If there's one sure thing about Kia globally, it's that they've got an incredible level of motivation to prove something. No longer is Kia just about delivering cars that are more affordable than the Japanese makes; they're making great strides (leaps and bounds even) to provide their customers with cars that are comparable to European brands in terms of feel, quality, reliability, practicality, efficiency and design.
We've seen what they can do after driving cars like the Soul, the Picanto, the Rio, the Optima, Sportage, Sorento, practically their entire line up -when compared to what they had just 20 or even 10 years ago- has undergone a complete 180 in nearly all respects.
That's a tall order to keep up, given the level of competition in all segments and car classes. Can this all new Kia Carens live up to the promise in the MPV segment?
Since it was launched in 2007, the Carens nameplate has been the brand's entry into the MPV segment, competing with the likes of the Toyota Innova. It's had a measured success in the Philippines, but didn't really go that mainstream. Perhaps this 2nd generation (locally speaking) Carens can move their efforts in the MPV segment forward.
Style has become a hallmark of the Kia brand, especially with Peter Schreyer heading up the design departments of the Hyundai-Kia group, and concurrently the president of the latter. The Carens is no exception, and has definitely benefitted from the brand's design-led transformation. The tiger nose is quite prominent, with the Kia logo right above it on the bumper. I particularly like the way the lines all seem to coalesce flawlessly, and seems form a 'smile' up front; definitely a good thing for a family friendly vehicle.
Of particular note is the sleek profile of the Carens and how it appears to be a natural evolution from the previous model. The windshield is much more raked than before and augmented (visibility-wise) with a pair of very useful 'portholes'. A feature line runs from the front to the back, right up to the leading edge of the wraparound taillamps. Unusually, the rear end reminds me of the Subaru Tribeca, especially with those taillamps. Overall, the Carens looks quite good, and sets a new bar for style in a segment not really known for great designs.
One thing really interesting with the Carens is the interior; it's a place I really wouldn't mind being stuck inside during our notorious rush hours in the metro. The dashboard layout is conventional but stylish, feeling much more premium than what the class has been known for. At the center of the dash is the radio with USB and aux ports; it's of the same family as the ones found in Hyundai vehicles, albeit with red instead of blue illumination. The gauge cluster is of the dual binnacle design (for the speedo and tach) along with the trip computer's LCD in the middle with readouts on mileage, range, fuel economy, driving time, and other pertinent info.
The steering wheel feels quite great, and the driving position is very comfortable. The middle row is also quite a comfortable place to be for two people, though with the armrest up, you can put a slimmer person in the middle. The 3rd row is meant for just two, and still has acceptable leg space for an adult, though it really is best left for kids. Both the 2nd and 3rd rows can fold down flat for cargo, and it's surprisingly easy how it can be done with the Carens' ride height. Grocery runs? Not a problem.
Behind the tiger grille is a new engine: a 1.7 liter, DOHC 16-valve inline-4 CRDI turbo diesel. Power and torque? 136 PS and with 320 Newton meters of torque, and that combined with a 6-speed automatic makes for a rather interesting combo.
In town, the Carens is surprisingly smooth. Compared to the previous model, it's a leap ahead in all respects: smoothness, power, throttle response and refinement (far less noise). The same goes for the suspension, which finds that really tricky balance between comfort and handling. City maneuverability is good, and the turning radius is quite small; comparable to most midsize or even compact sedans.
What was a bit disappointing about the Carens is the fuel economy in fully automatic mode, especially in the city. Internationally, Kia claims the Carens can do 36.7 miles per gallon, which is about 15.6 kilometers to the liter. Driving with the transmission in 'D', the Carens was doing an average of 9.3 km/l in light to moderate traffic. The initial figure was surprisingly low for a modern CRDI turbo diesel.
What I realized is that the transmission (even when driving at about 65 km/h) has a tendency to hold on to 4th gear in a tranny with 6 gears; not very good for fuel economy as the tach tends to stay at about 2000 rpm. When I started using the 'manual' mode of the transmission, I was able to hold the same speed in 6th gear at about 1250 rpm. Big difference, as fuel economy improved to 13.6 km/l. In manual mode, the Carens does 20.5 km/l on the highway with little or no traffic.
The pricing is the part that needs a little addressing, as at PhP 1,230,000 for this Kia Carens LX 6AT, it a little tricky to place. For a midrange model to be priced just above the most expensive Innova and just under the Orlando is a challenge for Kia, especially when the Toyota and the Chevy are larger in all respects. Not only that, but at PhP 1,480,000 for the the range-topping Carens EX variant with the panoramic roof, it's priced precariously high.
So how to sum up the Carens? Overall, its a great package for the family: comfortable, smooth, refined, stylish, spacious and loaded with some nice features (including a steering 'feel' adjustment button). As a family car, it's really great, but until more competitive pricing can be worked out, the Carens might end up as just another competitor instead of the prime choice it could very well be.