Kia's designers did a credible job of camouflaging the Carens' boxiness. Somewhat resembling its Carnival sibling, the well-chiseled body panels, carlike nose, swept-back windshield, curved roof line and hinge-operated rear doors give the compact multipurpose vehicle (MPV) a paradox of being unique yet anonymous. Size matters most, however, when it's on the move, and the Carens' compact dimensions allow it to slip easily through crowded parking lots and narrow city streets. There's nothing goofy or awkward in the Carens' overall look, but there's also little to captivate the mind's eye. It might just be the perfect getaway vehicle for a six-member gang. Eyewitnesses would have a hard time describing it to the cops.
An MPV justifies its existence from the inside, and the Carens makes a good argument there. There are lots of cupholders (up to 10!), power outlets and storage compartments, its cockpit is logically laid out, interior lighting is bright, the airconditioning delivers constant strong blasts of cold air and the seating is comfortable. The only drawback is that there's no separate partition for both rear hatch and rear windshield, making it difficult for short drivers to toss in grocery bags within the Carens' rearmost area. Also, the OE audio entertainment is good but not great; treble producing ability is weak and the 2-DIN Clarion head unit's readouts are too small to read.
The Carens' hauling room is both generous and variable. The second row slides back and forth and the seatbacks tilt, so it's easy to climb into the third row. There's plenty of headroom back there, but the proximity of the seats to the rear windshield makes it a questionable place to place cargo. Don't try to fit two adults taller than 5'3" in the third row; even with the second row moved fully forward, kneeroom is tight. When not in use, the said third row folds flat in a 50/50 split, increasing the 6.5 cubic feet of volume behind the third row to 31.7 cubic feet.
Powerband entry is early (1900-2000 rpm), giving the MPV quick acceleration. Problem is, the engine tapers off dramatically at the top end and there's noticeable turbo lag. Putting the four-speed automatic transmission in manual mode helps a lot, but the ECU refuses to take the rev counter needle even remotely close to the redline (5000 rpm), making acceleration on inclines somewhat frustrating. The mixed performance reviews are not indicative, though, of its tested top speed (168 kph) and fuel consumption (9.10 km/l, five days mixed driving).
The Carens gets down the road securely and comfortably, with the fully independent suspension doing a good job of moderating body roll and damping road impact. Even though the MPV is tall, it squats low to the ground and never feels tippy in the corners. At 80kph onwards, the OE tires (Kumho Solus 205/60R16s) are overwhelmed by its 3,704 pounds, but they do so with loud warning to the driver at 70-75 kph. The driver sits in a commanding position with excellent sight lines forward and rearward, so negotiating thru traffic or backing up while parking is nearly as easy as it would be in a passenger car. Speaking of backing up while parking, the presence of backup sensors make parking easier; their only drawback is that they are very sensitive, emitting beeps at 1.5 feet onwards.
Safety-wise, there are a number of issues. Despite a four-wheel disc setup, the lack of ABS tends to make the front wheels lock up too quickly during hard braking. Only the driver gets an airbag. The footbrake has weak grip, with activation that gets millimeter-close to the footwell on inclines. However, its release lever is parallel to the driver's waist and is less of an effort than say, the footbrakes on the new Ford Explorer or the Chrysler Pacifica.
Normally compact MPVs don't get attention, but somehow the Kia Carens is fun due to its practicality without pretense. It goes everywhere, does as it's told and comes back ready for more the next day. It makes you happy when you can walk into the garage - or to the sidewalk, for some - and find a vehicle that can get through the day without a bit of drama.