CC Rental Car Review: 2018 Kia Sedona SX – Comparing Apples And Oranges

I am currently spending time in a new Kia Sedona, courtesy of the manufacturer.  Yes, there is a story here.

I recently opened one of those Recall envelopes.  You can always tell them when they come, as distinguished from the envelopes that are trying to get you to trade in your current ride or to buy an extended warranty.  These recall notices are going to happen to every owner of a modern vehicle, so I was not really concerned.  What now, I wondered.  The last one had been for weatherstripping around the doors, but I figured with the car getting some age on it it might be for something a little more serious.

It was, it turns out.  There is a potential sensor failure that could result in airbags and seat belt tensioners not working properly in a crash.  The interesting thing was that we were told to just wait for further instructions because Kia was (and still is) in the process of figuring out what it was going to do for a fix.  The letter went on to say that if my airbag light was on, take it to the dealer immediately.

It was and I did.  The light turned out to be an old, unrelated event relating to a seat sensor.  The forums indicate that moving the passenger seat all the way up (as I have done a time or two during cargo-hauling operations) can pull at some of the under-seat connectors and trip a code, causing the light to glow.  All fixed and no charge.  But.

While waiting to get the car looked at I started reading more about the recall.  There have been a couple of instances of serious injuries (although none in Sedonas) and a Kia spokesman had said during a press event that if anyone was “uncomfortable” with continuing to drive the car, Kia would provide a rental until repairs are available.

I thought about this.  I am not normally a “safety wuss” but the idea of not knowing if the suspect part was failing until I was in the midst of a serious accident and then reverting back to safety level of, say, a Tucker Torpedo – I kind of was uncomfortable.  And if you are offering, Kia . . .

The service manager was quite nice about it and told me he would have me in a car once I came back in.  I wondered what I would get?  Frankly, I expected a little Forte sedan.  I figured maybe a Soul, if I got really lucky.  But lo, without so much as asking they presented me with this virtually new Sedona SX.

As a long-term owner of the prior generation of Sedona (which I wrote about here) I have long been curious about how the new one stacks up.  I should note that this is a much higher trim level than my own, so the differences might not be as stark if I had popped for a nicer van seven years ago.  So it is a big change from what I am used to.  A BIG change.  Of course, for the substantial jump in sticker price it ought to be.  This one is loaded with features that my own car lacks (like the pull-up sun shades in the second row).  But I will try not to let these things get in the way of my evaluation.

I think that Kia (and Hyndai) vehicles could be classified into three groups.  There is Early Kia:  cheap cars sold cheaply.  There is Middle Kia: good, durable cars that are pretty basic and sold at low prices.  My 2012 Sedona falls in this group.  And there is Modern Kia: Cars fully competitive in quality, style and features and sold at reasonable prices.  All this means that it is hard to directly compare this new high-trim van to my older low trim version.  There are just some fundamental differences and I have a hard time declaring one a clear winner over the other.

First, the plusses.  This is a nice van.  Very nice.  I like minivans and I like this one.  The steering is a huge improvement.  The Drive Mode gives you different weights to the steering.  I like “comfort mode” which brings back the one-finger parking of my Mopar-centric youth.  Really, is there any reason to have great road feel in a parking lot?  This is not a canyon-carver, it is a minivan.  These are for interstate highways, suburban streets and parking lots.  Lots and lots of parking lots.  And parking this dude is a delight.

The van drives and rides smoothly and quietly.  There is a lot less road and wind noise than in my older model.  Steering is light but precise, requiring few corrections.  The body is reasonably rigid, though perhaps a half-step less so than my own van.  It is tough to get a really rigid van structure and this is certainly more so than the Hondas of my recent experience.

The level of fit and finish is excellent, as is the quality of interior materials.  This was, to be blunt, my old van’s biggest issue.  The dull interior of my van would have been what sent many mommies running away when the salesman opened the door.  No longer.  I am not accustomed to vehicles up in, say, BMW’s or Volvo’s price class, but I don’t think the finishes in this higher-end SX model would be out of place on one of those nameplates.  A wide variety of colors textures and materials was used, many of which are soft to the touch.  One mild disconnect was instrument lighting.  Almost all controls are illuminated in red at night except for the two main dials on the dash and (or course) the nav screen.  Although the display looks expensive I found the red less visible and more difficult to read.  Or maybe because the print on the multiple buttons and controls is so small.  Or perhaps I just need new glasses.

