What is it?
The new Kia Carens is another significant moment in the Korean company's coming of age as a mainstream manufacturer.
While a new seven-seat Carens MPV may not seem to have the on-paper significance of a Rio or Cee'd, the arrival of this new model means that every single model in Kia's line-up has been given the magic Peter Schreyer design touch, competent underpinnings and modern, fuel-efficient engines.
The new Carens not only replaces the outgoing Carens, but also the larger Sedona as well – the last two remaining old-school Kias, in other words. It gives Kia's dealers a whole range of good-looking cars to be proud of without having to hide a couple of the more spacious offerings in the corner of the showroom.
What is it like?
As we've come to expect from these new-breed Kias, the new Carens is a world away from the old model. The previous Carens ranged somewhere between unexceptional and forgettable, and was notable only for its pricing and generous warranty. There's plenty more to this one than that.
Visually, it doesn't quite have the overall flair of a Cee'd or a Sportage, but then a slab-sided MPV was always going to be more of a challenge for Schreyer's team. Still, it's a distinct design with character, and you're unlikely to forget what it looks like in the Tesco car park – as you might have done with the previous Carens and a few other incumbents in the class.
The smart look is reflected inside. The gadget-laden trim of our admittedly high-spec test car gives the Carens a real quality feel, with super-comfy heated and cooled leather seats up front, eye-catching trim and switchgear and a touchscreen navigation system for the centre console. Look closer and the hard-touch surfaces are there, but that's fine when you consider the rough and ready life the average Carens will have.
The seven-seat interior (a five-seat version is offered elsewhere but not in the UK) includes a front passenger seat that folds down, three sliding and folding seats in the middle row and a pair of occasional-use seats that fold out of the boot floor.
The Carens is actually a slightly shorter, narrower and lower car than before, but a longer wheelbase has squeezed out a few extra millimetres of room in all the key departments, and there are enough cubby holes in which to lose a packed lunch or three.
In the UK, the Carens is offered with a 1.7-litre turbodiesel with either 114bhp or 134bhp, or a 1.6-litre petrol with 133bhp. The more potent diesel, connected to a standard six-speed manual gearbox, is a strong performer, its 243lb ft of torque being more than enough to adequately propel the 1516kg Carens.
The gear ratios are well judged, and the shift itself is slick. Coupled to a refined engine, this diesel Carens has an excellent drivetrain. It only really lacks in torque at the very bottom end of the rev range, something that was exposed on the hilly roads of our test route in southern France.
We also got to try the 1.6 petrol engine. It's another smooth operator but it needs to be revved to get the most out of it and can feel a little breathless below its peak rev range. It doesn't give too much away to the diesel in refinement on the motorway, though, thanks to the appearance again of that six-speed manual gearbox. The 133bhp engine, incidentally, is the only Carens powerplant that can be hooked up to an automatic ’box.
Dynamically, the Carens ranges from average to good, but it could never be called involving to drive. The steering is the big problem here; it feels far too vague, particularly if you start playing around with the 'FlexSteer' settings that try – and fail – to give a bit more weighting and involvement, even in 'Sport' mode.
It handles keenly enough for something of it size; the predictable body roll is well controlled and the Carens doesn't have a habit of lurching all over the road. The ride is also generally good and settled at higher speeds, if a little bumpy around town.
It's never uncomfortable, though, and the Carens doesn't give away too much to the Cee'd on which it's loosely based despite swapping a multi-link rear suspension set-up for a simpler torsion beam.
Should I buy one?
There's no reason for Kia to hide this new Carens in the corner of the showroom. It looks good inside and out, is flexible and spacious enough inside, is decent to drive, should be cheap to run and of course has that seven-year warranty to boot.
Truth is, the Carens now ticks enough boxes in this sector's list of requirements that the average buyer won't care that it's not as (relatively) fun to drive as, say, a Ford Grand C-Max, even if we'd prefer a bigger smile on our face when stepping out of it.
Kia's next challenge, after ensuring the as yet unannounced prices of the Carens are competitive, will be to lift the levels of dynamic involvement of its future cars to a standard that matches the design.
The real work starts now, then, but you'd be a fool to dismiss quick-learning Kia's chances of succeeding.
Kia Carens 134bhp 1.7 diesel
Price £21,500 (est); 0-62mph 10.4sec; Top speed 119mph; Economy 56.4mpg; CO2 emissions 132g/km; Kerb weight 1516kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1685cc, turbodiesel; Power 134bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 243lb ft at 2000-3500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual