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All-new seven-seat MPV completes the renewal of Kia's line-up, but can it claim to be a driver's car like the rival Ford S-Max?

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Can’t quite recall the previous Kia Carens? Don’t worry; Kia may have been selling its compact MPV in the UK since 2000, but both generations of it did a remarkably good job of living up to their unfortunate name (which means, as it turns out, ‘lacking’ in Latin).

The Carens was arguably the last model built to convey the Korean car maker’s somewhat wonky original message of value and simplicity. To that end, it was a crude four-wheeled box designed unequivocally for the purpose of carrying people. Both aspiration and ego were best left on the pavement before boarding. 

The Carens has a history of being practical but bland

If it were possible for Kia to airbrush its model history, the first Carens is precisely the kind of car it would choose to erase from our collective memory. Launched in 1999, the Carens MPV was intended to capture a slice of the global school-run market.

The Caren's clumsiness, however, was a world away from its European competition and it only served to reinforce the brand's frumpy image. A follow-up appeared in 2006, which marginally improved on the formula, but it never gained more than a low market share.

Consequently, this new car – the svelte, all-new, fourth-generation Carens – signals that the brand’s remarkable half-decade revolution is now complete.

It is the final model to receive Peter Schreyer’s transformative design overhaul, and, along with its very European appreciation of class, quality, comfort and refinement, it is better representative of Kia’s deservedly popular 21st century values.

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It is therefore potentially able to offer a serious challenge in an already busy segment. Let’s see how it measures up.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Kia Carens front grille

Kia insists that spaciousness and versatility are a given in this category, and that what really differentiates the Carens from its competitors are the distinctive lines of Schreyer’s ‘tiger nose’ design language.

Elsewhere, this approach has met with success – the Kia Sportage, Kia Optima and Cee’d are notably handsome – but here the efforts are handicapped by the fixed MPV template and the presence of frankly better-looking machines such as the Vauxhall Zafira Tourer, Ford S-Max and Volkswagen Touran.

Roof rails aren't standard fitment on the entry-level model

Given its newfound pride in its appearance, Kia would do well to note that being easier on the eye than your predecessor does not automatically make you the segment sweetheart. 

At any rate, MPV desirability is better expressed through packaging rather than aesthetics. Here the news is better. The Carens is slightly smaller than before (being 20mm shorter, 15mm narrower and 45mm lower than it was), while still gaining a useful 50mm increase in wheelbase.

Torsional rigidity is up by 31 percent, thanks to three times more high-tensile steel in the body, along with some 40 metres of structural adhesives that were absent from the previous model.

The platform is still suspended on MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion bar at the back, but both have been reworked for ride and handling gains. Kia’s electrically driven, three-mode Flex Steer system, meanwhile, is responsible for direction changes. 

There are three engines to choose from: a 133bhp 1.6-litre petrol and two diesels. The diesels are both versions of Kia’s European-designed four-cylinder 1.7 CRDi, offered in 114bhp and 139bhp outputs.

Each come mated as standard to a six-speed manual gearbox. Kia's optional dual-clutch automatic gearbox is endowed with the seven ratios, but is offered only with the beefier oil-burner.

INTERIOR

Kia Caren dashboard

Previously, there has been a noticeable disconnect between the quality of Schreyer’s exterior design work and Kia's dreary interiors, but the uninspired Carens rather suits its largely characterless cabin.

While there is precious little among the matt black plastic and nondescript instrumentation to leave a lasting impression, there is a faultlessness to its functionality that foils any real criticism. Visually forgettable it may be, but you’re unlikely to hunt for a button for long or find yourself unsighted at 70mph on the motorway. 

The Kia Carens has a roomy, versatile and durable interior

Behind the front pews, there are now three individual middle-row seats (replacing the previous generation’s bench), all of which slide and tilt. Both shoulder and headroom are about on a par with rivals, so there is plenty of the latter and not quite enough of the former.

Leave the third row of seats in the floor and there’s a 492-litre boot below the window line. That's expandable to 1650 litres with the middle row down, which leaves you with a usefully flat floor. Alternatively, the two rear seats can be (separately) raised from the floor via pull ties.

These additional seats do not adjust and, as is standard across most of the segment, are only suitable for the shortest legs and lowest heads in the family. 

Inevitably, accommodating seven almost eliminates the boot’s usable space, although we like the new underfloor compartment used to stow the removable load cover. Kia claims class-leading in-car storage, with two underfloor compartments in the second row and enlarged glove and centre console boxes flanked by numerous cupholders. 

There’s not much to break up the expressionless, overcast theme instigated by the dash, but nothing feels chintzy or extraneous. The Carens may have been designed without much ceremony or sparkle, but its cabin feels resilient enough to cope with family life without wilting.

On the equipment front, there are five trims to choose, in ascending order - 1, SR7, 2, 3 and 4. The entry-level Carens trim includes air conditioning, cruise control, electric windows, USB and Bluetooth connectivity and heated door mirrors as standard, while upgrading to SR7 adds privacy glass, auto headlights and wipers, dual-zone climate control, vanity mirrors and rear parking sensors.

The 2 trimmed Carens come with more chrome touches, folding door mirrors and interior ambient lighting, while those who opt for the 3 will gain leather upholstery, electrically adjustable and heated front seats, heated steering wheel, rear sunblinds and Kia's 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with sat nav and reversing camera. If that isn't enough, then the range-topping 4 trim adorns your Carens with a panoramic sunroof, a parallel parking system and front parking sensors.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Kia Carens rear quarter

The Kia Carens is sold with a choice of three engines – a 133bhp 1.6 GDi petrol, and 114bhp and 139bhp 1.7 CRDi diesels.

