Review: Kia Sedona SXL: Yeah, It’s a Minivan. So What?

wheel-to-wheel copy

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Sometimes time has a strange way of reminding you where you are in life. I turned 30 the other week, and by choice (and a little luck) entered the big decade as an unmarried, rent-paying autos scribe living in New York City. But five minutes on Facebook is a solid reminder that mine isn’t exactly a normal path. For the past few years, my social calendar has been full of trips back home for friends’ weddings, open houses, kids’ first birthday parties, and other milestones on the path to full-fledged adulthood. Don’t buy Madison Avenue’s millennial hype; our lives aren’t the action-packed T-Mobile ads they’re supposed to be. The majority of us are as traditional and orthodox as our parents. So even if I’m not there yet, the universe reminded me of my impending domestication and retreat to the suburbs by conspiring to leave me with a minivan for a week. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad.

The van was a 2016 Kia Sedona SXL, a mildly-updated version of a van we tested last year and loved, with our Micah Wright concluding:

Never, in all of my years have I felt more domesticated as a husband, father, and home owner. It felt so wrong enjoying this thing, but at the same time it felt so right, because there was so much in the Sedona that was right-on. While it may not be my style of family machine, it is almost a complete spot-on example of what a minivan should be.

But I’m going to diverge from my colleague here because I’ve always had a bit of a perverse appreciation for the minivan. Growing up in a suburb in 1990s America — which if I remember correctly was little more than a rolling horde of Dodge Caravans and Ford Winstars á la Mad Max: Fury Road, but with Al Gore it was kind of great to be sprawled out in the back of Mom and Dad’s “Black Cherry” ’92 Caravan (with matching velour interior, of course), reading Mad Magazine, listening to In Utero on cassette, and acting angsty, as was the style of the time.

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Then at 16, you and all your friends got their mom’s vans after work and raced them, loaded them with 8 kids to see how much air you get over the railroad tracks (sorry, Mom), or laid down the longest, smokiest, most hilarious front-wheel burnouts you could in front of school because what’s funnier than roasting the front tires in mom’s minivan. Looking back, the distance between you in the back seat and your parents up front was freedom, then later that driver’s seat became freedom. Minivan life was the important bridge between childhood and adolescence inside a rolling shoebox, and frankly, it was great.

But most of my fellow ’90s kids disagree with me, and I can’t say I blame them. Let’s be honest, minivans are mostly an appliance to ferry kids around. They’re bland, they aren’t supposed to be fun, and they certainly aren’t sexy or cool. They advertise “I’m a parent!” Or worse, they advertise “I’ve become my parents!” It’s great when you’re roasting Mom’s Mastercrafts at 16, but it’s a lot different when they’re yours.

So we millennials largely stood up and said, “No. I’ll never drive a minivan. I’m going to be different. I’m going to buy a Toyota RAV4, or a Honda CR-V.” So now, America in 2016 is a rolling horde of bland, tallish crossovers á la Mad Max: Fury Road, but with Adele. And that’s a shame, because while the minivan has largely faded from public view, some of them have gotten really good, and the Kia Sedona is one of the best.

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

The Sedona was all new for 2015, and in our opinion it looks better than anything else in the segment — including Chrysler’s all-new 2017 Pacifica. Chief designer Peter Schreyer’s styling team did a great job incorporating Kia’s handsome styling language into its big, rolling people mover. It’s clean, crisp, and almost has a muscular look with its slightly flared fenders and large lower air intake.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth for young families who want to avoid minivans at all costs: The heavy-hitting big crossovers (the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Chevy Traverse, et al.) are becoming more domesticated — and minivan-like — with each successive generation. While those models have eschewed their earlier truck-like lines for puffy designs that look bloated and awkward, Kia has managed to design a chiseled, lean-looking van — even if it is nearly 17 feet long and does weigh over two-and-a-half tons with a family inside.

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ Looks more purposeful than anti-minivan big crossovers.

+ Kia is one of the best at integrating its design language across its entire lineup. The Sedona is no exception.

+ On the SXL, there’s a tasteful amount of brightwork to break up all that painted sheetmetal.

– It’s really big. No amount of design work can hide that.

– There’s a lot of unprotected metal on this thing. If we had to guess, its natural enemy would be a Target shopping cart.

– Kia seems to have run out of design ideas by the time it got around to the back of the van. If you want to express, back into parking spaces and let the tasteful chrome grille make up for it. 

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

For me, the powertrain was the weakest link in the Sedona. Now, no one would mistake this thing for a performance car, but fully-loaded in SX Limited trim, the heavy van seemed to be a formidable foe for the 3.3-liter, 276-horsepower V6. Kia’s six-speed automatic does an admirable job keeping out of the way and keeping the van moving smoothly, but despite a sub-eight second zero to 60 time, this thing sure didn’t seem to like to being driven in anger. That said, the 248 pound-feet of torque could make accelerating fun, though I’m sad to say I couldn’t bring myself to try roasting the front tires of Kia’s press van.

In the heavy SXL fuel economy is an advertised 17 miles per gallon city and 22 highway. Most cars tend to disappoint when I test them predominantly around New York City, but with the Sedona, what you see is what you get, and returns like that on a car this big is by no means a bad thing.

