The words “dynamic” and “minivan” rarely are uttered in the same sentence, unless the conversation is about the sector, rather than the vehicles themselves.
The minivan segment has seen massive shifts in recent years. A decade ago, models from Detroit's Big Three dominated U.S. sales. Today, only theGroup maintains its hold on the top position. Meanwhile, the Odyssey and Sienna are bearing down hard. Both outsold the Chrysler Town & Country in the first quarter, according to Ward's data.
Now,Motor Co. Ltd. is entering the fray with its Entourage minivan, which is on sale and is derived from its corporate sibling, the Kia Sedona.
The Sedona, which was redesigned for '06, is the only other minivan showing significant sales growth. In the first quarter, it outsold both theFreestar and Chevrolet Uplander, reflecting a 47% jump over year-ago.
Kia's parent,Motor, wants to ride the Sedona's coattails by offering a Hyundai-badged version of the same front-wheel-drive minivan.
The '07 Entourage arrives with little fanfare and modest plans to sell 30,000 units annually. In 2005, Kia sold 52,837 prior-generation Sedonas.
The Entourage is a competent minivan with a relatively powerful engine, and it handles better and is more car-like than the prior-generation Sedona. The interior is comfortable and ergonomic and affords the expected safety features.
The Entourage will appeal to consumers whose basic instinct is to get from Point A to Point B in relative anonymity. This minivan breaks no ground with its styling, but neither does the strong-selling Sienna.
More troubling is the lack of differentiation between the Sedona and Entourage. Inside and out, nearly every dimension is identical, as are the engine, transmission, suspension and chassis.
The Entourage has a different grille, hood, headlamps, front quarter panels and unique front and rear bumper fascia, Hyundai says. Parked side-by-side, however, the casual observer would find the differences extremely subtle between the Entourage and Sedona.
The beltline and most of the sheet metal are identical, and the rear is the same, save for the fascia and some trim. Both vehicles come from the same South Korean plant.
Badge engineering is OK when it is not obvious, and more of it is coming as the industry seeks to leverage efficiencies within vehicle platforms. But it only works when consumers do not recognize that two cars with different badges come from the same assembly line.
Both Hyundai and Kia are young brands in America that are building their images with consumers, so many may not care that the Entourage is a rebadged Sedona.
Both will win buyers at the lower end of the segment, although Hyundai says it is positioning certain Entourage trim levels to compete with the premium entries.
Entourage pricing begins at $23,795 (plus $700 destination charge) and tops out at $32,000, plus destination. A similarly equipped Sedona can be had for about $1,000 less.
The base Entourage GLS is priced $1,400 below a base Odyssey. Transaction prices, however, likely will reflect a bigger difference between the Entourage and Odyssey:dealers are notorious for their refusal to budge on price, while Hyundai dealers may be more willing to bargain.
The Entourage ride is quiet and smooth, and the 3.8L DOHC V-6 is motivated and downright grunty when pushed, linked to a smooth-shifting 5-speed automatic transmission. The gearbox comes equipped with “Shiftronic” manual shifting, which begs the question: Who will use it?
The new engine demonstrates a significant upgrade over the 3.5L V-6 that powered the previous-generation Sedona. That engine, with a cast iron block, was derived from aMotors Corp. design.
The new all-aluminum 3.8L V-6 was developed entirely by Hyundai and Kia and comes with contemporary technology, such as variable valve timing and a composite intake manifold.
Likewise, performance gets a significant boost, to 242 hp and 251 lb.-ft. (340 Nm) of torque at 3,500 rpm. Horsepower and torque are up 24% and 15%, respectively.
Drivers of the previous-generation Sedona complained the 3.5L V-6 was too thirsty.
Hyundai claims the new 3.8L V-6 is more efficient, and that real-world testing is in line with the rated fuel economy of 18 mpg (13 L/100 km) in the city and 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) on the highway.
Helping the cause is an 8% reduction in curb weight. The base Entourage weighs 4,400 lbs. (1,995 kg), down from 4,802 lbs. (2,178 kg) for the old Sedona.
The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is responsive and compliant, without being mushy.
At corners, body roll is improved over the old Sedona but lagging behind the benchmark of the segment, the Odyssey. The Entourage comes equipped with MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link setup at the rear. Coil springs, gas shock absorbers and stabilizer bars bolster both front and rear.
Inside, soft-touch surfaces on the upper instrument panel and much of the door trim contribute to an attractive and comfortable cabin. Cupholders abound — there are eight accessible from the front seats.
Second-row captain's chairs are standard and slide to allow more legroom for third-row passengers. Third-row seats are configured in a 60/40 split and fold into the floor. The seats stow conveniently, but they do wobble and seem unsteady when they are being put away or redeployed.
Six airbags are standard — frontal and side-impact bags for first-row occupants and roof-mounted side curtains for outboard passengers in all three rows. Antilock brakes and skid-preventing electronic stability control also are standard for all three trim levels.
Despite the striking similarities to the Kia Sedona, Hyundai's attempt at badge engineering with the Entourage might just work.
The auto maker already sells nearly twice as many vehicles in the U.S. as does Kia, so it is logical to expect a Hyundai version of the relatively successful Sedona will sell just as well — maybe even better.