What a change a year can make. Recent previous winners in the Australia’s Best Cars large car category have been conventional sedans, such as the VF Commodore and Hyundai Genesis, with rear-wheel drive and big naturally-aspirated engines.
This year, the winner has a liftback instead of a separate boot, and a longitudinally mounted 2.0-litre turbocharged engine sending drive to the rear wheels. All of this makes the Kia Stinger’s specification rare in the Australian marketplace, and it is so well executed it became a sensation as soon as it arrived here, especially in 3.3-litre twin turbo form. However, it was the Stinger with the smaller engine and cheaper price that took home the trophy for large cars under $70,000 in Australia’s Best Cars 2018.
While so many Australians continue to flock to SUVs without even considering the other options, the Kia Stinger offers almost SUV-like practicality but with the handling of a low-slung sports sedan. It’s still a big vehicle, and from the front seats it definitely feels that way. There’s a wide transmission tunnel and plenty of room either side of it. A long bonnet reaches out ahead as per the grand tourer tradition, and the driver sits low and pleasingly ensconced.
The engine produces 182kW and 353Nm, with all of that torque available from just 1400rpm. Given that grunt comes in from just a tickle above idle speed, and with it being sent through Kia’s eight-speed auto, the Stinger is just so good at getting down a winding road with maximum driver satisfaction and minimal fuss.
In the large car category, and indeed the new car market as a whole, the Kia Stinger has been a breath of fresh air.
At 4830mm long and 1870mm wide, the Stinger is 67mm shorter but 7mm wider than the current ZB Holden Commodore. Space in the rear seats is reasonable but its sporty styling means it’s no Hyundai Genesis back there. The interior fit and finish is excellent and far better than most people would expect, especially if they haven’t been in a Kia of any kind for a while.
Those familiar with late model European cars may get a sense of déjà vu from the design of the gear shifter and the air vents, but they nonetheless look good and function well. The entertainment system in the 200S includes a six-speaker sound system, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and, of course, Bluetooth compatibility.
After an upgrade in early 2018, the Stinger 200S is now very well equipped with safety gear. All models built after March 2018 have autonomous emergency braking and lane support systems, both of which are critical in helping drivers avoid crashes. The 330S received the upgrade at the same time, and as such the ANCAP safety ratings for both vehicles were lifted to the maximum five stars.
The Stinger scored particularly well in its warranty and dealer access, thanks to Kia’s seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. It’s still among the best standard factory warranties in the business and another reason why the Stinger topped its class this year.
There was a time not long ago when hauling the tribe meant owning a traditional box van with three rows of seats and not much in the way of creature comforts or safety. Australia’s obsession with SUVs has since blurred the lines somewhat, but the thing that hasn’t changed for family wagons is their need to carry at least seven passengers and a boot full of bags in comfort, and not cost the earth to own and run. Those were the areas the judges put the emphasis on in this year’s Australia’s Best Cars family wagon category.
A recent mid-life upgrade for the third generation Kia Carnival delivered increased safety, suspension refinement, an electric park brake and a new eight-speed automatic transmission, not to mention some styling and packaging upgrades to take the Carnival to the next level.
So much about the family wagon is the vehicle’s ability to move a load of occupants in a comfortable and safe manner, and none did this better than the Carnival in this year’s awards. Sitting alongside the Honda Odyssey, the Carnival is considerably wider, which translates into more internal space for all occupants. The Carnival will actually carry eight average-sized adults and, if you’re hauling kids, then they’re going to have plenty of their own space.
Multi power-adjustable, heated leather-appointed seats for the front row offer great comfort and support. The second row is extremely flexible, with the centre seat able to be removed to create walkthrough access to the third row. Second row seats can be folded forward individually to create additional space and slide for more equitable space for the third row if required. The Carnival also offers four child restraint anchor points – two in the second row and two in the third (three are ISOFIX compatible). Behind the third row, the Carnival can accommodate four full-sized suitcases, as well as a couple of backpacks and computer bags, all still sitting safely below seatback level thanks to the well provided for the third-row seat to fold it down into the floor. Folding away all seats in the back creates an enormous space for carrying the largest of packages.
Keeping your family safe is vital and something Kia has taken seriously with the recent model upgrade. All Carnival models now come with autonomous emergency braking as standard, along with lane departure warning, active cruise control and six airbags including curtain airbags covering all three rows. The Carnival also received a localised suspension upgrade to further improve the ride and handling characteristics. Controlling in excess of two tonnes of people mover has its challenges and the Australian team has produced quality ride improvements. While the steering is still fairly light and lifeless on the open road, it makes low speed manoeuvring a breeze.
