My wife and I were once Minivan Deniers. We wanted desperately to avoid those most stereotypical of family vehicles, but after our second child was born our resistance crumbled and we joined the minivan world back in 2010. Last year, we took that one step farther and became a two-minivan family. For our newest addition, we chose what happens to be the least popular minivan in North America, Kia’s Sedona. After 12,000 miles and a recently completed two-week road trip, this seems like a good time to look back and see how the Sedona’s been treating us. Pretty good, it turns out. In the Sedona’s case, Least Popular certainly doesn’t mean Least Capable.
First, why a minivan? Two reasons: Cost and flexibility. Like many families, we don’t exactly have unlimited resources, so we prioritize a reasonable cost of ownership. Furthermore, since we take frequent long-distance trips, we require a comfortable car that can accommodate four people and a full load of luggage. While SUVs may be more fashionable, they are costlier and have less cargo capacity than minivans. In fact, to find an SUV that exceeds a typical minivan’s behind-the-second-row cargo volume, one needs a Suburban-sized vehicle – and a $50,000 price tag. Since we don’t need 4wd or heavy-duty towing capabilities, those advantages of SUVs are not worth paying extra for. A decently-equipped minivan can be purchased well under $30,000. For us, minivans make more sense.
Our minivan ownership experience began in 2010 when we purchased a Honda Odyssey, which has served us well for nine years and 136,000 miles. But we didn’t want to push our luck – I’d prefer not to use a higher-mileage vehicle for long vacations in the summer heat, with a full load of passengers and cargo. So last fall we shopped around for the Odyssey’s successor (not replacement as it turns out, because I sold my trouble-prone Crown Victoria and now use the Odyssey as my daily driver).
North American consumers have their choice of five minivan models; I’ll spare you the details of our decision-making, but we crossed off the Grand Caravan, Odyssey and Pacifica early in the car-shopping process. That left the Toyota Sienna and Kia Sedona to battle it out for our hearts and wallets.
Runner-Up: the Toyota Sienna: We expected to love the Sienna, since it and the Odyssey have for years been considered the gold-standard of minivans. We liked it, though nothing stood out to make us love it. The Sienna was comfortable, versatile, seemingly well-built and appeared to achieve everything we’d expect from a minivan. Then we noticed one nagging problem. While on our test drive, the Sienna’s transmission shifted roughly – enough for both me and my wife to wonder if something was wrong.
Back at home, I researched this issue and found that when Toyota first equipped the Sienna (and Highlander) with a 9-speed transmission for 2017, complaints were numerous. Eventually, Toyota issued a technical service bulletin to reconfigure software for customers who complained about rough shifting, but this didn’t seem to solve the issue entirely. Both the problem itself, and Toyota’s tepid response to it, chilled our enthusiasm for the Sienna. We didn’t completely rule out the Toyota, but it made our test drive of the one remaining minivan a bit more meaningful.
And the Winner Is… the Kia Sedona: When we drove the Sedona, our memories of Toyota’s Sienna were fresh in our minds. My first impression was that the Sedona drove similarly to the Sienna, but with a smoother (6-speed) transmission. There were some things we liked better and some things we didn’t like as much, and on a cost-independent basis I’d say the Sedona/Sienna match-up would have ended in a draw. But life is not independent of cost, and here the Sedona has a sizable advantage. Sedonas are cheaper, and as of last fall, dealers were knocking a significant amount off the sticker price. We ended up paying $22,000 for a new Sedona… about 30% off the sticker price and thousands less than what I think we could have negotiated for a similarly-equipped Toyota. Once it became clear how much we could save with a Kia, our decision was an easy one. We became Kia owners in late October.
Sedonas come in five trim levels, and we chose an LX, which is the second-from-the-bottom. Starting with the base L model’s equipment, the LX adds privacy glass, a power driver’s seat, 8-passenger (as opposed to 7-passenger) seating, and power sliding doors. Most LXs in dealer inventory came with two option packages (called the Essentials Premium and Advanced Technology Packages), but leather seats, a larger screen, push-button start and various tech features didn’t interest us, so we sought out an LX without those features. That was a challenge, but not impossible.
We eventually settled on a silver one located at a dealer 100 miles from home – they gave us the best offer, were professional to deal with, and it’s not an unreasonable distance to travel for a good price.