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ The six-speed auto shifts seamlessly, giving a smooth, predictable ride that you’d want in a family vehicle.

+ Watch the speedo because the 3.3-liter six is easy to underestimate.

+ Even with gas prices low, you can’t not love averaging around 20 miles per gallon in a two-and-a-half ton car with a V6.

– That six doesn’t seem to like being revved in anger.

– You can feel the powertrain moving all that weight when you accelerate from a dead stop.

– There’s no “Sport” version, but then again, I guess there really doesn’t need to be. 

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

What’s the point of a minivan if it doesn’t have a spacious, inviting cabin? My top-spec Sedona had everything you need and then some. Trimmed in two-tone brown/tan leather, the heated and cooled thrones were great, and the rest of the interior followed suit. It may have had more brown automotive plastic this side of a ’92 Camry, but it was surprisingly rich and inviting. If I had specced the van myself, it probably would’ve been my first choice.

In SXL trim, the Sedona had three-zone climate control, with controls for front and mid-row passengers, an entertainment system that flipped up from behind the center console to keep the kids occupied, and two sunroofs to let plenty of light into the big van.

As you’d expect from a minivan, the Sedona had plenty of room (158 cubic feet) inside, a number of deep, sturdy storage bins, and a massive flat floor; the power mid-row captains chairs folded down and moved forward, while the rear seats folded flat into a canyon-deep well behind them. You could easily stow two or three big strollers back there with the rear seats up. With them down, you could easily haul plywood panels in style.

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ With premium leather, soft-touch surfaces, comfortable power seats, and dual-zone climate control, you’d have to go out of your way to feel uncomfortable here.

+ Kia found a way to make unashamedly brown interior plastic look inviting. Bravo.

+ SXL trim is surprisingly nice…

– … but almost too nice to be subjected to kids.

– The first two rows are great for adults, but don’t subject your adult friends to the third row if they’re over 5-foot-2.

– It would be nice to remove the second-row seats if you ever needed to go into full van mode. 

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

It’s almost impossible to write this much about Kia (or corporate cousin Hyundai) without touching on how quickly it transformed itself from a maker of cheap penalty boxes to one of the great mid-market contenders. On top of the premium leather and overall fit-and-finish of the interior, the Sedona’s suite of tech and safety was as good as anything I’ve driven all year, including cars with six-figure price tags.

Kia’s UVO infotainment system is quick and intuitive, and proved pretty tough to stump, even after a few wrong turns on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It was able to navigate and recalculate through the can of worms in a matter of seconds, giving the impression that the car was working for you, not holding you back. Plus, the Infinity speaker system did a great job of filling the van with loud, clear sound, more than enough to drown out the din of traffic or bickering kids.

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The safety features were surprisingly comprehensive too. With mirrors that automatically adjust when you shift into reverse and a novel 360 degree backup camera, parking the big thing in a busy city was an absolute snap. At first I thought the mosaic of camera views with an illustration of the van in the center was too gimmicky; by the end of my time with the van, I was convinced that it needs to be a standard feature on every car.

Tech and safety pros and cons

+ Has the tech goodies to back up the leather thrones and high price tag.

+ Parking monitors and blind spot warning systems work seamlessly and aren’t obnoxiously intrusive.

+ The suite of cameras and monitors makes blind spots a thing of the past.

– The full suite of safety features is a $2,800 option on SXLs.

– The suites can’t be broken up, so it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

– There are a lot of buttons and screens to master, which wouldn’t be easy to do in a van full of kids.

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

In and around New York City, the Sedona was an exercise in contrasts. It was massive inside and out, making it ideal for growing families, but I never had more than three people in the van with me, so it always felt pretty cavernous. Maybe it was because the van was designed to take on a heavier load, and maybe New York brings out the worst in any car, but there were a few more of squeaks and rattles driving on city streets than I expected. But it was strange; the seats were comfortable and supportive, fit and finish felt superb, and it was quiet and comfortable away from the worst pothole-ridden streets.

But those squeaks and rattles took me back to the minivans of my childhood. Try as they might, it can’t be easy for automakers to design a big, empty rolling milk carton on wheels and make it handle like a Miata, but then again, they’ve never needed to. The Sedona is a people mover, and it’s one of the best ones out there.

Kia Sedona SXL

James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

We’ve come a long way from the vans that roamed the country in the ’80s and ’90s. Minivans may be fading in the market like station wagons were back then, and crossovers may reign supreme, but consider this: The Sedona is based on the Optima sedan platform, as is the Hyundai Santa Fe. Likewise, both the Honda Pilot and Odyssey share their bones with the Accord, and the Toyota Highlander and Sienna with the Camry. We never want to be like our parents, but more often than not, that’s who we turn out to be.

But what we can hope for is to grow up, evolve, learn from their mistakes, and do things our way. As a brand, Kia has done it better than virtually any other automaker this century, and with the Sedona, it’s proven that the minivan is still vital and growing. So instead of snubbing minivans and going for a crossover, give up the ghost. If you need a big, spacious, comfortable people mover for your kids that could fit up to eight people (the SXL seats six), but don’t want to hurt yourself lifting kids and groceries up into some tall truck-like thing that will never do truck-like things, give the Sedona a look; your kids will probably love it. Just don’t let them roast the tires when they turn 16.

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