After the recent report on a decade with my Honda Fit, I realized that I am coming upon another milestone: six years with a Kia Sedona. Alright, before you have to pop a No-Doz or slug down a strong dark roast, I will do my best to keep you from nodding off. Minivans are not exactly the stuff of excitement, but let’s see what we can do, shall we?
I did not plan to buy a new van in September of 2011. I was into my second cheap beater minivan, a 1999 Town & Country LX, a high mile van that I had bought for all of $1,800. I am sorry to say that the van looked so good and drove so nicely that it tricked me into treating it like a real car instead of the disposable heap I had paid for. I plowed more money than I want to admit into it, fixing this and that, secure in the knowledge that the basic powertrain was in great shape. Until something broke inside the transmission.
My Mrs. decided it was time to lay down the law and declared that she was tired of my cheap beaters. She wanted something new. So off she went to test drive some things. The only real criterion was that she was tired of low-sitting cars like our Honda Fit and wanted something that would be more comfortable to get in and out of. We seemed to be heading for a crossover.
She came home from somewhere one day to tell me that she really liked the Kia Sorento she had driven and asked if I would go back and look at it. A Kia? One of those cheap Korean tin cans with its Soviet-level engineering? She had to be kidding. All I could think of was that irritating jingle for the Chia Pet (“Ch-Ch-Chi-Chia”). But being the dutiful husband that I am, I went along. I actually kind of liked the Sorento, but didn’t like the jump in price for the V6 with three rows. Remember, I was coming out of an $1,800 minivan. As I got out of the Sorento after a short test drive I turned around and saw that we had parked next to a Sedona. Woah – they still make those? Woah again – look at that sticker. A 7 seater minivan, 3.5 liter V6, six speed automatic, power windows and front/rear air with a base sticker of around $24K? Day-Yum! Hey honey, let’s drive this one.
A test drive followed and we were both hooked. The car drove nicely and was mucho powerful. It had all of the utility I had become accustomed to, a seat height that she liked and best of all a price that I could swallow at a time when I had not really been prepared to buy a car. And one more thing, Kia had finally replaced the dreadful grille on the earlier versions of these with one that looked decent.
I briefly thought about cross-shopping a Dodge Grand Caravan but stopped short. I might have been able to get one close in price but the 3.6 Pentastar V6 was still quite new and Chrysler’s recent history with new engines was . . . let’s go with uneven. The Kia was a completely unknown quantity but the company was willing to back it with a 10 year/100K mile powertrain warranty (and a basic bumper to bumper warranty of 5 years/60K miles). Sorry, Chrysler.
We went back a day or two later and made a deal. The good news was that Kia was offering two rebates. There was $2k off for any warm body who could get a loan and another $2k off for anyone who owned a competing brand of minivan. And it turned out that a totally immobile T&C met the criteria, so there we were with $4k off of our $24K vehicle. The color choices kind of sucked so the gray won out. There were two non-negotiables. First, I would not accept a van with power doors. Every minivan ever made with power doors eventually has problems with them. If Chrysler and Honda couldn’t figure them out, it was certain that Kia couldn’t either. Second, Mrs. JPC made it absolutely clear that if she was buying a new car, it was going to be a *new* car, and not a car with a couple of hundred miles on it. The door thing turned out to be a challenge, and the salesman thought he could get one from the other side of the city. Mrs. JPC reluctantly agreed to maybe 40 miles, but wasn’t happy about it.
A day or two later I called to check on the salesman’s progress. His report? “I thought I was never going to find one, but I got your van without the power package. I had to go to nearly the Illinois border to get it. I hope that will be OK with your wife.” One question popped into my lawyer-trained brain: “Which Illinois border?” After a moment of silence he said “Wisconsin.” Now, I live in Indianapolis, which is right smack in the middle of the state of Indiana. No two ways about it, Wisconsin is a long way away. “Dude”, I said. “She’s going to throw a fit. You know this.” Well, several hours and another discount later we agreed to take the car.
I will be honest, I was not excited about this van when I got it. I missed the many clever touches that Chrysler had built into my late T&C and found this van to be quite spartan inside. I remembered that I had rented one on an earlier occasion and had quipped that it was what GM would have built if that company had ever figured out how to build a competent minivan. But a funny thing happened as the months and miles began to pile on: I came to really respect this van. And to like it. A lot.
What do I like about it? One of the small things is that the ignition key (yes, it still has one of those) is on – – – the dashboard where The Lord in his Wisdom decreed that the ignition key belonged. I am old enough to vividly remember the industry-wide switch from a dashboard ignition to the steering column ignition. I found the new way to be an unnatural wrist motion, which I strongly disliked. This van brings back memories of all my favorite old cars the moment I insert and turn that key. A small thing, yes. But something that continues to happify me.
Then there is the powertrain. Since the advent of CAFE it seems that almost every large car on the road is subject to drivability tradeoffs. Either it lacks power, or is mated to a too-tall drive axle, or is saddled with transmission shift points that are designed to eke those elusive and valuable MPGs out of too much vehicle instead of making it pleasant to drive. Somehow, the combination of the engine, transmission and gearing of this Sedona is – how do I say this – simply perfect.
