Kia Reinvented the Minivan Into a Stylish Luxury Car, Boosting Sales to Record Highs

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A winner is emerging in the shifting minivan market, and it's not the company you might expect.

Over the last 20 years, the U.S. minivan has taken a back seat to the SUV. The main attributes that have set the minivan back, compared to the SUV, have been these two:

  1. The minivan looks as square and plain as a rectangular bread-box.
  2. The driver's seating position and instrument panel are more bus-like than car-like.

For these reasons, the American public turned against these attributes and instead embraced the SUV. The number of minivans sold fell, as companies such as Ford  (F), General Motors  (GM) and Volkswagen exited the field. Nissan has all but exited the U.S. minivan market as well, as has Mazda

The remaining players are Dodge/Chrysler, Honda, Toyota (TM) and Kia, serving a smaller market than the one in the early 1990s, but still a sizable and healthy market segment, especially with fewer competitors around. (Chrysler, Honda and Toyota minivan sales, which represent the bulk of the market, are all way down from the 1990s.) When we dig into the U.S. sales statistics for May 2015, however, a major outlier emerges. For the month of May 2015, Kia Sedona's unit sales were up 456% and for the year-to-date, sales were up 423%. 

Kia is now in fourth place, having sold about 15,000 Sedonas year-to-date as of May, up from under 3,000 a year ago. The top three sellers in the market currently are Chrysler (30,680) plus Dodge (29,364)Toyota (58,473), and Honda (51,051).

In a market that's generally seeing 2% to 6% annual growth, it should be obvious that Kia's minivan sales momentum is in a different universe than the rest of the auto market. So what explains Kia's market-leading minivan sales success?

In the fourth quarter of 2014, Kia started selling an all-new Sedona minivan. It deals with the two issues listed above: Exterior design, and the driver's bus-like experience.

Kia's new design director, Peter Schreyer, came from Audi where he penned the iconic Audi TT. At Kia, one of his missions was to transform the ultra-boring soccer mom's rectangular bread box into something that would cause people to take notice.

That was mission impossible, but he succeeded. If you have not seen the all-new 2015 Kia Sedona minivan yet, you should take a look. From any angle, it looks far more elegant, sculpted and athletic than any other minivan that preceded it -- at least since the original Volkswagen minibus from the 1960s and 1970s. It looks as elegant as the best SUV. This is likely a key reason behind the sales numbers being up 423% or more.

Open up the driver's door and you are greeted to an interior unlike any minivan to date. The dashboard has a horizontal design with contrasting colors. It reminds you of an Audi A8 from a generation or two ago. (That's meant as a major compliment.)

Continuing the Audi A8 theme, the Kia Sedona breaks with minivan tradition to add a decidedly car-like center console. This completely rids the Sedona of any bus or minivan feeling. No, you can no longer get up and walk back between the front seats, but Kia's research suggested people never do that anyway. If they need to go back there, they stop and go through the sliding side doors.

Completing the Sedona's engineering trifecta, the seating position is just like in any other premium car. It does not feel bus or minivan-like at all. 

The ergonomics are perfect. The Sedona is on par with the best cars and trucks when it comes to ease of use. There is no confusion about buttons, labels or knobs. It all just works without having to consult the manual or a salesperson.

Behind the driver's seat, the only major innovation of great interest is the top trim's ($41,000 and up models) airplane first class-like seats. They move into the car's center, lean back and combine with an extensible foot rest to make for a sort of moving dentist's chair and unlike anything in the industry.

That said, these luxurious seats aren't ideal. The one behind the driver will see foot room compromised for someone who is of average height, when the "dentist chair" position is assumed. At least on the passenger side, you can move the front seat forward enough to make room in the back for a sleeping six-footer -- assuming nobody tall is sitting up front.

The lesser trim models -- going all the way down to $27,000 -- have a more traditional second row, which folds forward unlike the $41,000-and-up model's dentist chairs. As much as the dentist chairs are an impressive "party trick" I would probably buy the SX model, which goes for little over $37,000 and up.

Fuel economy is not all that impressive, with city mileage at 17-to-18 miles per gallon, and highway MPG at 22-to-25 MPG, depending on trim levels. My experience was consistent with those numbers. Clearly, this car needs a diesel (call Volkswagen) paired with a direct-shift-gearbox (call Volkswagen again) or a plug-in hybrid version (call the Chevrolet Volt team).

The "drive feel" is pleasant, thanks to the excellent seating position, but held back a little bit by the fact that the car feels very heavy. The engine and transmission are not the best, and if you put the car on cruise control on the freeway, you'll feel the car downshift as you hit a meaningful incline. There is not as much torque as you'd like.

The interior has a few irritations. There are a few shiny plastic trim pieces around the transmission shifter, that reflect a blinding light when in some angles to the sun. Grip the interior door handle, and you'll feel some really cheap plastic, even though it's sturdy.

The particular test car I had, with only 7,000 miles on it, had slippery worn-out leather on the steering wheel, and one of the two second-row seats had broken adjusters. That makes me wonder about the long-term quality, at least on some superficial matters. The slippery leather on the steering wheel really bugged me. Someone went too cheap.

There is one other strike against the Kia Sedona, and it's one that will likely be fixed very soon, possibly already later this year when the 2016 model year is expected to arrive. It's the infotainment unit, which screams for these three things that will soon be standard on every GM car:

  • 4G LTE with WiFi hotspot.
  • Google's (GOOGL) Android Auto.
  • Apple's (AAPL) Apple CarPlay.

Generally speaking, you shouldn't buy any car until at least two of these three items are included in the car you're buying. It will impact your used car value a lot.

All in all, I give the Kia Sedona a very high grade: Once you see it, get into it, and drive it, you may understand why it's setting growth records in the U.S. automotive market right now. It's taking the minivan to places where minivans have never gone before.

As with any car in the market today, you should just wait with your purchase until the car has been upgraded to Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and ideally also 4G LTE. That may happen in just a few months from now, so stay patient.

Then again, if you wait to the Summer of 2016, the market will also have a long-overdue all-new Chrysler Town & Country, which has the potential to be a formidable competitor.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held AAPL.

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