Kia reckons that at launch, this was the most stylish car in its sector, a bold claim in a segment that even back in 2013 was boasting some distinctive looking rivals. The extent to which you'll agree will probably depend a little on the spec of the car you're looking at: plusher versions can certainly look quite desirable. All models, feature the brand's now familiar family front end with its sharply contoured lines, LED daytime running lamps and chrome-edged 'tiger-nose' front grille.
Three-dimensional side surfaces continue the relatively dynamic look, with concave sections that start on the lower edge of the front doors before gently rising to the trailing edge of the rear doors. At the rear, where split horizontal rear combination lights make loading easy, you'll find a wide tailgate and window, with an integral rear spoiler and a hidden frame design for the glass for added practicality. Overall, we're talking a clean, effective and, in its own way, very clever piece of design, given its provision of extra cabin space, despite the fact that this MK3 Carens proved to be fully 20mm shorter, 15mm narrower and 45mm lower than the car it replaced.
This was achieved thanks to a wheelbase that, thanks to a 50mm increase, is virtually as big as that of a much pricier Vauxhall Zafira Tourer - which most would see as a slightly larger car. Bear in mind, by the way, that Carens buyers only get that one wheelbase - that one body size: unlike Ford, Citroen and Renault, Kia doesn't see the need to offer separate five and seven-seat bodyshapes in this segment. It never did previously either, but older Carens models offered the choice of either five or seven seats. Here, you've a seven-seat-only design.
Of course, it's one thing cramming three rows of seating into a car as relatively compact as this one (the 4.5m length isn't much greater than that of a Focus hatchback). Quite another for the rearmost pews to be actually properly usable. Are they here? Well, we don't want to get your hopes up too high on this score. No compact MPV in this class has yet delivered third row seating that's properly comfortable for adults on long journeys - and this one doesn't either. But, seating at the very back is at least here relatively easy to access thanks to an effective middle row tilting and sliding mechanism. Use it to get yourself into these chairs and you'll find standards of head and shoulder room pretty similar to those offered by obvious rivals: in other words, if you're an adult, there isn't much but a couple of kids will probably be just fine.
Legroom of course will be the biggest third row restriction, but thanks to the way that the middle seating row slides backwards and forwards, with a little co-operation from those in front, it should be possible for most to get reasonably comfortable. And what of the middle row? Well, if you owned the previous version of this car, the first thing you'll notice is that it's much more flexible, made up of three separate reclining and sliding chairs rather than a single bench. That's made it much easier to properly accommodate three adults, something that would have been a bit of a squash before. If you're only transporting two people, then the middle seat can be folded forward to create a useful table. You also get a couple of useful recessed underfloor storage compartments to deal with the kids' paraphanelia or keep valuable away from prying eyes. Plus most models get neat fold-out seatback tables.
Up-front, you view a clearly presented set of instruments through a smart, leather-trimmed three spoke steering wheel with intuitive controls and faultless functionality that leaves everything exactly where you'd expect to find it. An approach continuing across a smartly-styled dash split into an upper information area dominated by a prominent central screen and a lower control area where there are separate air conditioning controls for driver and passenger.
True, despite the shiny surfaces and chrome accents, the overall cabin quality isn't quite as classy or as avant garde as some rivals can manage - but you wouldn't feel short-changed by it either. And it's practical too, with a spacious centre console box, a cooled glovebox and door pockets large enough to hold decently sized drinks bottles. Someone has thought very carefully about how this car will be used, attention to detail you see in things like the 'butterfly action' of the front wiper blades to ensure that they clear the edges of the screen on both sides.
And luggage space? Well, as you would probably expect, with all three rows raised, there isn't much - just 103-litres - but then, that is 30% more than the previous version of this car could offer and you do get a neat underfloor compartment that can be used to stow away the removable load cover. With heavier items, it'll also help that the loading lip is 15mm closer to the ground, while at night, the portable LED luggage light that most variants include will come in useful. Plus there are the usual hooks and most models have a luggage net to keep stuff like your shopping in place.
Of course, most of the time, most owners won't be using the third seating row and with the two rearmost chairs folded into the floor, there's 492-litres of space on offer below the windowline - 71-litres more than before. Push forward the second row and you get a usefully flat floor and up 1,650-litres of total fresh air. Not quite as much as some rivals can offer it's true, but probably enough for most needs, especially since the front passenger seat can be folded in half to accommodate long items like surfboards and bicycles.
