As if there were not enough such vehicles in showrooms already, Kia, which already has the Sedona MPV, has launched the Carens mini-MPV. And the best feature of the vehicle, available as either a five or six-seater, is its price. With only a gutless 1.8 litre petrol engine option available, fleets have the choice of two trim levels, SX and GSX, both with five or six-seat options, ranging in price from £9,995 on the road to £12,295. By anyone's standards those are cracking prices and they need to be because, disappointingly, the Carens is not sector-leading in any other way, shape or form.
Kia was pulled back from the brink of financial catastrophe by rival Korean manufacturer Hyundai more than a year ago and since then has reinvented itself in the UK as a budget-priced importer. Claiming to be 'pioneering a full range of cars at affordable prices, which are almost certainly closer to European mainland markets than any other manufacturer in the UK' price is clearly winning customers. Kia calculates that with sales exceeding 12,000 cars in the last 12 months it is the fastest growing car marque in the UK and is heading for a 1% share in 2002.
The Carens mini-MPV is no Renault Scenic, Vauxhall Zafira or Citroen Picasso so, we'll not try to compare it. Instead, I'll content myself by saying you get what you pay for. In terms of performance and quality the Carens is not a patch on any of its rivals. But with prices ranging from £9,995 to £12,995 it would be naive to claim otherwise.
The Carens is not likely to win significant business from large fleets and Kia is candid enough to admit it could not meet such demands. But, with limited daily rental exposure and small fleet business, Kia hopes to start winning over the corporate sector to its cut-price budget motoring philosophy.
At 4.4 metres in length, the Carens is a long mini-MPV, but much of that space is taken up by a huge front axle overhang and bulbous plastic dashboard which leaves front and rear seat passengers alike with little leg room. The five-seater is conventional in seating configuration. But the six-seater with its strange two-two-two arrangements -apparently in Korea they try to squeeze three people into the middle row - means middle row passengers have to content themselves with minimalist-style seats to allow space for third row passengers to clamber into the vehicle. The rear two seats fold up into the back of the middle two seats to give a load space which is useful but not exceptional. A security load cover is also standard. However, with three rows of seats in use there is barely luggage space for a couple of shopping bags.
All models come with a three year/60,000-mile warranty and standard specification on the SX includes two airbags, central locking, electric windows front and rear, immobiliser, cupholders front and rear, sunglass holder and electrically-operated door mirrors. The GSX adds ABS brakes, air conditioning, duo-tone paintwork, a chrome grille, tinted windows, alloy wheels, roof rails and second row seat backs which fold into a table.
On the road the 110 bhp 1.8 litre engine is not built for brisk acceleration and once wound up, significant engine and wind noise envelopes the vehicle. However, most drivers of this mini MPV, will, I suspect, limit use to mainly urban journeys. Passengers did not complain they were uncomfortable and if legroom is restricted, headroom is plentiful.
Kia reckons it will sell 900-1,000 Carens this year and believes that figure to be conservative. In addition it expects to sell 2,000 Sedonas in a full year. Private buyers and small fleets may be wooed by Kia's cut-price philosophy and cheap and cheerful image. But large and medium fleets are unlikely to bite the bullet due to a limited dealer network and poor residuals. But in all walks of life you get what you pay for. With a glance in the Sunday newspaper on arriving home from the launch I found Motorpoint in Derby selling a Zafira 1.8 Club at £11,999 and numerous Scenics from £9,999 for the 1.4 16v and including the 1.6 Sport 16v at £11,999. Similar prices were being quoted by Trade Sales at Slough. I know where my preferences lie.
The Kia press information made no reference to CO2 emission figures - vital for calculating company car tax from 2002 and deciding whether a vehicle should be allocated to company choice lists. A subsequent inquiry revealed the Carens' CO2 figure to be 202 g/km.