Kia’s first attempt at a minivan was a commercial success. Just two years after its launch, it became the best-selling minivan in Australia. In the US, it quickly outsold established but second-tier vans like the Mazda MPV and Nissan Quest. So how did Kia, a neophyte when it came to people carriers, manage to achieve this kind of instant success? It wasn’t because the Carnival/Sedona was particularly good. No, Kia achieved rapid sales growth the old-fashioned way: by offering lots of metal for the money, and very little money at that.
Inside and out, the Carnival looked like your typical minivan, not altogether dissimilar from something like a Ford Windstar. Its North American moniker, Sedona, therefore seemed entirely appropriate. Where the contemporary but unrelated Hyundai Trajet minivan looked more at home on the streets of Brussels or Birmingham, the Sedona looked right at home in Houston or St. Louis or, yes, Sedona. For simplicity’s sake – and because the Carnival name is a bit naff – let’s refer to the car as the Sedona for the rest of this article.
The Sedona used two different V6 engines, depending on the market. North American models had Hyundai’s 3.5 Sigma V6 with 195 hp and 218 ft-lbs. With this engine, the Sedona guzzled fuel at a rate of 15/20 mpg, a poor showing considering more powerful rivals from Ford and Chrysler could do 2-3 mpg better in both the city and on the highway. With the 3.5, the Sedona hit 60 mph in just under 10 seconds.
The V6 used in other markets was none other than Rover’s KV6 2.5 V6, producing 177 hp and 162 ft-lbs. Although a smooth engine, the 2.5 lacked low-end torque and struggled to move the Sedona, reaching 60 mph in around 13 seconds. It was also prone to headgasket failures, Kia replacing entire engines under warranty.
With the 2001 facelift, Kia made a 2.9 turbodiesel available in some markets such as Europe. It was noisy but it had superior fuel economy to the V6s and, with 142 hp and 229 ft-lbs, had more low-end grunt.
Regardless of the market, Kia undercut all rivals. In the UK, it was priced smack-bang in the middle of most compact MPVs’ price ranges. With a launch price of £14,000, it undercut comparably-sized rivals like the Fiat Ulysse, Mazda MPV and Seat Alhambra by a significant £3000 although buyers had to shell out £2000 for air-conditioning. In Australia, it fell under the magic $30,000 barrier and undercut the next cheapest seven-seater, the smaller Mitsubishi Nimbus, by a whopping $7k. Again, Kia was a little sneaky – that base model had a manual transmission, something few minivan buyers wanted. You had to shell out $3k to get the four-speed automatic, which also came with a driver’s airbag and a CD player. Despite their relative (albeit diminishing) obscurity, Kia did have an incentive to sweeten the deal, however: a great warranty.
Although spacious, the Sedona’s interior lacked the versatility of some rivals. Though it had two sliding doors, neither the second nor third rows tumbled forward although they did slide on tracks. The rear most bench could be lifted out but only if you bent with your knees as it was bloody heavy; it also didn’t fold flat into the floor. Second-row windows were also fixed.
There were more demerits. The Sedona lacked a power tailgate or power sliding doors. More crucially, side airbags were completely missing from the options list. As mentioned, the Australian-market Carnival didn’t even have a driver’s airbag standard although Kia rectified this egregious error after a year. Side airbags never appeared, however, nor did traction control. Anti-lock brakes were also an option; on a related note, all Sedonas had rear drum brakes.
How did the Sedona drive? Well, it drove. It was a minivan so one couldn’t expect miracles. The ride was relatively smooth although the live axle at the back meant it sometimes clomped over bumps. Handling was ponderous and steering lacked feel.
The Sedona was also a real porker. At 4862 pounds, it weighed a whopping 800 pounds more than a Ford Windstar, a thousand pounds more than the mid-size Kia Credos/Clarus sedan with which it shared some components, and 300 pounds than even a long-wheelbase Chrysler Town & Country with all-wheel-drive. Did that extra weight translate into extra space? Not really. The Sedona had scarcely more interior volume than a short-wheelbase GM U-Body minivan. As with the contemporary Amanti, Kia seemed to struggle at keeping weight down. Car & Driver posited the thick frame rails contributed to the hefty curb weight.
For whatever reason, Kia took their sweet time getting the Sedona over to the North American market. That was perplexing considering the US in particular was a huge market for minivans; in Europe, compact MPVs were vastly more popular than those of the Sedona’s size, while Australia and New Zealand were never big on minivans. The Sedona finally arrived in the US and Canada in 2002. There, it slotted between short-wheelbase and long-wheelbase GM and Chrysler minivans. With a base price of $19000, it undercut the cheapest short-wheelbase Chevrolet Venture by $2k. Dodge could sell you a short-wheelbase, seven-seat Caravan for $19k but it lacked power accessories and had only a four-cylinder engine.
The value play was strong with Kia. It didn’t beat rivals at anything except warranty coverage. It lacked safety features that were becoming more and more important in this segment. Its fuel economy ranged from mediocre to abysmal. The next generation of Sedona was considerably lighter, more powerful, more fuel-efficient and better-to-drive. But with the first generation, Kia got their foot in the door by introducing something that looked like a regular minivan, drove like one, sat as many people as one, and didn’t do anything astonishingly bad. Most importantly, it was priced to sell. How easy it is to build a minivan.
“How Hard Can It Be To Make A Minivan?”, the series that inspired the title of this article