Will autonomous cars enhance or destroy the traditional road trip? I can’t tell you that, but what I do know is that some of us for whom the open road beckons are keen to drive it before robotic cars and tractor-trailers fill up the lanes.
For our family of five, spring break road trips to Florida have been a longstanding tradition requiring a comfy vehicle that can make light work of the 20-hour voyage and deliver us safely and ready to bask in the sunshine.
Our preference is for a spacious minivan that doesn’t beat up its occupants over the long haul. We like vans for their flexible seating, generous cargo capacity and decent mileage. An SUV’s all-wheel-drive system is moot when you’ve mounted four good-quality winter tires.
We’re not alone in our fondness for minivans; Canadians still buy them in considerable numbers. Many of the Dodge Grand Caravans, Toyota Siennas and Honda Odysseys we spotted in Florida bore Canadian registration.
Kia Sedona is the ride
This year we took Kia’s newly redesigned Sedona van for a 5,000-km excursion to Daytona Beach and back. The third-generation Sedona has an aggressive profile that challenges bystanders to give it a second look. Respect the van, man.
It’s easy to do when your ride fills out its wheel wells with 19-inch alloys shod with Continental tires, wears an angry expression and a gaping maw for a grille, and dons enough chrome bling to make an Escalade feel inadequate.
The Sedona’s beauty goes deep below the skin. Engineers specified high-strength steels, which, along with structural adhesives and large-diameter welds, boosted torsional stiffness by 36% over that of competing vans.
The rigid front-drive platform makes itself evident by how the fully independent suspension works in quiet isolation, unfazed by the potholes and expansion joints along our route.
Third time's the charm
This is Kia’s third attempt at building a pleasing seven- or eight-seat minivan. The first generation van could have been mistaken for a Ford Windstar – with a similar number of teething problems. The second-gen Sedona was considerably bigger and better, using the Honda Odyssey as the benchmark. Still, it fell a little short in terms of refinement and its 3.8-litre V-6 drank deeply at the pumps.
They say third time’s the charm, and that may be so with the new Sedona. It’s cast a few centimetres longer and rides on a wheelbase stretched almost 4 cm.
While there’s more legroom for middle-row occupants, the third-row bench and cargo area are not quite as spacious as that of the segment leaders. We discovered this shortcoming as we moved our travel gear between the Sedona and our 2006 Toyota Sienna.
The well into which the rear bench folds is smaller, which means it swallows less cargo when the seats are in use. When they’re tucked into storage, the resulting floor is not quite flat; the folded seats still stick up a little, impeding our ability to slide heavy luggage out.
We fled Toronto on a cool and rainy Saturday morning and crossed the border at the Rainbow Bridge in downtown Niagara Falls. It’s not a popular crossing and there are no heavy trucks permitted, so we cleared U.S. Customs quickly. We soon joined Interstate I-79 at Erie, Pennsylvania, and pointed our van southward.
Our well-worn route skirts around Pittsburgh and then threads - literally - through the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. We leave I-79 near Sutton for Highway 19, a short-cut that joins I-77 at Beckley, W.V.
It’s near Fayetteville that US 19 crosses the New River Gorge over a spectacular steel arch bridge that, at 267 metres above the water, was the highest vehicular bridge in the world when it opened in 1977. Whether you’re a civil engineering buff or not, it’s worth a stop to gape at this marvel.
The Sedona makes short work of the highway’s relatively steep grades with its direct-injected 3.3-L DOHC V-6, a smaller engine that churns out a competitive 276 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque (our old Toyota’s 3.3 puts out a mere 215 hp by comparison).
It works through a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission that allows the engine to turn just 2100 rpm at 120 km/h, contributing both serenity and fuel efficiency.
A decadent wagon
In range-topping SXL trim, the Sedona is a decadent wagon. Among the gear is a high-end Infinity sound system, second-row lounge chairs and a host of electronic driving aids, including surround-view cameras, lane minder and smart cruise control.
About that cruise control: it’s designed to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front, so it can bog down as you approach a slow-moving car. But when you change lanes, the drivetrain drops a gear or two and lunges ahead, keen to regain the set speed.
That herky-jerky action subverts the smooth-driving experience cruise controls are supposed to provide. I'm not saying Kia does it better or worse, just that the nature of “smart” cruise controls compels drivers to use it in light traffic only.
All in a row
The instrument display is sharp and the controls are well marked, but Kia likes placing buttons in uniform rows, which isn’t very intuitive. It’s not a good sign when you’re constantly studying the buttons to find the fan speed after a week at the controls.
