REVIEW DATE: 21 Feb 2008
Despite offering a more upmarket look and feel, Kia's Carens hasn't abandoned its target clientele. Andy Enright Reports
Kia's Carens was always one of those cars that found its natural niche. The cheapest of the mini-MPVs, it was a model that almost sold itself, helped in no small part by the fact that its budget rivals, the Chevrolet Tacuma and Hyundai Matrix were, respectively, too ugly and too small to offer much in the way of a challenge. A new wave of more sophisticated mini-MPVs has done much to alter buyer's expectations of what these vehicles should look like and be capable of. No longer is just a big box with five seats and a few cupholders enough. The current Carens has a few more tricks in its locker, together with a look and feel that's anything but bargain basement.
The original model debuted way back in 2000 and a 2003 makeover did much to freshen its appeal but in the last few years, a whole host of new market entrants have revolutionised the mini-MPV sector. Now customers demand sleek styling, punchy powerplants and a whole host of choice when it comes to specifying their vehicle. The side effect of this is that mini-MPVs have become desirable vehicles in their own right rather than the distress purchases of cash-strapped parents.
The key decision in this sector that has taxed the minds of many major manufacturers is whether to develop a five or a seven seat model. Volkswagen and Ford were midway through the design process of five-seat MPVs when Vauxhall launched the seven-seat Zafira, completely changing the rules. Original designs were scrapped, only to be revisited when it was realised that there was a niche for five seat models. Kia neatly sidesteps this quandary by offering this current Carens in both five and seven seat guises.
"What's not up for debate is how much larger the current Carens is compared to its already sizeable predecessor.
The ultimate testament to how well these vehicles are packaged comes when you try to lever an adult into the back row of a seven seat model. With most mini-MPVs, their knees will be up around their ears and there's a very good reason for this. Not only is overall legroom limited by the sheer amount of cabin space required to fit three rows of seats, but the petrol tank is usually situated under the last row, forcing the cabin floor upwards. Next time you get in any other seven-seat mini-MPV, get a tape measure and check the height between the top of the seat cushion and the floor. It's often around four or five inches which is frankly laughable. Kia has got around this problem by designing a shallow petrol tank that sits inside the rear suspension subframe. This drops the floor height by some 40mm, allowing for a more relaxed seating position. The Korean company reckons that adults of 5'11" will be comfortable in the rearmost row of seats in the seven seat model although that may be pushing it.
Although the overall length only rises by 50mm, moving the wheels towards each corner means that the wheelbase and, consequently, space in the passenger cell has been extended by 130mm. While this was a move popular a couple of years ago, the quest to improve pedestrian safety has seen frontal overhangs grow in many cars. A full Euro NCAP safety test will show how well the Carens fares in this regard. With anti lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution fitted as standard, the Kia is in a respectable position to avoid impacts in the first instance.
What's not up for debate is how much larger the current Carens is compared to its already sizeable predecessor. We tend to break the MPV market up into three distinct categories, the supermini MPVs exemplified by cars like the Fiat Idea and the Vauxhall Meriva, the mini MPV sector that the Carens resides in and full-sized MPVs such as the Volkswagen Sharan, Renault Espace and Chrysler Voyager. This Carens is definitely at the large end of the mini-MPV sector and, from front bumper to rear, is less than 10cm shorter than something in the class above, such as a Sharan. Longer, wider and taller than its predecessor (by 55, 50 and 40 mm respectively), the latest Carens does not share a single panel with the old model and its smoother exterior results in significantly improved aerodynamics. The 4,545mm long New Carens has an aerodynamic coefficient of drag of an impressive 0.32 - down from 0.35 for the previous model - which helps with fuel economy and high speed refinement.
The sleek look to the Carens helps in the styling department too. The windscreen is raked further back, the front styling features a twin chromed bar grille, a lower centre air intake and a front bumper with inset air intakes or, when specified, fog lamps. There are some Sports Utility Vehicle design cues there too, with a more aggressive look and black roof rails. You'd be astonished to hear that this was one of the cheapest mini-MPVs you could lay your hands on if you didn't know what it was.
Two engines are offered, both of 2.0-litre capacity, one drinking petrol the other quaffing diesel. Kia's upgraded four-cylinder 2.0 CRDi diesel engine features a variable geometry turbocharger (VGT), that comes with a particle filter as standard. It generates 138bhp and has a six-speed manual gearbox. The twin-cam four-cylinder 2.0-litre 'Theta' petrol engine, with continuously variable valve timing (CVVT), produces 142bhp and, curiously, is offered as standard with a five-speed manual box.
The Carens faces a rejuvenated mini-MPV sector but does so with some serious weapons in its arsenal. In being cheap without appearing cheap, it offers a value alternative to the customer faced with the prospect of buying used. A strong warranty and decent reliability record coupled with a lengthy equipment list will be enough to propel the Carens onto quite a few shortlists.
|For CARENS RANGE (NEW)|
|OVERALL||7.0 OUT OF 10|
|Space / Versatility||7|