Forgive me for stating the obvious but we live in a stunningly beautiful country that really begs to be explored, and when it comes to potential road trip routes we are certainly spoiled for choice at all corners.
Providing you don’t intend to drive on 4x4 trails, the best weapon for a long-distance jaunt is an MPV, and this kind of vehicle has grown in popularity in recent years.
The Kia Carnival might not be the most popular choice in this segment, but it does have a unique selling point in that it’s the only vehicle in its class that’s not based on a commercial van.
While this segment was pioneered back in the 1980s by the Chrysler Voyager and Renault Espace, the Kia Carnival is the last van standing, in South Africa at least. And now in its fourth generation, the Korean offering is decidedly upscale and distinctive looking.
Kia recently gave us the opportunity to get reacquainted with the latest-gen Carnival, which was introduced early last year, on a road trip route that would take us from Joburg to Graskop in Mpumalanga and then on to the Kapama Game Lodge near Hoedspruit.
The Carnival that arrived in our driveway was the mid-spec EX+, which has an eight-seat configuration, rather than the seven-seat format in the base EX and flagship SXL variant.
Because a car like this is made for shared experiences, Kia arranged that there would be four occupants in each vehicle, two journalists and their spouses, and I was immediately impressed that all of our luggage fit into the boot without us having to fold down the third-row seats. Which we didn’t need anyway, but still..
Kia claims a luggage capacity of 1,139 litres with all seats in place, but this is a deep rather than vast space as the boot extends almost as far down as the floor, and to take advantage of its full capacity you will have to stash bags on top of each other. We didn’t have to do that, but if more than four occupants had come along for the ride then that likely would have been necessary.
Although we didn’t use the third row, a quick hop into the back for the purpose of this review revealed a cosy space that’s adequate for adult occupants.
Hitting the road for our first stop at Graskop, our wives sat in the middle row and were more than comfortable throughout the journey. While the seven-seat models have ‘captain’s’ chairs, the eight-seat EX+ has a three-seat middle row in which the central backrest can fold forward to double as an armrest complete with cup holders.
While the first section of N4 freeway leading us into the Mpumalanga escarpment is boring and featureless to put it mildly, it is very much a worthy sacrifice to make given the beauty that this province shows off further down the line.
The highway stretch also gave us the chance to appreciate the Carnival’s mile-gobbling abilities, where its impeccably quiet cabin insulation and comfortable ride quality impressed all the way.
All Carnival models are powered by the latest version of Kia’s 2.2-litre Smartstream turbodiesel engine, which was upgraded for this generation. Offering 148kW and 440Nm, it provides adequate performance on the open road and the necessary overtaking oomph when you need it. Did I mention this vehicle is extremely quiet?
Following a beautiful sunset while driving through the forested regions around Sabie, we arrived in Graskop on early Friday night ready for a weekend of adventure.
That would commence with a trip down the 51-metre glass lift at the Graskop Gorge, which leads into a beautiful indigenous forest that you can explore easily thanks to a wooden boardwalk.
You can also get down using the Big Swing, where you free-fall into the forest in just three seconds. Our partners in crime took this way down, but after bungee jumping off the Soweto Tours a few years back failed to cure my fear of heights, I instead made do with the large glass elevator.
With the Graskop Gorge being sufficiently explored, we took Kia’s advice and took the long way around to Hoedspruit, which would take us on the winding R532 (and R534) past God’s Window and the Blyde River Canyon.
There was a slightly nervous moment when we were about to leave Graskop and discovered that due to loadshedding there was no phone signal, which meant no Google Maps. Thankfully the kind lady at the tourist information office gave us some paper maps for free and we were able to figure out the scenic route that had been recommended to us.
Remember the days when we carried map books in our cars?
The twists and turns of the R532 gave us a chance to appreciate the Carnival’s corner carving abilities.
Yes, it weighs two tonnes, so no, it’s not a go-kart, but as far as MPVs go I’d say the Kia handles very neatly. Unlike its commercial-based rivals, there’s no creaking and body roll is minimal, while the steering feels more akin to a conventional car’s.
It also cruised quietly and comfortably over the gravel sections that led us into the game lodge.
Being this deep in the bush really does something remarkable for your soul, and you don’t need a 4x4 SUV to take you to some of the country’s best game lodges.
Of course the inevitable 4x4 argument did come up the following day when we had a lot of distance to cover in a short space of time and Google’s fastest route was the horrendous and pothole infested R36 via Lydenburg.
For what it’s worth, we hit at least one large pothole on that route and despite expecting a blowout, it didn’t do any visible damage to our Carnival’s 18-inch tyres.
There were a few hairy moments however, including one where a line of idiotic drivers thought it would be perfectly fine to overtake a line of cars that had slowed down for potholes, in the face of oncoming traffic. Unfortunately there are little to no consequences for reckless drivers in South Africa, so until some form of law enforcement is introduced, lives will continue to be endangered and lost on a regular basis.
While we were thankful there were no mishaps on our journey, it was reassuring to know that the Carnival has a five-star Australasian (ANCAP) safety rating.
As mentioned, if you’re buying a Kia Carnival you have the choice of three models. The entry level 2.2 CRDi EX kicks things off at R869 995 (at the time of writing in August 2023), and the EX+ that we drove is listed at R949 995, while the flagship SXL commands R1 094 995.
In terms of features, leather seats, with electric adjustment for the driver, as well as front and rear air conditioning, 8.0-inch (20.3cm) touchscreen, 18-inch alloys and seven airbags are standard in the base model.
Our EX+ model adds power operation for the sliding doors and tailgate, as well as push-button start, automatic climate control, rear sunshade blinds and seven USB ports to the mix.
The flagship SXL takes thing further with heating and ventilation for the front seats, 12.3-inch (31.2cm) touchscreen, 12-speaker BOSE surround sound system, dual sunroofs and a whole bunch of driver assist gizmos like Smart Cruise Control, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Blindspot Collision Avoidance and Lane Keeping Assist, to name just a few.
Is that all worth the extra R145 000? You be the judge of that.
Although the Kia Carnival has become somewhat more expensive in its latest incarnation, as a road trip companion it is really hard to beat. As the only purpose-designed MPV left on the market it is spacious, versatile and highly refined on the open road. I was also impressed by the classy look of the cockpit and the build quality in general.
As for consumption, our car averaged about 7.6 litres per 100km when the going was relatively easy on the highway, but some of the twistier sections with a bit of climbing involved, saw the readout dip far into the eights. Which is still not too bad for a two-tonne minivan with a medium load, if you think about it.