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2022 Kia Carnival Long-Term Wrap-Up: Minivan FTW

Our yearlong test went by way too quickly. The Carnival is absolutely a keeper.

2022 Kia Carnival
Anyone who says minivans are lame clearly hasn't spent time with the Carnival.
Steven Ewing/CNET

A year can feel like an eternity, but with our long-term Kia Carnival, 12 months totally flew by. Whether called upon for daily driving, a cross-country road trip, schlepping cargo and even a track day, no vehicle in our long-term fleet was in as high demand as the Carnival. And honestly, if we didn't have to give our test car back, we wouldn't: The Carnival deserves to be brought home for the long haul.

There's still a stupid stigma that minivans are uncool, and this vehicle type continues to fall out favor as buyers instead look to three-row SUVs. Perhaps that's why Kia doesn't actually refer to the Carnival as a minivan, instead using the term multi-purpose vehicle (MPV). Call it whatever helps you sleep at night, but a year with the Carnival proved it'll do everything your SUV will do -- and in some cases, it'll do it better.

Sharp-dressed van

We went for the fully loaded Carnival SX Prestige with an as-tested price of $47,970 (including $1,175 for destination). That's a pretty serious jump over the 2022 Carnival's $33,275 starting price, but considering how many creature comforts Kia packed into this van plus how much tech is on offer, our tester's sub-$50,000 price tag felt like a bargain.

Throughout our year with the Carnival, we always felt it punched way above its class. Inside and out, the Carnival never failed to earn compliments, and one Starbucks drive-thru employee even told former Executive Editor Chris Paukert this was "the bougiest Kia ever." But that barista wasn't wrong. We loved the rich two-tone Tuscan umber and black leather upholstery, as well as the metal detailing throughout the cabin. And after a year of use and abuse, the Carnival's cabin mostly looked and felt as solid as it did the day it was delivered.

A major complaint about the Carnival's interior isn't unique to this vehicle at all. It's the continued reliance by automakers on piano black trim, which looks nice and fancy when it's brand new and spotless but picks up dust, fingerprints and small scratches quicker than just about any other surface. Kia uses a lot of piano black trim in the Carnival, especially in front, and moving to something else would likely keep the van looking much richer after years of ownership.

Kia tried to butch up the Carnival's exterior as part of the whole "don't call it a minivan" thing, and we have to say: It worked. "Many automakers have periodically tried to remove the stigma around minivan ownership by giving their models SUV-like styling cues, but nobody has successfully negotiated this trick as well as Kia," Paukert wrote. "Were it not for the placement of the Carnival's door handles and the track channel for those rear sliders, you might not even notice that this is a minivan."

The Carnival has so many cool styling details.

Steven Ewing/CNET

When VIP isn't

A big reason we opted to test the fully loaded SX Prestige is that it gave us access to one of the Carnival's coolest features: VIP Lounge seats. These second-row captain's chairs slide forward, backward and side to side, and come with full power adjustment so you can recline them for extra comfort. There's even a footrest that extends if the seats are pushed back far enough.

Sounds great in theory, and as butt-holders on road trips, the VIP Lounge seats were fantastic. But they made the Carnival harder to live with and use day-to-day. "These seats are very heavy and they do not come out easily," said Reviews Editor Antuan Goodwin. He also noted it's surprisingly difficult to access the third row, even with one of the second-row seats slid forward and inward. On the other hand, being able to push the middle chairs together made for a surprisingly comfortable perch for pets. Dog-approved, for sure.

Obviously, the main reason to buy a minivan is to move people and things on the regular, making us wish we'd stuck with an SX or midrange EX for the added ease of use. No, the second-row chairs aren't as comfy, but they make the Carnival easier to use for. people and cargo. And with 145.1 cubic feet of available space behind the front seats, the Carnival is more capacious than most three-row SUVs. We never had trouble moving tons of camera gear, luggage for a van full of people or endless bags of mulch. Speaking of camera gear: The Kia's upright design made it extremely useful as a camera car, where we could mount rigs to the front or back with ease.

The VIP Lounge chairs proved to be more hassle than they're worth.

