- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

Given the plethora of choices already in place, anyone might wonder what a car company is thinking when it rolls out a brand-new minivan.

In fact, faced with the relentless onslaught of sport utility vehicles, minivans have been on a decline. They’re not endangered, certainly, because they still offer the best value for anyone who needs passenger and cargo-carrying capability without the outrageous prices and poor fuel economy of truck-based SUVs.

But some have fallen by the wayside. The Mercury Villager and Nissan Quest are on their way out, victims of lagging sales and the fact that they are on the smaller end of the minivan spectrum.

So here comes Kia of Korea with its brand-new Sedona minivan, which comes across almost as a clone of the Villager and Quest. At first blush, it looks like a death wish.

But the Kia has a powerful magnet: price. Because it comes from South Korea, where labor costs are lower than in Japan, Europe and the United States, the Sedona sells for thousands of dollars less than its competitors.

The tested EX model, the top of the line, had a base price of just $21,590, about what you’d pay for a popular four-cylinder midsize sedan.

But the package included a five-speed automatic transmission, V-6 engine, front and rear air conditioning, a stereo with CD and cassette player, power seats up front, remote locking, a trip computer, cruise control, alloy wheels, and motorized mirrors and windows. It even included a defroster at the lower edge of the windshield to free stuck wiper blades.

A few options, including a sunroof, anti-lock brakes, leather upholstery and two-tone paint, brought the suggested delivery price to $23,805.

Kia now is owned by Hyundai, South Korea’s other major vehicle manufacturer, which has been successfully battling its low-quality image by improving quality and, to entice buyers, offering a 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. That also extends to Kia.

But the first impression of the new Sedona is that it might not even need that additional inducement. The test vehicle was tight and rattle-free, with evidence of good workmanship and decent components. Whether it will hold up over time remains to be seen.

Two major items were lacking: Side air bags and sliding side doors that operated freely. Competitors offer powered side doors, or doors that open and close easily. The Sedona’s side doors fit snugly, but required a great deal of force to open and close to the point where small children might not be able to handle the chore.

Aside from that, the Sedona performed commendably. The 3.5-liter V-6 engine delivers 195 horsepower, which allowed only modest performance because of the 4,709-pound curb weight. But it moved well in traffic, even with a full load. Fuel consumption, at 15 miles per gallon city and 20 highway, also is nothing to brag about.

The five-speed automatic transmission is something you do not expect of a minivan in this price class. It shifts smoothly and keeps the engine operating in the best range for the task at hand.

The transmission shifter is housed in a console that is located forward of the front seats, similar to what you find on the Lexus ES 300 and Toyota Highlander SUVs. It falls easily to hand, and allows a walk-through space between the front bucket seats.

A handy tray, with cup holders, folds vertically against the passenger seat and can easily be raised up between the two front seats.

There are two glove compartments, as well as a shallow storage area on top of the dash. Instruments are easy to read and the plastic wood-grain interior trim is tastefully applied.

Handling is about what you’d expect in a minivan not as quick as a sedan, but not ragged either. There’s not much steering effort, and the Sedona handles quick lane changes at legal speeds without fuss or bother.

The front and middle-row bucket seats are comfortable, if a bit flat, and the optional leather upholstery had a quality look and feel. The third seat in back can accommodate three skinny adults, but is shy on headroom and knee room, like most minivans.

As mentioned, the Sedona is similar in size to the Nissan Quest and Mercury Villager and to the Toyota Sienna as well. That means there’s not a great deal of cargo space behind the third seat just 22 cubic feet, most of it vertical.

The third seat is split and the two parts can be removed to expand the cargo area. The seatbacks also fold down. But it’s a standard configuration. There’s no innovation like the disappearing third seats in the Honda Odyssey or Mazda MPV.

At this price, however, you can’t have everything.

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