This year, the Kia Telluride SUV has been outselling the Kia Carnival minivan four to one. That’s frustrating — after putting a couple hundred miles on both of them, I think it’s obvious the Carnival is the better car.
Full Disclosure: Kia very kindly let me use this Carnival as a shuttle car to get me to the Susquehanna Trail Performance Rally, where I dusted off my codriving suit for the first time since ... oh god ... the Mt. Washington Hillclimb 2017? Something like that. The rally was a dream, as was the Kia.
I guess I should say that it’s not particularly fair to draw too many conclusions from car sales this year. Supply has been the limiting factor, not demand, and car companies have been doing a lot of triage as for what actually makes it to dealership lots. For the first half of this year, Kia Carnival sales were basically doubling every month according to Kia’s own figures. Certainly, while I had the Carnival, I was the just about the hottest thing on the road, and people were leaning out of their cars in traffic asking if it was good or not. I’ve gotten less attention in supercars.
The long and short of it is that while both the Telluride and Carnival are big automobiles — and they feel like it from the driver’s seat — the Carnival feels like it makes better use of its space. Inside it feels roomier, particularly in the back back, and you get giant sliding doors for easy access. All you lose, really, is optional AWD available on the Telluride and an inch and a half of ground clearance. I actually used that ground clearance when I had a Telluride, happily driving through a muddy field. It’s possible it would make a difference if you were driving in the snow all the time, but I’m not convinced the Telluride offers all that much more real-world versatility than the Carnival. Certainly on normal roads, the Carnival is the more practical choice.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the Carnival also feels more charming and endearing to use, as a vehicle. Driving a Telluride feels like driving a bus. Driving a Carnival feels like driving a van. The Carnival feels equally long, but it’s more manageable.
The Carnival also falls into the same category of cars as the Mazda Miata and Subaru Crosstrek, in that they both always are daring you to use them to their fullest. The Miata constantly asks you to take the long way home, search out windy roads, drive a little harder. The Crosstrek constantly asks you to go to a more remote trailhead, take a more rutted path, actually use the added ground clearance and all-wheel drive you paid for. The Carnival, by the same token, is always asking you to use up all of its space. If I had a Carnival, I would feel vehicularly obligated to have half a dozen kids, coach a youth soccer league, organize a quadruple-date to some restaurant I’ve been meaning to try. It’s not that I would want to do any of these things any more than before; I would just feel bad having any of those seats I paid for sit empty.
Just to drive the point home, the Carnival from the EX trim up comes with a rear seat camera. If the back seats are empty, you can press a button and stare at them, longingly, wondering what would fill their place. Kids? Your kids’ friends? Your friends? You friends, your mountain bikes, and theirs as well? There is also an intercom so you can yell at any of those delinquent bikes and/or humans, should any of those seats get filled.
They are nice seats, too, and presented in a rather handsome interior. I would not want to clean spills off of this orange leather, but I did like hanging out in there. This would make a much more comfortable rig than just about anything else the vanlife crowd is jettisoning on Craigslist these days.
In true minivan spirit, all the seats fold flat perfectly and effortlessly. In a moment, you have what is actually a long-but-low van and an itch to move furniture. When I had the Carnival, I ended up driving three hours out of the way to pick up a vintage dresser I didn’t have room for. I wanted it, sure, but it was the Carnival that put me over the edge.
What was I going to do? Not put a dresser in the back of this thing? It’d be a waste!
The Telluride, by contrast, only makes you want to drive out into the countryside because it’s a pain in the ass to park it anywhere but an open field.
My only gripe about the Carnival is that while these are meaningful spiritual advantages in getting a Carnival as opposed to a Telluride, I’m concerned there are not enough practical advantages to it. After all, the Carnival doesn’t save you any space in your garage. Nor does it save you any money on your fuel bills. Both only come with Kia’s 3.8-liter V6. Expect fuel economy in the low 20s no matter what you do. Certainly it’s fun to drive what feels like a big-block minivan, some 290 horsepower at play. Merging on the highway in the Carnival has a similar who thought this was necessary quality as driving a V6 Camry.
I just couldn’t help but wonder if the Carnival would be a better car if it was shorter and narrower, with a smaller engine. At that point, I guess, it would be a Mercedes Metris, and according to GoodCarBadCar, the Carnival outsells that thing nearly three to one.
So after all that mileage, crisscrossing Pennsylvania, driving as fast as I can on dirt roads and as economically as I could on the Interstate, up winding hillsides and very carefully around tight parking lots, I still really liked the Carnival. It’s a luxurious vehicle in that it works to serve you, the operator. The seats are wonderful. The infotainment is good. The car is attractive inside and out; you feel good driving it. I could wonder if these luxuries are enough to offset the lack of abundantly clear practicality gains over a three-row SUV. Then again, they’re enough for me; I’d take a Carnival over a Telluride any day, kids or no.