Car review: Kia's compact Carens MPV returns as car prices are set to dip

Kia's compact MPV returns as car prices are set to dip with more COEs

The last time Kia introduced its Carens compact seven-seater here was in 2006, with a facelift three years later.

That was just nine years ago, but it seemed like a bygone era.

Back then, you could get a table at your favourite restaurant on a Saturday without a reservation, nobody you knew had a Facebook account and shoeboxes generally described boxes which contained shoes.

Also, a car COE was well under $20,000, which meant the Carens cost about $60,000 back then.

How things have changed. The next- generation Carens was unveiled in Paris in September 2012. But local agent Cycle & Carriage did not bring it to Singapore because it felt the model would not do well in a market which saw COE prices heading for the $100,000 mark.

With COE supply expanding once again and premiums settling below $70,000, the "budget" MPV looks more viable now, even if it is a couple of years late.

Surprisingly, the car is still pretty contemporary - proof that real style can stand the test of time. Even though a facelift should be around the corner, the car looks a lot more presentable than its predecessor, with a decidedly European feel both inside and out.

Its stylish lines are supported by a Continental solidity that comes through clearly - from what you hear as well as what you do not. The doors shut with a reassuring thud; the cabin is surprisingly insulated against road and traffic noise; and the well-padded and well-fitted plastic panels onboard betray no rattle at all.

Which is actually not all that shocking, really. Kia has improved by leaps since it hired ex-Audi designer Peter Schreyer in 2006 to help it penetrate the European market.

The Carens is sized for Europe, with dimensions that would not make it unwieldy in the often narrow and winding roads there. Unfortunately, that means it compromises on interior space.

Compared to a compact Japanese MPV such as the Toyota Wish, it is noticeably less roomy. Its third row, because of its restricted legroom and headroom, is best reserved for small children.

Its first and second rows are decent, though, with adequate room and lots of versatility. In fact, the second row is made up of three separate seats which can slide, fold and recline individually.

All passenger seats can be folded to release a flat cargo area. And if there are only six persons onboard, the middle seat of the second row can be folded to reveal a small picnic table top with drink holders.

Rear air-conditioning vents ensure a good distribution of cool air.

The new Carens excels in the ride and handling department. When cruising near three-digit speeds, it displays unwavering stability. Speed humps and tarmac blemishes are dealt with effectively by damping action that would not be out of place in a German hatch.

While its chassis is well sorted, it is let down slightly by a steering - despite having adjustable weightings - that is slightly disconnected and non-linear.

Even though its engine is beefier than before, everyday driving still requires the tachometer to exceed 3,000rpm regularly and, not infrequently, past 4,000rpm.

Its six-speed autobox behaves and sounds like a continuously variable transmission.

The Carens makes a convincing case when it comes to amenities. It is better equipped than all its Japanese rivals and many of its German competitors.

It has cruise control with speed limiter, keyless access and ignition, LED daytime running lights and cornering lights, six airbags, welcome lights with puddle lamps, connectivity to mobile devices and quite a few more.

Active safety features include vehicle stability management and electronic stability control. A navigation set and reverse camera system would have completed the picture.

Even without the last two features, the Carens is a strong contender in the compact MPV segment. It is ideal for young families or folks who do not need to use all seven seats regularly.

christan@sph.com.sg