous-gen 11-seater.

The Carnival’s cabin is decent, really; but even with that vast rear cabin for four, the Kia is someway off the Alphard/Vellfire and its individual captain seats in the boss stakes. The Carnival’s second row seats are smaller, manual, and the outer seats only have one armrest (outer side). There’s good space and the main seats are by no means uncomfortable, but the Alphard does VIP much better.

Other nice rear cabin features include rear air con controls (three zones in total), open/close buttons for the sliding doors on the B-pillars (both sides), manual window blinds (for all rear side windows) and charging ports for all rows. The safety kit list has seven airbags, blind spot warning and RCTA, but AEB is missing.

Who’s this MPV for?

It’s fair to say that with the new Kia Carnival, you’re getting a lot of car for the money. Size and 11 seats aside, it’s the best looking MPV on sale today and it drives very well for what it is. Also, compared to recond Japanese MPVs with an unknown history, you’re getting a brand new car with five years of factory warranty and five years of free service. A default choice then?

My take is that if you’re looking for a family MPV, and you’re the bus driver, the Carnival is a great choice for all the reasons mentioned above. Picture this: centre seats stowed away, elderly parents in the best row, kids to the back and a happy driver behind the wheel. But if the MPV is your chauffeur-driven business vehicle, or luxury shuttle for the family (with a driver), the Alphard’s luxury seating and perceived prestige comes to the fore, while the Carnival’s pleasing drive becomes insignificant. If you’re in the former camp, try out the Kia.

PS: I spent most of my single day with the Carnival driving it over the media event. Hafriz had a bit more time to live with the Kia, play with the features and take a step back to evaluate it, and his observations are below.

Counterpoint – Hafriz Shah

The new Kia Carnival is an excellent car but ultimately a deeply flawed MPV in its current form. It looks great and has premium touches. The brushed metal new logos and diamond satin details inside out are nice, but the bulb taillamps spoil the premium look.

Likewise, it has good smart tailgate and power door features (stand by the door and it automatically opens, walk away from the boot and it closes), but it’s weird to not have auto unlock or walk-away lock functions. The car will unfold its mirrors and turn on the lights as you approach it with the key, but it won’t unlock. Worse still, the unlock procedure is through door handle buttons rather than touch sensors.

The interior feels great, but is surprisingly low spec. There’s no digital instrument cluster and ventilated seats (a Kia USP in Malaysia), but the full-screen Apple CarPlay looks great.

The Carnival’s 11-seat layout is not ideal. The centre seats all use lap belts, so they’re not fit for use. Essentially, it’s an eight-seater across four rows, compromising usable space for all passengers. And to fit eight, you’ll have zero boot space.

At best, it’s a usable six seater (2-2-2) with a large boot. Then again, the third row seats are small, short and uncomfortable. Even second-row seats are relatively basic compared to fancier captain seats in similarly priced grey market Toyota Vellfires. But at least the rear side windows wind down, unlike the bus-like manual sliding pigeonholes in the premium-priced Hyundai Staria.

A 7/8-seat configuration over three rows (with more comfortable seats) would be far better. Eleven-seat layout chosen for tax reasons? Questionable, since it’s still not exactly affordable. At this price point, whether it’s RM196k or RM220k wouldn’t make that big of a difference. I would gladly pay more for 7/8 seats, plus the missing items mentioned above.

On the positive side, the drive is excellent. The engine is very strong and surprisingly refined for a diesel. It only feels slightly gruff when pulling uphill, but is otherwise effortless. The comfort is also top class – very quiet, with good damping front and rear. Body roll also reasonably controlled for a car of this size, never to the point of making passengers carsick.

Safety is disappointing, though. This is a large MPV, a relatively premium-priced car given its brand – yet, no AEB? Malaysians have proved to be willing to pay for extra safety. And this is not a very price-sensitive end of the market, so why skimp on safety?

Ultimately, the new Kia Carnival is a great car let down by questionable decisions made for the Malaysian market. As it is, it’s still a good alternative to grey-market Vellfires. Brand new with warranty versus used cars that stink of cigarettes. Its diesel power is far better than Toyota’s 2.5L NA too. If only it had a better seating layout and higher specs, then the Carnival would be a slam dunk.