After a nice stretch, Kia comes up short

Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@

THE Kia Sedona minivan is a huge steaming pile of who cares, and I for one couldn't be more relieved. I was beginning to worry that the Korean carmakers — Kia and its corporate parent Hyundai — could disgorge vast quantities of handsome and precision-engineered vehicles pretty much at will, and sell them for the price of gum. Consider, for example, the absurdly overachieving Hyundai Sonata and Azera sedans, and even Kia's indecently decent Optima. For those considering holy orders, there's even the nifty Kia Rio — if poverty and obedience are giving you trouble, at least you'll have chastity locked up.

But the Kia Sedona — a cut-rate riff on Hyundai's 2007 Entourage minivan — puts the planets back in their rightful orbits, at least temporarily. Here are the tragic trim pieces, wavering seams and maddening rattles we used to expect from the Koreans. The whole thing feels as if it were assembled at gunpoint.

The Sedona's dishabille is all the more noticeable in the presence of its competition, the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna, two minivans with the kind of polished execution that one associates with regimental color guards. Our Sedona EX test vehicle didn't have the of-a-piece, close-weave feeling of those vehicles. It felt, in a word, immature. In a hyphenated word, half-baked. The turned seams in the seat upholstery were puckered. The wood trim was made from that exotic species of hardwood, Polystyrene ironicus.

Worst of all, it rattled. I hate rattles. There was something big and heavy juddering in the back of our test van during the week I had it. I climbed back there and tried to isolate the noise. Was it a second-row seat not quite snapped into its mooring? Was it a bulkhead panel? Something was definitely not connected and I finally concluded the noise was coming from a coupling between the left rear multi-links and the steel unit-body. It was the most egregious among many noises the Sedona made. I made one of my own: I groaned every time I got into it.

Let me set the table a bit: This is the second-generation Sedona, and this time round Kia has taken dead aim at the heart of minivan-dom. The Sedona has grown nearly 8 inches in length — putting it on par dimensionally with Odyssey, Sienna and Dodge's Grand Caravan — while dropping, Janet Jackson-style, a bunch of ugly fat. Thanks to a new alloy-block engine, a stiffer and lighter steel monocoque and other dietary measures, the vehicle now weighs in

at 4,387 pounds (more fully loaded). Said 3.8-liter V6 is a very decent piece, putting out 244 hp and 253 pound-feet of torque, much of it distributed nicely across the tach, thanks to the variable-valve cylinder heads.

So, on a power-to-weight basis, the new Sedona is certainly competitive with the best in its class and miles beyond its thunder-thighed forebear. Nor can you complain about the vehicle's five-speed automatic transmission. The Sedona slurps between gears easily, kicks down into passing gear willingly enough and generally offers an inoffensive level of drivability. Indeed, about the only complaint I have with the powertrain is the fact it prefers premium unleaded. Oddly, Kia says you can use regular gas in the Sedona; however, horsepower and torque values decline slightly. The EPA fuel economy rating is 18/25 city/highway miles per gallon.

As part of the weight-saving program, the Sedona was given multi-link independent rear suspension, which theoretically gives the vehicle livelier handling. This remains theoretical. The Sedona stops, turns and corners with all the eagerness of a DMV employee at 4:56 p.m. on a Friday. However, you have to commend Kia for making ABS, traction control and stability control standard equipment. Vehicles like this, that are likely going to convey children, need additional layers of electronic safety aids as standard.

The interior is rote minivan design — front and mid-row captain's chairs with armrests and, in the rear, a three-position 60/40 bench seat that can be folded flush with the floor. When the rear bench seat is deployed, the recess in the floor can be used for cargo. The mid-row seats can be removed, wrestled croc-hunter style, from their floor latches. The vehicle is utterly lousy with beverage holders. If you find yourself ferrying a lot of lapsed alcoholics, this is your minivan.

As for exterior styling, the Kia has some.

Look, let's not beat about the bush. This vehicle is about value, which is to say, features per cubic dollar. In fact, this is the modus operandi for most of the current crop of Korean-badged cars: Give people laundry lists of standard features on the cheap and button the deal up with an eons-long warranty, and they will be more forgiving of minor flaws in design and execution. To that end, the Sedona EX ($26,265) is conspicuously well-equipped: 17-inch wheels, fog lights, heated mirrors, power rear quarter windows, eight-way power driver seat and a decent audio system. If you throw an additional $5,000 at the Sedona, you get the works: 13-speaker Infinity surround-sound audio system with in-dash six-disc changer; overhead DVD player; power sliding doors, sunroof and lift gate; and heated leather seats, among other things.

This is a level of soapy luxe that other minivans in this price range can't offer. Combine with the 10-year powertrain warranty and five-star crash ratings, and the Sedona starts to look

pretty good on paper. But if things went as well as they do on paper, Iraq would be the 51st state.

If I were in charge of employee morale at Toyota or Honda, I would let them dance around the Sedona like a maypole at the company picnic. And then I would send them right back to the office. The Sedona is a rare fumble from what is an aggressively improving Korean automaking industry. Kia will introduce a short wheelbase version of the Sedona this fall. And after that, in spring 2007, they'll roll out — with perfect timing — the Rondo compact MPV, a tasty-looking Mazda5-sized space wagon.

It's a rough business, all right. When Honda and Toyota's guys are just putting on their

lab coats in the morning, rest

assured, the Hyundai and Kia guys are already on their second pot of kimchi.




2006 Kia Sedona EX

Base price: $26,265

Price, as tested: $31,365

Powertrain: 3.8-liter DOHC V6 with variable valve timing; five-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode; front-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 244 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 253 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm

Curb weight: 4,387 pounds

0-60 mph: 10 seconds

Wheelbase: 118.9 inches

Overall length: 202 inches

EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Kia is MIA.

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