The cockpit is wide and we sit in well-shaped seats, ensconced in Nappa leather and brightened by dual sunroofs in the SXL.
In the old days, the space between a minivan’s front seats was unobstructed, which allowed easy passage to the rear seats where mom could interrogate the passengers, resolve conflicts and mete out swift justice. Newer vans offer flexible consoles and trays that can be removed as required.
Not so in the Sedona. Its console is permanently fixed, preventing the co-pilot from shifting between chairs – undoubtedly a good safety measure. The fixed console also telegraphs a more upscale interior – like that of a sport-ute – and it can cool drinks, too.
Into the heat and humidity
We habitually split our Florida drives over two days to stay fresh and alert. This time, we booked a room in Elkin, N.C., just down the long slope from Fancy Gap, which marks our exit from the Appalachians and into the lush greenery of North Carolina. The next morning, we continued down I-77 through Charlotte and around Columbia, S.C., drawn into the rising heat and humidity.
As we get closer to the coast, the fast-growing forests form a thick canopy over the wetlands; it’s easy to understand why Georgia is a major supplier of forestry products. There isn’t much to look at along the route, but the state’s rest stops are well used by weary travelers who park to lunch at picnic tables and spread their toes in the grass. We are, after all, winter refugees grateful for small morsels of summer.
By afternoon, we’ve crossed the St. Marys River into Florida. The highway widens into four southbound lanes ushering travelers to their holiday destinations. Here it’s not unusual to see cars and trucks speeding along at 140 km/h as drivers hurry to shorten the trip. There are state troopers about, but they seem to focus on the egregious speeders.
Back to the beach
Despite its outsized reputation, Daytona Beach is not a very big place and it’s easy to get around if you avoid the marquee events, such as hog-infested Bike Week. Our rented condo overlooked the famous hard-packed sand beach, the site of automobile and motorcycle racing for decades. There’s a monument honouring the Daytona 200 motorcycle racers a short walk from our building, but the memorial is unlit at night – a shame.
All the competitions have moved to Bill France’s speedway next to the airport – the massive facility is undergoing another expansion – but cars and bikes still ply the beach (slowly) at low tide, where motorists can drive and park for a small fee.
Already familiar with the well-publicized theme parks, our girls were keen to explore the state’s ecosystem, so we took a boat tour of the St. Johns River, which drains much of central Florida. Remarkably, it descends a total of only 27 feet over its 310-mile length, a slope of one inch per mile. That’s one lazy, slow-moving river.
We couldn’t resist stopping for dinner at Vince Carter’s restaurant, just off the I-95 on the outskirts of Daytona. The former Toronto Raptor shooter opened his $11-million steakhouse with his mom five years ago as a way to give back to his hometown.
The most surprising feature is the menu: it’s affordable. And the serving staff appear to be recruited from Daytona’s inner city. Clearly, Vince wanted to make a statement with his namesake restaurant and he did – creating 130 much-needed jobs in a county reputed for its stubborn unemployment. Talk about a hometown hero.
According to local weather forecasters, Florida was especially hot and dry this March, which made our trip all the more rewarding. After five uninterrupted days in the sun, we reluctantly turned the Sedona around and headed north.
Kia’s new van has an appetite for consuming long distances. Ten hours behind the wheel can be taxing, but the Sedona never made it feel like punishment. We were back in the cold weather in what seemed like no time at all, sadly.
The right stuff?
Does the made-in-Korea Sedona have the right stuff to compete in the minivan segment? Yes, unequivocally. Kia has sweated the details, delivering a sleek and well-engineered minivan that cossets its human cargo and consumes distances like a transcontinental streamliner.
With an entry price of $27,495 the Sedona undercuts the Japanese vans by more than $2,500 yet offers more standard features and Kia’s five-year factory warranty.
True, it’s nowhere near as affordable as the base model of Canada’s sweetheart, the Dodge Grand Caravan, yet loaded versions of each can top out at almost $50,000.
So which one of these two will be worth more in five years? My money is on this well turned out Kia.
Model: 2015 Kia Sedona front-drive minivan
Price: $27,495 (base L); $45,995 (SXL ) as tested
Engine: 3.3-litre DOHC V-6 with direct injection
Power/Torque: 276 horsepower / 248 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption (city/hwy): 14.2/10.5 L/100 km
Competitors: Dodge Grand Caravan, Honda Odyssey, Nissan Quest, Toyota Sienna
PROS and CONS:
> Stable and quiet ride
> Capable and refined drivetrain
> Handsome for a minivan
> Smaller cargo space than segment leaders
> Obstructive centre console
> Heavy for a minivan