That 3.5L V6 is a honey. On paper, a rating of 271 net horsepower way up there at 6,300 rpm would seem to be not all that gratifying, especially when its 248 ft. lbs of torque doesn’t peak until 4,500 rpm. But from the driver’s seat this version of the Hyundai/Kia Lambda II engine is willing and eager right from the get-go. The combination of 4 valves per cylinder, variable valve timing and a 10.6:1 compression ratio work together very nicely. Although no slouch off the line, holding the pedal down to keep the revs up produces another sensation: Fear. That’s right, this thing actually scares me when the tach gets over 5K. And this from the guy who was never shy about hitting triple digits in his youth. This is well and truly the fastest vehicle I have ever owned. It also gets significantly better fuel mileage than the 3.3 in my old Chrysler. 23-24 mpg on trips is not hard to attain, with maybe down in the 17-18 mpg range in town.
But many a fine engine has been tripped up by a clunky automatic transmission. Not here, though. The Hyundai/Kia proprietary six speed unit in the Sedona is a gem. The shifts are smooth, perhaps too much so. In fact, it is almost impossible to count the gear shifts (and to distinguish them from the torque converter locking up) even when paying close attention. With 5th being a 1:1 ratio, that leaves four closely-spaced lower gears which mate beautifully with the engine. The .77 overdrive ratio mated to a 3.04 final drive makes the perfect balance between relaxed low-rev cruising and mad acceleration when you need it. Will that smooth shifting shorten the unit’s life? It is too soon to tell. What is not too soon to tell is the way hunting and indecision is (forthe most part) a foreign concept to this autobox. I have read many complaints about the Chrysler six speeds and got to experience one firsthand in a rental Grand Caravan a couple of years ago. Every mile in that Dodge made me long for my Kia – something that ten years ago I would have bet you $20 I would never say.
If I seem to be going on about this van’s powertrain for too long, it is because I like it that much. Has there been a car in your past that every time you took off from a stoplight you just sat there enjoying the interplay of engine and transmission, marveling how the engineers just nailed it? I used to do that in my 68 Newport with its 383 and Torqueflite. It was an almost perfect pairing, almost always in exactly the gear you wanted it to be in. And I do it in this Kia, damned near every time behind the wheel, even after six years.
I am less enamored of the steering. It is not horrible, but I am not crazy about its combination of relatively high steering effort and relatively low road feel. I will take low road feel and low effort (Yes, an old Mopar owner here) or higher effort coupled with high road feel (spelled Miata). But . . . yeah. Other than this, I really have no significant complaints about the way this thing drives. The van handles tautly and rides pretty well. Replacing the original Kumhos with some oversized Michelin Light Truck tires has really improved and quieted the ride, though at a handling penalty. But for highway cruising? All in all, the Kia is a pleasant place to be. Which it should be, given that it weighs within 100 pounds of a ’73 Chrysler New Yorker.
In one more classic Mopar parallel, the structure is fairly rigid, something that is not always a given in a minivan (helloooo, Honda). The design of this van dates back to 2006 and ran through 2014 (with a year off in 2013 for reasons I have never understood). In other markets around the world this van sold as a Kia Carnival.
The seats are not bad. The third row folds into the floor, but the trade-off is that it sits low to the ground, sacrificing leg room for third row riders. The two middle seats either fold forward or can be removed, turning this into a pretty good moving van. Which comes in handy when you have college students in the house. The seats also contained a surprise that I didn’t know about until I flipped through the owners manual (Yes, I actually do that).
The passenger side has a version of the “Relax” mode in my Honda Fit. The front seat back flips down to turn into a footrest for royal passenger travel in the second row. Mrs. JPC likes this. A lot. I put it into use myself as shown when my daughter volunteered for a good long stretch at the wheel during a trip we took together.
The van has been quite trouble free. I was going to say surprisingly trouble free, but then Kia did give me a 10 year/100K mile warranty. As I approach 70K miles the car uses no oil and has not required any repairs beyond maintenance items with the exception of a bum thermostat that was replaced under warranty. There have been a couple of recalls, two for an inspection and rustproofing of a front suspension component (we had no trouble) and for replacement of the door weatherstrips with a re-designed pair which reduced wind noise significantly. The last one was interesting in that it came after this model had ceased production. I was concerned about an ignition key that gets warm on long trips, but after complaining about it early it has gotten no worse. Another plus is that I have yet to see a Sedona of this generation sporting rust bubbles on the body, so score one more for Kia. One more thing, I am still on the original set of brakes.
OK, you might say, nobody loves everything about a car. This is true. There is one thing I absolutely despise: the automatic locking doors. The car locks all five doors every time you put the car in gear and unlocks them every time you move the shifter to “Park”. Every. Stinking. Time. If you share my view that power locks have only so many cycles designed into them, you understand how I see the life draining from those actuators with every unnecessary cycle. But so far none of them has failed. As the feature does not seem to have an easy defeat mechanism, I have lived with it. My other gripe is that the engine is slow to warm up in cold weather. I still wonder if the second Kia thermostat has become compromised as well and am toying with a DIY aftermarket replacement.
Other than that? I am a happy camper. Sure, I might like power rear flipper windows or nicer seat upholstery or more switches or buttons in place of the plastic plugs that are in several locations. I would like less hard plastic inside and a nicer setup for cupholders than in the space-wasting flip-up center console. But for $19K out the door after discounts, practical me is willing to give up a few luxuries, especially when all the necessities are right there, and done so competently. And I do not regret my choice to forgo the power rear doors even if every first-time rider exits the vehicle and walks away from the open door which he expects will close behind him.
I once joked that this was the ’73 Matador wagon of minivans – a solid people-hauler that gets no visibility or respect in the world at large. I find this to be true still. But you know what? After spending time in Chrysler and Honda minivans of the same era I would not trade. Yes, those folks may have more social respectability. But after six years and 69,000 miles as an owner, I believe that I have the better minivan.