Monday, June 22, 2015

Kia Sedona Test Drive: Keeping Minivan Hopes Alive

Okay, so we’re not reporting on our experiences behind the wheel of some drool-worthy low-slung sports car that’s capable of braking speed laws on six continents. We drove a minivan for a week – that’s right people, they still make them – and not only lived to tell the tale, but came out of the experience with our fragile ego remaining intact.

In this case it was the Kia Sedona, which is refreshingly redesigned for 2015, and right off the bat we have to give the automaker chops for keeping hopes alive in this dwindling segment despite meager sales.

Of course there was a time, back in the late 1980’s, when the minivan was the family vehicle of choice in America, with one in just about every other driveway from Maine to Mexico. Chrysler ignited the minivan explosion with its wildly successful Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager models in 1984 (though some could argue that Volkswagen first came upon the idea with its much beloved Type 2 “Microbus” that dates back to the 1950’s). Unfortunately, by the time its rivals had caught up with equally accommodating people-movers of their own, the fad had all but passed, with most families moving on to more rugged-looking sport-utility vehicles and, more recently, car-based crossover SUVs..

The minivan field has winnowed recently, and with the Dodge Grand Caravan due to be replaced by a new crossover SUV sometime next year, the segment will consist of just five models (including the compact Mazda5, but not counting small commercial vans that can be fitted with seats).

Still, despite the minivan’s notoriously withering “soccer mom” image, it’s difficult to argue against it being the ideal mode of transport for parents, with three rows of flexible passenger capability, scads of family friendly features and – something crossovers sorely lack – large sliding rear doors that make fastening kids into their car seats easy even in a crowded parking lot.

While the latest generation Kia Sedona doesn’t really break any new ground, it’s nicely styled – especially on the inside – and seems to be well suited for around-town carpooling and extended road trips alike.

Mechanically, the 2015 Sedona is nothing special, packing a 3.3-liter V6 engine that delivers 276 horsepower with an estimated 18/24-mpg in city/highway driving, which is about average among minivans. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission it delivers sufficient acceleration around town, but feels sluggish getting up to speed, especially with passengers aboard.

We don’t expect a minivan’s ride and handling qualities to be particularly sporty, so it’s difficult to knock the Sedona for delivering what we consider an uninspiring driving experience. At that, the steering and suspension systems are tuned to favor effortless errands and extended highway stretches, with the ability to soak up bumps, jolts and other pavement irregularities nicely. Still, it’s a handful to parallel-park, given its sheer size.

The real selling point here, however, is the Sedona’s stunningly cast cabin, which can be configured for seven or eight-passenger seating, covered in either standard “YES Essentials” stain-resistant fabric or posh Nappa leather upholstery. The dashboard is expansive, with large and legible gauges and instinctive-to-operate conventional buttons and dials coexisting with an easily mastered touchscreen infotainment system controls. Unfortunately, a few of the controls, such as the radio’s tuning dial, are too spread out to be within easy reach. Most surfaces have a rich look and feel, save for some cheapish vinyl atop the dashboard and doors.

The front seats are both comfortable and supportive, and even the tallest first-row riders will find no shortage of leg, head, or shoulder room. There’s a large center console and the usual assortment of cupholders, cubbies and storage compartments spread throughout the cabin, with a dual glove box that offers a chilled lower storage area for keeping drinks and snacks cool.

For sheer opulence and unmatched road trip comfort we recommend the Sedona’s optional “First Class” second row seats. Not only do they recline and can be adjusted fore and aft, but feature retractable lower-leg rests and airplane-style winged headrests. And they can be heated. The cramped third row is best suited to kids, however. As one might expect among models in this segment, both second and third row seats can fold flat for maximum cargo carrying abilities that can easily transport all of a student’s essentials off to college.

As befits an automotive segment in which models tend to be defined by their signature features, here’s no shortage of novel gizmos offered here. These include the latest version of Kia’s Uvo infotainment system with smartphone integration, and assorted ways for parents to keep tabs (just don’t call it “spying”) on teen drivers, including receiving alerts when one is exceeding a set speed, is leaving a pre-set area and is out after curfew. You’d think driving a minivan would be enough to calm down those raging teenage hormones.

Meanwhile, an optional Surround View Monitor displays images from cameras placed around the vehicle for easier and safer parking. One nice touch is that the door handles illuminate and the side mirrors unfold when the driver approaches the vehicle with the keyless entry key fob in a pocket or purse; the optional power liftgate opens automatically when the driver stands at the rear of the vehicle for three seconds.

Other available amenities include adaptive cruise control, an Infinity premium audio system and both forward collision and blind spot warning systems.

One of the more affordable minivans on the market, the 2015 Kia Sedona starts at around $26,000, but nonetheless approaches the $40,000 mark fully loaded with options in its top SX Limited version.

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