Family wagons are all about how the occupants interact within the vehicle. This is ergonomics and where the Carnival puts its head above the rest. Fitting an electric park brake instead of the old foot-operated unit is a great leap forward. The new in-house designed infotainment unit now includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto apps via the 8.0-inch touchscreen. Navigation is standard, with 10 years of map updates thrown in for good measure. The rear-view camera presents a clear image for the driver and both sliding doors can be power activated from the driver’s seat. The tailgate has a proximity function to automatically open when you approach it with the key fob in your pocket. Tri-zone climate control, with rear controls and vents in the second and third rows, should have everyone at a comfortable temperature. You can lock the rear climate controls out if the inevitable ‘I’m hot, I’m cold’ argument starts down the back. In this day of multiple electronic devices, the Carnival falls a little short with only three USB ports. Two are available to front occupants, with one accessible in the second row and nothing for the backseat passengers. In the battle for cup holder supremacy, both the Carnival and Odyssey have 10 each, which doesn’t quite make sense for seven or eight occupants.
The 2.2-litre turbo diesel engine is a carryover from the previous model, however, a slick new eight-speed auto has been added. The combination works fantastically together, with a wide range of ratios allowing the Carnival to stay right in the middle of its not insignificant 440Nm torque band, leading to a relaxed driving experience even when fully loaded. Listed fuel economy on the official combined cycle is 7.7L/100km.
The upgraded Carnival SLi will cost you just under $60,000 on the road and you can add another $695 if you tick the premium paint box at the dealer. Running and repair costs over five years are similar to the Odyssey, but the Carnival gets a scoring boost from its industry leading seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty.
If your main requirement is to move a large family safely and in comfort with a fair amount of premium style, then you can’t go past the latest Kia Carnival.
Currently Ford’s most popular model and one of the best sellers in this class, the Ranger has dominated Australia’s Best Cars 4×4 dual cab ute category since its inclusion in the program in 2013. It has only lost its crown once when it fell to the eighth-generation Toyota HiLux in 2015.
With some updates since then, the Ranger has once again asserted itself, and was looking promising for a win in 2018 even before the Blue Oval offered a new five years/unlimited kilometre warranty for new vehicles delivered from May 1st. This was announced just as our test week for all the class finalists kicked off, making the Ranger almost untouchable.
The Ranger XLT and HiLux SR5 are the two dearest utes in our scoresheets. But the Ford’s depreciation, running and repair costs, and insurance premiums, hover around the class averages. Standard equipment levels are good, and only the Holden Colorado LTZ offers more kit for slightly less money.
The XLT’s standard fit-out has a full suite of airbags and includes full-length side curtain airbags, a rear-view camera, park sensors front and rear, a rear diff-lock, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, side steps, sports bar, DAB+ radio, navigation, and tyre pressure monitoring. Also fitted is Ford’s latest-gen SYNC 3 entertainment and communications system with voice recognition and an 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with ‘pinch and swipe’ capability.
Towing ability and practical design are important in a ute, and the Ranger isn’t found wanting. The XLT comes with a towbar and trailer sway control as standard, and it’s rated to a best-in-class 3500kg maximum towing mass. A generously proportioned tray with standard tub-liner, six load restraint eyes, a power outlet, load area illumination, and a payload to deal with work or play, all rated well with our judges. Like the HiLux, the Ford has a 230-volt inverter power outlet in the cabin.
Comfortable seating in all positions and cabin space that’s equal best in class help the Ranger’s cause too. Inside and out, the Ranger rates highly for its build and finish quality, with a premium look that shows how far utes have progressed in recent years from their relatively spartan workhorse predecessors.
Performance from the Ranger’s 147kW, 3.2-litre, five-cylinder turbo-diesel again impressed the judges, whether on-road or lugging its way through the bush. With a gutsy 470Nm delivered between 1750 and 2500rpm, it easily shrugged off the challenges of our off-road test loop, including hauling a 500kg payload and four burly ABC judges up a steep, muddy and badly rutted track. Off-road, the Ranger proved as accomplished and capable as the best the class can offer.
The big Ford’s road manners are far more car-like and sophisticated than might be expected in a vehicle built primarily to work for a living and tackle tough off-road terrain. Steering, handling and ride are as good as it gets in the class.
The popularity of dual cab utes goes from strength to strength with Australian buyers. The Ford Ranger XLT exemplifies the versatility, driveability and relative civility that the modern dual cab ute can deliver. That’s why it has again stamped its authority over a class it has virtually made its own. And you can expect the Ranger to be a force to be reckoned with in the future, too, with Ford announcing powerful new engines providing up to 500Nm, a 10-speed auto, advanced driver assistance features, and other improvements for 2019.