All engines are mated to a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, although the higher-powered diesel can be linked to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox.

The Kia Caren's 'U2' diesel was engineered in Europe

If you’re expecting your low-emissions seven-seater to be even remotely quick, you’re going to be disappointed. At this end of the market, good performers are separated from bad by driveability, refinement, economy and enough poke to see you through.

Fortunately, the Carens puts in a competitive showing. All three engine options deliver competent performance, although the higher-powered diesel is inevitably the most versatile.

The 1.6 petrol is perhaps the least obvious option, struggling slightly up steep inclines and when the Carens is fully laden. For parents on the school run, however, it would be more than sufficient.

That said, the lower-powered diesel is both reasonably refined and offers efficiency benefits that make the Carens a far more compelling proposition. Only a slight shortage of low-end torque stands against it.

Kia's higher-powered diesel unit, meanwhile, is a must-have for people planning to drive long distances while fully laden on a regular basis. All units are relatively frugal for the class, aided by a stop-start system that’s standard on all manual models.

The six-speed manual gearbox is a reasonable performer, although the unit in a petrol car we tested was a touch notchy. It is a point to note and consider, rather than being anything remotely like a deal breaker, however.

RIDE & HANDLING

Kia Carens cornering

The Carens is a little firm compared with the average MPV. It's much firmer than a Renault Scenic or a Citroën Picasso, for example.

It’s a deliberate tactic, designed partly, we suspect, to imbue the Carens with the kind of athletic European handling that the Korean firm covets, but mainly to actually increase occupant comfort. Firmer springs and softer suspension bushes, claims Kia, prevent the unwanted lateral body movements that can unsettle passengers in the back. 

There is body roll in corners, but it's well controlled

Our testers commented more positively about the car’s handling than its ride. The steering seems well judged, and, with the electromechanical system’s Sport mode selected, assistance descends to a level that allows some feedback. 

Kia’s system continues its tendency to add ‘stiction’ around the straight-ahead and to corrupt directional stability a little. In a nutshell, you have to continually steer the Carens straight – only minutely, but enough to notice. There’s better precision and consistency off centre, as well as respectable grip and agility.

Over a choppy surface, you can’t help but feel that a more softly sprung car would ultimately be more comfortable. The dynamic tune may dial out body movement over longer-wave lumps and bumps, but it doesn’t allow the car to absorb typical B-road disturbances with as much grace as some.

There’s a fidget to the ride that, at times, you could do without. But there’s no harshness to it – quite the opposite, in fact, with those softer bushes seemingly able to keep sharp crashes and bangs pleasingly distant.

The impression the Carens gives is of a ‘nearly’ car; one in touch with the best-sorted models of its type but not quite their equal. It’s as good to drive as a Kia Rio is next to a Ford Fiesta, or as a Cee’d is relative to a Volkswagen Golf. But it’s no breakthrough.  

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Kia Carens

Kia’s tack may have altered since the previous Carens appeared with a sub-£20k sticker on its bonnet, but it hasn’t lost its knack for locating a sweet spot in the market.

Larger MPVs command substantial values, and even the more compact models can be catapulted towards substantially higher values with the right (or wrong) ticks. The Carens deliberately appears at the lower end of this morass (which includes the Ford Grand C-Max and successfully facelifted Toyota Verso) when measured on a like-for-like basis.

The Caren's forecast residuals aren't great, despite its decent seven-year warranty

It's worth paying the price premium for the 2 grade, however, due to the niceties it adds such as dual-zone climate and parking sensors.

Level 3 is for drivers who want everything, from a heated steering wheel to other luxuries such as full leather, a 10-way powered driver's seat, a panoramic sunroof and a reversing camera.

The familiar Kia seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty is standard and fully transferrable, while buyers can also pre-pay for Kia Care-3 and Care-3 Plus servicing packages that give cover for three and five years respectively.

So while the Kia Carens is priced alongside much of its opposition, owners have the benefit of knowing the likely running costs up front. Measured against the household names, however, the Carens (blighted by its past record, no doubt) is expected to lose a higher percentage of its price tag three years down the line.

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VERDICT

3.5 star Kia Carens

Coming last is never easy. Had the Carens been at the front of Kia’s remarkable recent range metamorphosis, it would likely have garnered more praise than we’re prepared to give it now that its list of enhancements has become customary.

Step back to regard its predecessor as the only barometer of quality and it’s readily apparent that the latest model is a typically vast step forward in function and desirability. But stand far enough back to take in its rivals and it’s equally clear that Kia has delivered a handy competitor rather than a potential class leader. 

Low running costs and good practicality are the key positives

Still, there’s plenty to appreciate. The Carens is a well priced, decently appointed, adequately comfortable and frugal people carrier that is easily capable of satisfying most of its owners’ requirements.

As a result, the Kia Carens should take a place on the shortlist of any aspiring buyer looking for a well priced occasional seven-seater that, like many in the class, is bursting with cubbyholes and clever storage functions to boost practicality, even if it's short on dynamic involvement.

Consequently, there is little reward to be had from pushing on, which ensures that the Carens sits alongside the vast majority of cars in the class as being a vehicle simply for getting from A to B, rather than aiming to entertain while doing so. Keen drivers looking for a practical family car should head straight to the Ford Grand C-Max instead.

Which means that this chapter in the Kia saga closes with three and a half stars. We look forward to the next. 

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Kia Carens 2013-2019 First drives