Sean Szymkowski/CNET

Let's talk tech

Another highlight of the Carnival's interior is the pair of 12.3-inch displays available on higher-end models. Bright, colorful and reconfigurable, we never took issue with the digital gauge cluster or large infotainment screen, and Kia's own multimedia software was always easy to use and intuitive from the get-go.

A small nitpick is, again, something that isn't unique to the Carnival. Kia (and parent company Hyundai) has a problem where wireless smartphone mirroring is only available with its base infotainment systems. That meant our Carnival could only support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto through a wired connection, while base models could run these functions wirelessly. Representatives from Hyundai and Kia have assured us on several occasions the companies are working on addressing this issue, but this was kind of annoying for serial Apple/Android users like our staff.

Another little gripe Goodwin noted was that the Carnival's automatic headlamps were "way too sensitive." Even during the middle of the day, driving under a bridge would cause the lights to come on. Heck, even shade from overhead trees would trigger the lights. "Most drivers probably wouldn't even notice that from the driver's seat, but it's the kind of thing that drives me insane," Goodwin said. "I'd probably just end up turning off the automatic headlamps, which is a bit of a problem."

One bit of tech we universally loved was Kia's Highway Driving Assist, which is standard on all but the base Carnival. "Kia's Highway Driving Assist remains, in my opinion, the best system short of a true hands-free highway driving assistant," wrote former News Editor Sean Szymkowski. We loved this tech for its natural movements, mimicking that of a well-behaved human. "I never once caught it wanting to veer into a different lane or riding the shoulder," Szymkowski said, "and that inspires a lot of confidence with the system engaged."

We wish the larger 12.3-inch touchscreen supported wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Steven Ewing/CNET

Road trip star

Driving the Carnival was always a breeze. With 290 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque on tap from a 3.5-liter V6, the Kia wasn't what we'd call quick, but it never felt underpowered, even when loaded with people and cargo. The eight-speed automatic transmission was perfectly smooth in action, and over the course of a year, we found it easy to meet or even exceed the EPA-estimated 26 mpg highway rating. Our final fuel economy figure of 24 mpg combined bests the Environmental Protection Agency's 22-mpg estimate, as well.

One area where the Carnival lacks a competitive edge is that it doesn't offer all-wheel drive, something you can get on rivals like the Chrysler Pacifica or Toyota Sienna. So for the colder months, we slapped on a set of Michelin X-Ice winter tires, which served us well during inclement weather. On a relocation trip from Michigan to California, Paukert opted to leave the snow tires fitted, especially while crossing the Rocky Mountains. "I needn't have worried," Paukert wrote. "The Kia never set a foot wrong."

Road trips are definitely what the Carnival did best. "It's a bit taller than your average car, so you're not stuck staring a bumpers for an entire trip, but it's not so tall that it feels truckish and annoying," noted Reviews Editor Andrew Krok. "And while many larger SUVs can feel ponderous on the highway, the Carnival sits a little closer to terra firma, giving it a more sedate, carlike ride."

We even decided to have a bit of fun and handed the Kia over to pro driver Andy Pilgrim for a hot lap around NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Is the Carnival meant for the track? Absolutely not. Did Andy have a good time anyway? You bet. In fact, he was mighty impressed.

Not many vehicles could handle a cross-country move as easily as this Kia.

Chris Paukert/CNET

Who needs an SUV?

"Mighty impressed" seems to be the general consensus after a year with our 2022 Kia Carnival. Small quirks notwithstanding, we never found real fault with this van, and aside from one out-of-pocket repair bill when a staffer brushed a pole in a parking garage, we didn't have to shell out for repair costs other than routine maintenance.

Would we take one over a three-row SUV, something like Kia's own Telluride? For most of us, the answer's yes. The Telluride's advantage of all-wheel drive could be useful, as would its added ground clearance for trudging through deep snow. But if you don't need those features, a nicely equipped Carnival SX costs a few thousand dollars less than the Telluride SX, and it's every bit as luxurious inside while offering more space for people and cargo. Just be sure to skip the SX Prestige upgrade; those VIP seats are more hassle than they're worth.

Minivans might not be the hot commodities they once were, but of the remaining few, it's hard to do better than the Kia Carnival. Overlook the stigma and you'll be happy for years. None of us at CNET genuinely need a minivan in our lives, yet we're super sad to see this one go.