Driving In Seoul, Korea


When it comes to the subject of driving in Korea, most guidebooks advise against it. The basis is Korea's reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world for driving. That reputation is outdated. The fatility rate per registered vehicle is still 2 or 3 times as high as the U.S., but, given the density and terrain, that may not be too bad.

Although we don't intend to drive a lot (the bus and subway system really works better than driving) I did buy a car. A 1999 Kia Carnival minivan (the luxury "Park" model, of course - sunroof, power rear vent windows, automatic, air, CD). I can't explain the hood scoop - it seems to be Kia's latest styling trend. [Edit: The scoop is actually functional. It directs outside air to the intercooler. This diesel is turbocharged and intercooled with direct injection - and still doesn't have any detectable power. Diesels are for trucks and tractors.]


The Carnival is rumored to have something in common with the Ford Windstar. (Ford and Kia have technical agreements.) It's about the size of a short wheelbase U.S. minivan but it's definitely more trucklike. (Of course, a lot of the cars seem a little trucklike.) It is a 9 passenger van - standard 7 seat configuration with fold down jump seats between the front seats and the second row seats. Because of this, it is allowed to drive in bus lanes as long as you have 6 passengers. Of course, my observation is that anything that looks remotely like a van with any number of passengers is likely to be in the bus lanes.


In general, Korean cars are like U.S. cars now. There are some corners cut to keep the local prices down. Only the most expensive cars are available with air bags and ABS and sometimes they are still options. Neither is available on the Carnival. On the Carnival, unless you buy the Park (high end) model, only the front seats have shoulder belts - the rest have only lap belts. Of course, there are a few features of the design which are uniquely Korean. Like most vans, this one is a diesel - and there's no missing that fact. It is very noisy and rough when cold. There's plenty of torque from the 2.9 liter 4 cylinder, but not much horsepower. You may note the "backing" mirror hanging off the top of the rear hatch. Also for tight spots it has an interesting feature. There is a button on the dash which folds both side mirrors against the side of the van to give a few extra inches of clearance on narrow streets.

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