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Car reviews - Kia - Carens - 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Thousands of dollars cheaper than its rivals.
Room for improvement
Flexibility hindered by bench third row seat, ordinary to drive, ugly

12 Apr 2001

IF you've heard a horde of mini people-movers are heading here after conquering Europe's sales charts, you'd probably be keen to know more about them if you are looking for family transport.

Renault's Scenic, the Opel (Holden here) Zafira, Citroen's walnut-shaped Picasso, Chrysler's funky PT Cruiser and the Mazda Premacy. Just a few of the vehicles here, or soon to be on sale here in this category.

Then there is Kia's Carens. It was the first of the new breed on sale and has the distinction, unsurprisingly, of being the cheapest. That's about where the highlights start and finish though.

Mind you, a starting price in the low $20K bracket when most of the other entrants will be in the high $20,000s at best (fellow-South Korean Daewoo's Tacuma is the exception to this rule), makes a pretty substantial highlight! What you get for your money is the Kia Shuma/Mentor small-medium car's 1.8-litre engine, running gear and suspension with a boxy and unremarkable body dropped over the top.

Inside there is seating for six in a 2-2-2 formation. That's one better than most of the rivals, with only the Zafira bettering it with seven seats. It would have had seven seats, but Kia could not get Australian Design Rule approval for that layout.

But getting three rows of seats in is a pretty impressive performance anyway.

How does Kia do it? That tall body and an upright seating position combine to liberate the necessary space.

So in theory at least that's a big advantage, and in practice it has the great plus of providing every passenger with a lap-sash seatbelt and headrest. And there are no sliding doors either. Commendably there are four hinged doors, just like a car, which open wide and high for easy exit and entry.

Naturally, the middle-row seats slide forward and the seat back split folds, although that function is inhibited if you attach a baby seat capsule, the tether strap effectively anchoring the seats to the spot.

The third row can either fold and tumble forward so it sits flat up against row two, or drop into the floor, something like a Honda Odyssey, either way creating plenty of luggage space.

The trouble is there is no split fold on the third row seat. And with that third row in place there is very little luggage space.

So if you are doing the family shopping for instance, you'll need to fold down or flip up row three - the result being you have now got a four-seater.

Remember, all the other cars in this class can sit five people in the first two rows and still have luggage space.

This is a horribly big flaw in the whole scenario, not helped by the fact that the third row is strictly kids-only. If you can work within the limitations, fine. If not, then you will have to spend more money.

The Carens is pretty well equipped when it comes to standard features air-conditioning is there and so is a single slot CD player, albeit linked in to one of those fussy "satellite" head units that are an ergonomic disaster.

Power windows are standard all round and the mirrors get power adjustment too.

There is also variable intermittent wipers, a luggage blind and a second power socket in the boot.

What you don't get is a remote function for the central locking - a must when you consider the car's family role, where a parent can often have kids in one arm and shopping in the other and no spare hands to insert and turn the door key.

And the lack of a latch on the rear door is frustrating for a similar reason.

It is either opened with a key or via a remote on the floor next to the driver's seat.

Then there is the disappointing lack of anti-lock brakes (ABS) and the provision only of a driver's airbag. Even the immobiliser - which will soon be mandatory on all new cars - remains a dealer-fitted accessory for the moment.

Travelling in the Carens is a relatively slow process. The 1.8-litre engine is a 16-valve double overhead camshaft unit that produces 81kW at 5750rpm and 152Nm at 4500rpm. In the Shuma it is quite spirited and lively, but mate that engine to the Carens' optional four-speed automatic transmission - a five-speed manual is standard - then add the 1315kg kerb weight, plus people, plus a load and the strain starts to show.

In most situations around town it will not be all that noticeable. But hilly terrain or overtaking are a serious challenge. Not only for the engine, but also for the gearbox which understandably tends to hunt for the right gear at times, and can thump badly on down changes.

The noise levels - not only from the engine, but also from wind, road and suspension - can also be intrusive as speeds rise.

The ride is quite acceptable, the steering from the speed sensitive power-assisted system devoid of any real feel, but also free of vices. And that small 10.2 metre turning circle certainly helps in car parking manoeuvring sessions. Braking too seems adequate, without ever feeling overly impressive.

Unsurprisingly, the Carens is a committed understeerer, generates plenty of body lean when cornering and can be persuaded in the right (wrong?) situations - tight, bumpy corners in particular - to start spinning the inside front wheel as it loses contact with the ground. Do not worry, it's not a constant occurrence at town speeds, but it does show that the car's limits are quite low.

From the driver's seat the view is excellent and the seating comfortable.

No-one this side of the Harlem Globetrotters should have problems with headroom. The instrument dials are presented with slightly daring blue backgrounds but the points gained there are lost by the fake "wood grain" trim, which would have to be the worst we have ever seen.

Cupholders abound for the front seat passengers with two each, and the two rear passengers get them in the top of the wheel arch surrounds, along with storage containers. The middle row misses out on cup holders altogether, although fold the two seatbacks down and there is a picnic table inset in each - including a cupholder.

No-one is short on storage spaces, with all three rows are catered for in one way or another.

In the case of the Carens the bottom line is the bottom line. Its main recommendation is that it is affordable. Never fool yourself what you are buying here. This is an average vehicle.

If you can live that and with the interior set-up issues we have raised, then the Carens could be for you.

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