Few consumers choose like we did and pick the Sedona over its competition. For the last decade, the minivan market has been dominated by the Big Three – Dodge/Chrysler, Honda and Toyota. Other manufacturers, unable to break into this top tier, have drifted out of the minivan market, but Kia has opted to remain. Sales jumped somewhat in 2015 after the current-generation Sedona debuted, achieving 40,000 annual sales and 9% of the US minivan market. However, both numbers have declined substantially since then. In 2018, just under 18,000 Sedonas found homes here, with just a 3.7% market share.
Interestingly, Canadian Sedona sales have largely increased since 2015, and Kia holds a 7.7% share of the Canadian minivan market. But any way these numbers are examined, it’s clear that Kia is a distant 5th in North American minivan popularity. Name recognition likely has something to do with that (ask someone to name five minivans, and I bet the Sedona won’t be on the list), though the brand isn’t exactly obscure any longer. Granted, the Sedona has few characteristics that make it stand out from the crowd (if you can call four competitors a crowd), however my experience is that the Sedona is as good as the competition, and a worthy successor to our Odyssey. So let’s take a close-up look:
The Sedona is a good-looking van, avoiding the Darth Vader appearance of the new Odyssey, the incongruously aggressive maw of the Sienna, or the appliance-like boxyness of the Grand Caravan. In my opinion, only the Pacifica has a more pleasing design. Out front, Kia’s corporate grille provides a strong relationship to other cars in the automaker’s lineup – it’s a conservative, modern design that works well with larger vehicles like the Sedona and Sorento.
Around back, Kia tried to make the box less minivan-like – the high rear quarter windows present an appearance suggestive of SUVs. That was obviously intentional; SUVs are cool and minivans aren’t. I didn’t particularly like this rear-quarter view at first, but it’s grown on me.
More than once, I’ve mistaken Toyota Highlanders or other compact SUVs for Sedonas… a story that would likely cheer up Kia’s styling team. Overall, I have no complaints about the Sedona’s appearance.
The 276-hp 3.3-L V-6 has plenty of power, whether in town or climbing mountain Interstates. Handling-wise, the Sedona exhibits more body roll than our Odyssey (which is surprisingly agile for a minivan), but it’s still well within acceptable parameters for a large family vehicle. One important attribute for a long-haul family vehicle is to deliver a quiet and smooth ride, which the Sedona certainly achieves.
I find the driving position comfortable – intriguingly, my wife absolutely loves it. Why? Because at 5’1” not every vehicle is comfortable for her to drive, and the Sedona is outstanding in this regard. The driver’s seat, for instance, lowers enough so that her feet can comfortably reach the pedals and floor (not always the case, even in vehicles with power seats). And according to my wife, everything in the cockpit is well designed for small-framed people; she reports that the Sedona is the most comfortable vehicle she’s driven in years.
Looking out from the driver’s seat, one is greeted by a functional and attractive dash layout. Large round gauges set deep into the dashboard, a central trip computer readout, redundant steering wheel controls for cruise and audio functions – all of this is usable and works exactly how driver’s controls should. Interior components are of excellent quality, both visually and tactually. Dash controls are illuminated red at night; at first I thought that would aggravate me, but fortunately the speedometer and tachometer numbers are backlighted in white, which eliminates what would have been tiring effects from too much red lighting.
Techies may scoff at the relatively low-tech center stack of our LX, but I like it. Not being a fan of infotainment screens, the 5” display here is plenty big for me, and the climate controls have solid knobs and buttons. Higher-trim Sedonas received a larger screen and more console buttons (and all 2019 models get at least a 7” screen), but I’m glad we bought this version.
My biggest frustration with our van lies between the front seats. Instead of an open or semi-open area as found in many minivans, Sedona has a console containing the gear selector and a storage bin. This irritates me. Having grown accustomed to the Odyssey’s open center area (with flip-up tray), I’ve come to view that feature as one of a minivan’s most versatile attributes. I miss the ability to easily slide over to the passenger seat, walk through to the rear, or to temporarily stow anything from jackets to take-out bags between the seats. Kia was probably aiming for an SUV-type interior feel, as SUVs tend to have big consoles. Though I’m sure plenty people like this van’s console, I’m not impressed. If I could change one thing about the Sedona, it would be this.
One Sedona feature in particular attracts a good deal of criticism, so it’s worth extra attention here. The second-row seats slide up and forward, but are not removable. This setup, while providing quick access to the third row, consumes about 20″ of potential cargo space. The seats can be unbolted from the floor and taken out that way, but other minivans have seats that retract or can be removed without tools or frustration. This is certainly a downside to the Sedona. For us it wasn’t a deal-killer because we don’t haul a lot of bulky items, and we’re keeping our Odyssey (with removable seats) for the foreseeable future. But in a market segment where buyers value maximum usefulness, Kia should have better designed these seats.
