Unicamp Kia minivan camper grabs baton as affordable US pop-up RV
With the American compact van market fast going the way of the dinosaur and dodo (maybe not the dodo), small, affordable pop-up camper vans like the Free Bird and Cascade Camper are soon to be no more, if not already gone. Las Vegas-area conversion shop Caleche Customs is helping fill the void by bringing over the Korean-designed Unicamp Univan RT CL, a Kia Carnival minivan-camper pop-top kit. The company is now offering hardware to create Carnival light sleeper vans and more complete campers.
Caleche previously focused its conversion efforts solely on Mercedes-Benz vehicles, offering both Sprinter and Metris camper van offerings. But then, Mercedes joined the wave of auto manufacturers discontinuing their smallest van products with its plan to pull the midsize Metris off the North American market in 2023. Nissan kicked the trend off when it canceled the small NV200 (and full-size NV3500) following the 2021 model year, and Ford and Ram have followed suit, announcing plans to wind their respective small vans down this year.
Like that, the American small van market has disappeared.
If there is to be a small, affordable camper van market in the North American market near-term, then, it falls on the minivan segment and conversions like the Oasis Sienna. Caleche Customs has turned to a different minivan model for its new small camper van offering, but instead of fabricating its own floor plan, it has sought out tried-and-true products from other global markets, starting with Kia's home base of South Korea.
Unicamp was founded in 2011 and offers several Korean-market camper vans based on domestic models from Hyundai and Kia. The company introduced its latest Univan RT CL following the fourth-generation Kia Carnival's Korean launch in 2020.
The Carnival came to the US as a 2022 model, replacing the Sedona. The American-market Carnival offers seven- and eight-seat configurations, providing plenty of space for the entire family. In fact, while it technically qualifies as a minivan, the 203-in (516-cm) Carnival measures longer than any of the aforementioned discontinued compact or midsize vans, providing ample space for in-vehicle camping. All that's needed is a higher roof.
Caleche brings that high roof option over the Pacific with the formation of its Unicamp USA subsidiary. The Univan RT CL pop-up roof expands the Carnival's interior space upward, adding "light camper" to the versatile minivan's hat collection. Made with a durable, weather-ready thermoset plastic shell, the roof sits a little higher and more conspicuous when closed than some pop-up roof designs, but it ultimately just reminds us of an MPV carrying a roof box.
The Univan RT CL's electric lift operation fits nicely with a base vehicle that offers hands-free and single-button sliding door and tailgate operation. In fact, Unicamp says it can even be opened and closed with the same Kia Smart Key that also opens the doors and tailgate. The roof opens and closes in a mere five seconds and includes a self-locking feature for click-and-go convenience. A manual backup system ensures it can still open and close if the electric motor fails.
The tent-like open roof area includes a 40 x 85-in (102 x 216-cm) mattress designed to sleep two people. The mattress also lifts away to clear headroom over the van floor below.
Unicamp USA recently installed its first Carnival pop-top and is now offering the sleeper roof at an introductory price of US$16,000, a $2,000 discount off the planned $18,000 retail price. The Carnival itself starts between $33,100 and $46,200, depending on trim and not including $1,365 destination fee, so buyers can walk away with a brand-new sleeper MPV starting just over $50,000. The pop-up roof allows the Carnival to remain a versatile everyday driver and family hauler while always carrying dual-sleeper capabilities for an impromptu overnighter. Available seating options such as the removable sliding second row and floor-height-folding third row add to the sleeper-MPV's overall versatility.
Unicamp has also added a more complete four-sleeper camper van package with an outdoor tailgate kitchen and second bed. This $4,000 add-on originates from Germany, the Ququq camper-in-a-box with which we've become quite familiar over the years. The 110-lb (50-kg) tailgate-mounted kit includes a box with three compartments, a fold-out bed with three-piece 43 x 77-in (110 x 195-cm) mattress, and kitchen amenities such as a dual-burner gas stove and two 10-L water canisters. The fold-out rear face panel doubles as a kitchen counter and table.
Sadly for those who like a little more all-weather and all-terrain capability from their camping vehicle, while Kia took care to give the Carnival strong, SUV-inspired proportions, it did not add an all-wheel-drive option. So the MPV's 3.5-liter V6 engine sends all 290 available hp to the front wheels alone. None of those other US-market small or midsize vans offered an AWD or 4WD option, either, but the Toyota Sienna and Chrysler Pacifica minivans do.
Source: Unicamp USA
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Huh? What about the - very much still available - Honda Odyssey, Chrysler Pacifica, and Toyota Sienna… in addition to the new Kia Carnival?
BTW, the Ford Transit Connect (tiny) and Mercedes Metris ($$$ and barely available) were never serious “small van” (most folks call them “minivans” in the US) players in the US. Literally nobody cross-shopped them with the above mainstream models.