The configuration is quite un-minivan-like.  This van has a large fixed center console that is chock full of storage, cupholders, chargers and ports of every kind.  The designers were plainly trying to fool those in front into considering this as more of an SUV once inside.

It kind of works and I did not find that it got in my way while driving. Information is widely available, either in the info display between the two main gauges or in the nav/audio/climate screen.  I liked the way most audio and climate adjustments could be made by physical knobs or buttons in addition to via the touch screen.  The bluetooth pairing with my Android phone worked well and the audio system sounded very good with a variety of musical styles from classical to jazz to hits of the 80s.

This van in second-from-top SX trim has 3 zone automatic heat and air, heated and cooled perforated leather seats and pretty much everything anyone wants in a modern minivan.  The only options on this unit are the built-in video system viewable from the second row (the screen may be a little small and low for those in the “way back” although we have not tested it) and the metallic black paint.  With those options this van stickers perilously close to $40,000.  That is a lot of money in my world, but I think it is pretty reasonable in the world of high-trim minivans.

One other note is that the three zone automatic climate control worked flawlessly, cooling this big black box down quickly every time it was asked to.  This could be the most effective non-American a/c system I have experienced.  And a 110 volt outlet is there for those who might need to plug something in.

And yes, it has power doors and liftgate.  I am still not sold.  They are great in some situations.  In others (like in heavy rain) they are maddeningly slow.  It might be possible that if I spent three years in this van I would miss them, but then again, maybe not.

But onto each minivan some rain must fall, and the Sedona is no different.  First up – the powertrain.

This is a little hard to describe.  My old Sedona displays seamless power and is always in the right gear.  If you read my owner review, the takeaway was that the powertrain operation is my favorite thing about it.  This one – not quite there.  The engine is a touch smaller, a 3.3L direct injection V6 (mine is a 3.5L), and still a part of the Lambda II family.  It seems plenty powerful, 276 bhp at 6k, 248 torques at 5200.  Although the horsepower numbers are similar, the new engine’s similar torque peak is well up from the 4500 rpm in my van.

Both cars use a six speed automatic (that is really plenty of gears) and gear and axle ratios are identical between the two.  This, however, is where the similarity ends.  The programming on the transmission is like one of those ultra-efficient waiters in a really busy restaurant who brings each course just a few moments before you are quite ready for it.  Only here it works very hard to get up into the next highest gear at the very first opportunity.  OK, I understand CAFE and that MPGs in the test results are like gold nowadays.  And this car will rare up and move when you give it the spurs.  But make no mistake, you really need to be purposeful about it.  Carrying 500 extra pounds with less torque available from a standing start makes for a noticeable change from my own van.

I have compared my ’12 to the modern version of a Chrysler 383/Torqueflite from the late 60s.  As you pull away from a stop, the pedal travel is fairly short and the drill is to begin letting off the pedal to slow the rate of accelleration until you get to your desired speed.  This new one is not like this.  You step on it and are kind of underwhelmed.  Step harder and it will downshift a step and keep going, but all the while looking at you with big puppy dog eyes asking “are you sure?  Are you sure?”  So this is more like my 77 New Yorker’s Lean Burn 440 coupled to a tall axle.  It takes some determination to make this van get up and run.  Mine does it naturally, as a default. This one makes you work a little for it.  It gets the job done, just not quite as pleasantly.  And yes, most normal people would likely never notice the difference.

I finally discovered “comfort mode” (note – a little research showed that you have to shell out for this SX trim to get the “drive modes”).  None of the literature I have read says that it does anything with the shift points but I am convinced that it does.  It seems to upshift about 250 rpm later each time and downshifts more readily when you step on the gas.  Switching to “Eco” mode will move upshifts about 250 rpm sooner from normal (“No Name”?) mode.  There is no “Sport Mode”, but then again, it’s a minivan.  I put it into Comfort Mode and left it there.  I like my powertrain better, but I could live with this one as it shifts so much more nicely than the Chrysler units of my recent experience, which constantly remind you that the transmission is hard at work.

