Spacious and flexible, approachable and safe -- the minivan is a marvel of suburban utility. The problem is that most people don't actually want to be seen driving one, so many shoppers skew toward cooler-looking SUVs. To combat this, the major players in the class have pushed minivan design in a direction that's perhaps best described as "sci-fi bullet train" with mixed results.

Kia's solution to the problem of uncool perception is to dress its new 2022 Carnival "multipurpose vehicle" in SUV cosplay. The result is a minivan that boasts all of the advantages and amenities of its classmates, while standing aesthetically apart with sport utility style.

The Carnival wears an upright, boxy design with a front end shaped more like Kia's Telluride than the Sedona it replaces. Details like the L-shaped, chrome C-pillars break up the minivan's profile and, along with the sculpted wheel arches and dark lower sills, help pull the eye upward to create the appearance of a taller, more rugged ride. At first glance, the Carnival looks almost exactly like a full-size SUV from most angles, but then you notice the reversed handles and tracks for the sliding doors and, suddenly, the minivan-ness of the silhouette becomes apparent.

The Carnival is the first Kia to wear what I've taken to calling the brand's new "K-backwards-N" logo.

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VIP seating

The Carnival's power sliding doors open to reveal a spacious interior that's available in seven- or eight-passenger configurations. The standard eight-seat setup features a 40/20/40-split second-row bench with a center section that can fold over to create a table-like armrest for the outboard seats. The bench can also slide far enough forward allowing front seat passengers to easily reach a car seat. The second row can also be completely removed when you need to access the Carnival's maximum 145.1 cubic feet of cargo capacity.

Upgrade from the base LX to an EX or SX model and the cloth upholstery is replaced with artificial leather. Step up to the top spec SX Prestige for real leather trim and a pair of power-adjustable VIP seats in place of the second-row bench. These luxurious buckets automatically recline or return upright at the touch of a button, and they feature heated and cooled surfaces and can even deploy footrests for maximum relaxation. The Prestige setup elevates the Carnival from a nicely appointed family hauler to a fairly luxurious shuttle with more passenger space, more cargo capacity and easier entry than a taller SUV can offer. With the third row folded flat, I can slide the VIP seats far enough back for a full recline and leg extension, even with the front seats in a comfortable driving position. Try doing that in an Escalade.

Kia's minivan isn't the only one to offer reclining captain's chairs, but these are a touch more luxe than most.

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The seven-seat SX Prestige isn't without its compromises, however. The nonremovable VIP seats mean this trim maxes out at 86.9 cubes of cargo capacity behind the second row, and getting to the third row is more of a squeeze.

Speaking of that standard third row, there's plenty of legroom back there for two average-size adults, and enough shoulder space for three kids. Pulling a strap quickly folds the 60/40 split bench flat into the Carnival's floor and a single pull lifts it back up, leaving a still-impressive 40.2 cubic feet for cargo.

On the options list, you'll find Kia's smart power tailgate, which automatically opens the hatch when you approach the rear of the vehicle with the key in your pocket. I usually find this feature extremely annoying, but Kia must have improved its detection logic from earlier applications. I experienced almost no false-positive accidental openings during my testing, and the tailgate now automatically closes when you walk away, making loading groceries or other cargo a truly hands-free process.

Backseat tech

The Carnival can be outfitted with a dual-screen rear seat entertainment setup. Each features USB and HDMI inputs that can be shared with the other display. Each can connect to a phone or Wi-Fi hotspot to power apps like Netflix or mirror a smartphone's display. There's also a colorful Kid Mode interface that serves up child-friendly content. Bluetooth connectivity allows users to listen using almost any headphones they already own, rather than relying on low-quality pack-ins.

The Passenger Camera and Passenger Talk features help the driver to watch and communicate with occupants in the second and third rows.

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An optional wide-angle Passenger Camera on the Carnival's ceiling displays a bird's-eye view of second and third rows on the multimedia screen, complete with night vision. This upgrade works well in tandem with the Passenger Talk feature that amplifies the driver's voice over the Carnival's speakers, so they don't have to shout to speak to folks in the third row. 

When equipped with the optional Passenger Voice Recognition tech, second-row passengers can also issue commands to the dashboard UVO system. This is helpful for getting destination suggestions from adults in the VIP seats, but is also defeatable when you need to keep a van full of children from requesting Baby Shark for the fifty-leventh time.