Fortunately, when used as actual seats, the second- and third-rows are very comfortable. And we put this comfort to a test this summer by embarking on a 4,300-mi. road trip taking us from our home in Virginia to the Texas Panhandle and back. Any flaws in the Sedona’s comfort or performance would certainly show up on such a journey.
This type of trip is the ultimate test for a minivan, so how did the Sedona perform?
Excellently, it turns out. With the third row seat folded down, all of our gear fit into the car below the window line. Try stowing this much gear in an SUV like a Honda Pilot, and your luggage will be piled up to the roof.
Highway performance was very good. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that 276-hp minivans actually exist, but I’m glad that they do, because we never lacked in power. The Sedona never struggled, even on steep grades, and always had enough muscle to pass other vehicles, such as on two-lane roads. The cruise control and transmission don’t always do a great job of communicating, leading to some slowing down on hills, but I found that on hilly stretches of highway that leaving the transmission in 5th gear is a good compromise. The ease of using the Sportmatic transmission in manual mode compensates for the slow downshifts and other idiosyncrasies common in many automatics. Fortunately, the transmission doesn’t exhibit the endless gear-searching of some modern cars (leaving it out of Eco Mode helps in this regard, too).
Comfort-wise, the Sedona’s seats were wonderful. None of us had a sore back, cramped legs, or anything else, even after a day of 600 miles worth of driving.
In the hot sun of the Southern Plains, Sedona’s climate control worked flawlessly (ours has manual controls; automatic climate control comes in higher-end versions). In fact, this car has the most potent heating and air conditioning systems of any vehicle I’ve owned. In winter, the hottest setting will roast you in a matter of minutes, and even on the hottest days, it’s rare to leave the a/c on a high setting for long.
On trips like this, we choose non-highway routes whenever possible, which require a different set of vehicle capabilities than highway driving. Again, the Sedona performed very well. Sedona’s ride isn’t as firm as our Odyssey’s, as its handling is probably 20% squishier. However, for a minivan it’s a perfectly acceptable compromise of handling and comfort. Twisting mountain roads posed no problem, and any type of handling maneuver that the Sedona can’t accomplish probably shouldn’t be attempted in a minivan, anyway.
Overall, we couldn’t have asked for a better long-distance trip car, especially at the price we paid for this van.
There are, of course, some minor annoyances that I’ve noticed as the miles piled on – things one only observes after spending a large chunk of time in a car. For example: 1) The headlights, particularly the high-beams, are weak, especially for dark rural roads. 2) Storage bin space isn’t as voluminous as our Odyssey, which has several covered storage bins and an underfloor well… such things are incredibly useful. 3) There are too many blind spots. Sedona’s not alone in this regard, but between the pillars, the high windowline and the headrests, a whole car can hide back there. Additionally, thick A-pillars create blind spots out front. 4) While versatile, the rear cargo area could have fewer protrusions… not a big deal, but some other minivans do a better job at this.
But these are relatively small nitpicks. As for the big issues – performance, comfort, reliability and value, I have no significant complaints… especially about the value. I have a hard time picturing a Toyota Sienna, or any other minivan for that matter, performing better than our Sedona did, and for $22,000 that’s quite a complement.
Popularity contests are sometimes hard to figure out. By all rights and reasons, Kia should sell more of these vans than they do. I understand that Kia’s lack of name recognition, the rear seats issue, and the presence of long-established competition all affect Sedona sales to some extent, but this van is every bit as good as the class leaders, and in most cases cheaper too. If the Sedona could satisfy us for a trip halfway across the continent and back, then it’s an awfully good vehicle. Hopefully Kia won’t give up on the minivan market (sales of the slightly-revised 2019 model are down 24% over last year), because they have a competitive and competent product.
It’s satisfying to have purchased something, and then a year later to know that you made the right choice. That’s how we feel about the Sedona. Sure, it’s not perfect, but given the value, the high level of fit and finish, and its excellent road manners, the Sedona suits our needs very well. And while ours is a relatively low-end LX model, I presume that the high-end versions also stack up favorably against the more established competition. The Sedona shouldn’t be overlooked by folks shopping for a minivan.
The real test of the Sedona’s merit came on the final day of our two-week trip. After spending 77 hours (according to the elapsed time indicator) riding in the Sedona over two weeks, I asked our daughters what they thought of it: “We love the Sedona!” was their reply. Case closed: the Sedona is a winner for us.