Very little goes wrong with typical third generation Carens models; in fact, our ownerships survey almost completely failed to find anyone at all who was dis-satisfied. The closest we came to that was with an owner who felt that the diesel engine didn't pull cleanly and evenly, a glitch that was quickly cured by their local dealer.
Otherwise, just look out for the usual things; kerbed alloys and damage caused to interior plastics by unruly children. Make sure that the service book is fully stamped up by a franchised dealer too.
(approx based on a 2013 Carens) An air filter will be priced in the £7 to £16 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £6 to £10 bracket and a radiator will be priced in the £112 to £120 bracket. The brake discs we came across sat in the £75 to £100 bracket, with pricier-branded discs costing up to £115. Brake pads are in the £15 to £32 bracket for a set, though you could pay up to around £45 for a pricier brand. A water pump is around £66 and a replacement mirror glass will cost around £12. Wiper blades cost in the £4 to £11 bracket.
Kia was keen that this third generation Carens should be far more class-competitive in terms of its on the road driving experience. But it was also mindful of how low a priority this is for most potential buyers. Cars of this kind are usually seen as functional items, with comfort and composure greater priorities than power and dynamic response. So a compromise was reached during development. Nothing too dramatic was done to either ride or handling but a much stiffer body, fancy Flex Steer variable weight steering and a range of more willing engines all aim to keep your interest once you've dropped off the kids at school.
To be honest, we don't think any of these things will keep your interest for very long: like most of its rivals, this isn't really that kind of car. Still, it is as promised, a useful step forward from its predecessor, with a firmer set-up that deliberately distances this Kia from softer-sprung but more roll-sensitive rivals like Citroen's Grand C4 Picasso and Renault's Grand Scenic. Not that you should get us wrong here: if you're running late for the school play and throw the thing hard into a bend, you'll get plenty more bodyroll than you would in, say a rival Ford Grand C-MAX or even a Peugeot 5008. But in normal day-to-day motoring, most families should be quite happy with the ride and handling compromise that's been reached here.
Though the 6-speed manual gearbox isn't the slickest, the steering's nicely direct, even if it doesn't offer a great deal of feedback. But in all Carens models, you can try and do something about that thanks to the standard inclusion of Kia's Flex Steer system. It offers the driver a choice of Normal, Comfort or Sport steering modes, something fun to experiment with for the first few miles but ultimately not of much use given that 'Comfort' is rather too light and 'Sport' a bit too heavy.
Under the bonnet, buyers get to choose between a 133bhp 1.6-litre GDi petrol unit or a 1.7-litre CRDi turbodiesel, offered in 114 or 134bhp states of tune, the latter available with the option of a 6-speed auto gearbox. Most will be choosing between the GDi petrol unit or the lower-powered diesel, both capable of around 112mph flat out. On paper, the diesel gets there in a more leisurely fashion, the 0-62mph sprint taking 12.6s as opposed to 10.9s but in practice, the CRDi model's greater reserves of torque (there's 95Nm more of it) make it feel a more willing companion. The diesel's heavier engine also puts a bit more weight over the front wheels, which makes the car feel slightly more positive when cornering.
And the best engine you could choose? Well, it's probably the one that, thanks to high pricing, hardly any UK customers will buy - the 1.7 CRDi diesel in its pokiest 134bhp state of tune. Go for such a variant and, as with the lower-powered unit, you have to be up around 1,500rpm before the grunt really propels you forward but once it does, the extra torque (up from 260 to 330Nm) is quite noticeable - to the point where it'd be a real boon if you were regularly using the car heavy laden or on longer trips.
The easy sell here will be to buyers of previous first and second generation Carens models. This MK3 model was such a big step forward that Kia could justifiably have re-named it and started again. Buy one and you get the same strong build quality, reliability and long warranty you had before but now wrapped up in a more effective, desirable and efficient package. Yes, also a pricier one, but the value proposition still remains strong in comparison with obvious rivals.
You certainly get a lot more for your money here than rivals from brands like Ford, Renault and Citroen can offer. For the money you'd give to these makers for a five-seat compact MPV, Kia provides a seven-seater design that's better equipped, just as efficient and, to some eyes at least, even arguably better looking.
So where does all that leave us? With, we think, a very appealing option in a family world that'll usually see a multitude of expenses take precedence over a plush people carrier. Food, clothing, heating, iPods, Sony Playstations, cutting edge Nike trainers, full suspension mountain bikes and so on. Once these essentials have been provided for your brood, there are often scant funds remaining for a vehicle to transport them between their football matches, dance classes, swimming lessons and youth clubs. What is a parent to do? Buy one of these? It's not hard to make a case for it.