Front seat tech

Up front, Kia's latest-generation UVO infotainment lives in the dashboard. An 8-inch display is standard, but EX, SX and SX Prestige models all upgrade to a 12.3-inch display. Either way, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity are also standard with USB -- but not wireless -- connectivity. UVO packs its intuitive interface with unique features like voice memo recording, Sounds of Nature (like calm waves, a forest or bustling cafe) and a quiet mode that limits media volume and disables the rear speakers -- useful for when kids are dozing in the back.

The customizable star shortcut button on the dashboard -- a small feature that you'll find on Kia's other UVO systems -- is joined by a second customizable button on the steering wheel, allowing drivers to map features like the Passenger Camera or Passenger Talk to a single press.

There are up to nine USB ports (seven are standard) for charging mobile devices spread across the Carnival's three rows.

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LX, EX and SX trims all feature traditional physical gauges and a small 4.3-inch information display. The SX Prestige upgrades to a 12.3-inch fully digital instrument cluster with four user-selectable themes, including a dynamic setting that changes along with the time of day. The digital cluster also integrates Kia's Blind Spot View feature, displaying a camera feed of the adjacent lane when the corresponding turn signal is activated. 

DriveWise safety suite

Kia's DriveWise advanced driver-assistance system suite is standard on all Carnival models. That gets you front, rear and lane-change collision detection, forward automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring and a rear camera. DriveWise also rolls in driver attention monitoring and a sonar-based rear occupant alert that prevents accidentally leaving a child or pet in the parked vehicle.

The EX trim adds park distance warnings, enhanced collision avoidance that can also detect cyclists and Highway Driving Assistant, Kia's umbrella technology that rolls in navigation-based adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic and enhanced lane-keeping steering assist. Upgrading to SX brings a surround view camera system online. Finally, the full-fat SX Prestige completes the safety suite with the aforementioned blind-spot camera tech.

Performance and efficiency

The only powertrain offered in the 2022 Carnival is a 3.5-liter V6 paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. Despite looking like an SUV, all-wheel drive is not an option. On the bright side, 290 horsepower imbues the Carny with pretty good hustle for a minivan, and the 262 pound-feet of torque is enough twist to tow up to a 3,500-pound trailer.

Handling is soft, but comfortable. The Carnival isn't the most graceful dancer on a twisty road, but the minivan manages to stay off of its own toes well enough that it feels safe. The steering is responsive, but body roll and understeer are noticeable at speed. This is, of course, fine. Despite Toyota's marketing for the new Sienna, I don't think that anyone shopping for a minivan is looking for "sport-tuned handling." More importantly, the Carnival does a great job absorbing bumps with poise and communicating its limits to the driver well and early enough to stay out of trouble.

The EPA estimates 19 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway or 22 mpg combined from the 2022 Carnival. That's on par with other front-drive, V6-powered minivans in this class. The various drive modes -- Normal, Eco, Smart and Sport -- will have some effect on the Kia's performance and efficiency balance, but over the course of three days, testing both the SX and SX Prestige trim levels in a variety of situations, my average of 21.7 mpg was almost spot-on with those estimates.

Kia's betting that the Carnival will find a home in the gray area between minivans and SUVs.

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Pricing and competition

The 2022 Kia Carnival starts at $33,275 (including its $1,175 destination charge) for the base LX model and tops out at $47,275 for the fully loaded SX Prestige. Add $200 for floor mats and $495 for the premium Astra Blue paint to reach an as-tested price of $47,970. I only ever want to be picked up from the airport in a Carny with VIP seating from now on, but for families looking to maximize space for people and cargo, the sweet spot is the eight-passenger SX model starting at $42,275.

The Carnival is priced and appointed competitively against the Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna. However, Chrysler and Toyota offer all-wheel drive, hybrid and plug-in hybrid configurations that raise the price ceiling but also bring significant performance and fuel economy advantages. Also consider that the Carnival's sport-utility style has the potential to tempt a few families on the fence away from a new SUV purchase, so one could make the case for it being an indirect competitor to something like Kia's own Telluride as well.

Kia can call it an MPV and style it like an SUV, but what matters is that the Carnival is a damn good minivan. Kia's designers have pulled off this stylistic double-take with aplomb. With the 2022 Carnival arriving in dealerships now, the automaker can only hope that shoppers think it's as cool as I do.