Another minor nit is the seat headrests.  As so many modern cars do, the headrests are fairly aggressive at keeping your head forward and your chin down.  I tilted the seat back a bit to get a little freedom, but that moved my arms farther from the steering wheel.  The Quick Start card said that the headrests were adjustable but they do not actually seem to adjust.  I am sure I could settle in, but again I prefer my own van for a seating position.

Another big downside (which will not be a downside for everyone) is that the second row seats is not designed to be removed.  It appears that someone with some wrenches and about ten minutes to spare could get them out, but this information is via the Kia forums and not found in the owners manual.  So for mere civilians they are designed to stand up and slide forward.  For those of us who like maximum cargo room, this will be a problem.  I have taken my second row out quite a few times and have used that room.  The loss for big bulky things is not as great because something like a big dresser will stop at the back of the front seat, leaving a lot of unused space near the floor.

Late breaking bulletin – there is an 8 passenger configuration offered in all but the lowest trim level.  This configuration uses a 3 person 2nd row with a middle seat that doubles as a folding center armrest.  This center row in 8 passenger vans is removable by use of quick release latches.  However, in my limited experience, Sedonas are not commonly found on dealer lots with configuration.

But those of us gifted in packing can get a lot of stuff in those low “wasted areas” and this design robs us of that space.  And the folded seat takes up well over half of each side door opening, eliminating those big sliders as a place for loading bulky items.  Kia must have felt that this is a worthwhile compromise between the Chrysler Stow N Go system and the old Take Out Those Heavy Seats system.  But I am not convinced.

The folding rear seats, however, are another story.  After a weekend spent in a Dodge Grand Caravan I will say that the Kia system is so much simpler with only two things to pull instead of following the numbers 1-2-3 & 4 on the straps on the Dodge seats.

I am about 1,000 miles into this extended test and have discovered the one item that could be a dealbreaker at my house.  On our old Sedona the front passenger seatback will fold down to turn the seat behind it into a sort of chaise lounge.

Relaxing view from the second row of the author’s 2012 Sedona


Mrs. JPC has become quite fond of traveling this way.  Unfortunately this new version will not let the seat back fold far enough for that configuration.  Perhaps a low trim model without the power recline function might be different, but I do not know.  And speaking of seats, they have proved otherwise to be very comfy (and are both heated and cooled).  I wonder if the high side bolster will eventually wear from entry and exit, but it is way too soon to be able to tell.

I have not driven a Chrysler Pacifica or the latest versions of the Odyssey or Sienna.  This Sedona (which dates back to 2015) is now among the older designs out there.  And as nice as this van it, it is not selling all that well.  Through July of 2018 Chrysler remains the minivan king.  In rough figures, they rank: old Grand Caravan (125K), Chrysler Pacifica (118k), Toyota Sienna (111k) Honda Odyssey (100k) and Kia Sedona (24k).  The dying Nissan Quest is slightly under 5k units so its demise will not be much of a factor for the others.  The Kia figure is a 46% drop from a year ago, while the that of the Pacifica is up 89% from its launch year.  If I had to hazard a guess it would be that Chrysler’s one-two punch of cheap (GC) and appealing (Pacifica) may be hitting Kia harder than it is hitting the others.

So why does Kia trail so badly?  Possibly the nonremovable seats, but I doubt it.  Do buyers not like the large SUV-style console?  Maybe.  I think part of it might be the styling.  I have never quite warmed up to that beltline kickup with the small rear window.  The black finish disguises it on this car and this one is as attractive as any I have ever seen.  But then again the Pacifica is the only one I really find attractive.  Could it be that Kia is trying to sell minivans without the huge discounts that used to move units off the lot and getting resistance to vehicles with a sticker perilously close to $40K?  Could be.

I hope Kia stays in the minivan market.  I like this van and would strongly consider one to replace my own (if the reclining seat thing could be addressed).  Mine has been an excellent value and value aside it has proved to be an excellent van.  This new one is better in some ways and not as good in some others, at least for my own purposes.  My 2012 is not a van that will impress the casual observer but has proved to be the Rudy Ruettiger of minivans – a hard worker whose effort overcomes some of its natural disadvantages.  This new one will impress anyone who gets in for a ride.  But perhaps that is not yet the minivan customer that Kia is getting into its showrooms.  Which is too bad, because Kia has built a very nicely done van that should be on every minivan buyer’s test-drive list.