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The Kia Rondo is an all-new vehicle. Kia calls it a five-door crossover utility vehicle.
The Rondo is capable of carrying seven adults. Yet it's small, just 179 inches long. That's 2.5 inches shorter than the six-passenger Mazda5. Sure, the Toyota RAV4 can seat seven, but it costs $3,000 more and offers less legroom in the third row. The Rondo gives you the size of the RAV4 at the price of the smaller Toyota Matrix; and we're not big fans of the aging Matrix.
We found the ride, handling and brakes of the Kia Rondo excellent. It's a good vehicle for long trips and zooming around town. The seats, cloth or leather, are comfortable. The driver sits relatively high and the Rondo feels like neither a car nor a sport utility, which is what a crossover is about. Besides people, it can haul lots of stuff; just flip down the back two rows of seats.
A new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine comes standard, and it's strong. It comes with a four-speed automatic transmission with a manual mode and gets an EPA-estimated 21/29 City/Highway miles per gallon.
A smooth 2.7-liter V6 with a five-speed automatic is optional. It's rated 20/27 mpg, delivers more thrust more smoothly and adds just $1,000 to the retail price, making it a bargain.
Kia is the best imitator in the business. Kia designers and engineers look closely at other vehicles, and produce a virtual composite of the best ideas. But there's no lack of originality here, because the Rondo is unique. It's the only game in town for seven-passenger transportation in a small, safe, low-cost, high-mileage package.
Kia's marketing motto is "the power to surprise," and the Korean carmaker has done so again, with the Rondo.
The Kia Rondo isn't the kind of vehicle you would look at and think seven-seater. That's its beauty. Like the Mazda 5, it takes one small step toward making the minivan obsolete; it will do what a minivan will do, sacrificing a bit of room for more miles per gallon.
The Rondo looks like a cross between a minivan and a five-door hatchback, and not like a small SUV. It has a clean design, with a nicely sloped hood, trapezoidal headlamps with four smooth corners, and a tidy grille that's sort of Acura-shaped. The chin fascia holds projector-beam foglamps on the EX and a dark horizontal air opening below the grille.
The Rondo EX has chrome slats in the grille, chrome door handles and a chrome strip on the side, but the cheaper LX, with a black grille and no chrome on the side, looks cleaner.
The pillars are black, creating an unbroken glass effect with tinted windows. The C-pillar slopes down and back, with the lower rim rising to meet it and shape an upswept three-quarter rear window that offers a decent view for the third-row passengers, although it could be bigger. The rear glass is a simple large rectangle, a bit wider on the bottom and smoothly sloped. It doesn't open separately.
Looking at the Rio from a rear angle, it has an almost BMW-ish resemblance, although the big curved taillamps curve inward like a Volvo wagon or SUV.
Because the Rondo was designed to be roomy on the inside, the wheelbase is long when compared to the total length, making very short overhangs. The five-spoke alloy wheels are simple, silver, and individual, with each of the five spokes having a stylish twist.
Although the Rondo is new to North America, this is its third generation, having been sold in Asia and Europe for years.
Kia says there are 32 different seating configurations in a Rondo with the optional third-row seat, counting all the ways the three rows divide, recline and fold.
Since the roomy seating is what makes the Rondo special, let's start with a tale of the tape: leg room in the front, middle and third rows is 41.3, 38.2 and 31.3 inches, compared to 40.7, 35.2 and 30.7 in the Mazda5, and 41.8, 38.3 and 30.0 in the RAV4. But inches expressed as numbers on a page aren't necessarily conclusive. Indeed, the Rondo feels considerably more roomy than the RAV4.
In the second row, with the sliding seat all the way back, you can extend your legs.
In the third-row seat, we found reasonable knee and head room for our 5-foot, 10-inches, although we had to put our feet together and splay our knees. It's cozy and personal back there; on each side of the third row, there's a good-sized storage bin with a flip-up top like a console, and one cupholder. Kids can put their stuff in there.
The second row is split 60/40, and both sides slide forward to increase legroom in the third row; that's also how you climb back there. The second-row seats recline, as well.
For cargo carrying, both the second and third rows fold flat quickly; the second-row seat cushion folds forward and the seatback flops down, with the headrest flipping back. Each side of each row folds separately, so a long space can be created on one side of the car, suitable for, say, a short kayak. The front passenger seat doesn't fold flat, so you can't fit a long kayak inside. For that, you'd need to purchase the $200 crossbars for the roofrails.
There's good storage space with the third row folded flat or with no optional third row at all. With all the rear seats down, there's a lot of cargo space. With the third row in use, there's only room behind the seat for a couple of brief cases. You can easily reach in and raise or lower the third-row seats through the liftgate.
We drove both the Rondo LX and EX models, with cloth and leather interior. The cloth looks better in gray than beige: less fuddy-duddy. The perforated gray leather seats added a real touch of class, along with $1000 to the price. After a full day of driving, the cloth bucket seats in the LX, our test model, were still comfortable. The Rondo is a great vehicle for a road trip.
In the front seats, the passenger has tons of leg and elbow room, and the comfortable seat reclines if he or she wants to take a nap. The driver's seat is high and affords good visibility; from behind the wheel, the Rondo feels like neither an SUV nor a car, which is what a crossover is about. There's excellent visibility front and rear, with lots of glass so there are no blind spots when looking over your shoulder.
The doors open wide and are easy to open and close, and each has a grab handle nearby. Other cabin touches are well planned, including good lighting, a comfortable armrest for the driver, door pockets with a fixed bulge for a big water bottle, a purse hanger on the right side of the center stack, climate vents for the second row, and other touches.
The dashboard and instrument panel layout and design are sharp and efficient, finished in graphite with orange mood lighting for the gauges. The climate ducts are round and balanced, and the knobs are easy to understand and operate. The leather-wrapped steering wheel on the EX feels great, and there are steering wheel controls, as well.
There's a storage compartment right on top of the dashboard, more convenient for the driver than the good-sized glovebox because it's easily reachable. The automatic shift lever is located up on the center stack, giving more room for the console between the seats, which is deep and square. Forward of the console compartment there are two fixed cupholders and a slot for a cell phone.
The interior is nice and quiet; about the loudest cabin noise comes from the tires over fr
You can't go wrong with either engine in the Rondo. The 162-hp 2.4-liter, an all-new engine introduced in the 2006 Kia Optima sedan, is throaty and robust, and its good torque and acceleration go a long way toward making you forget it's a four cylinder. Praised for its smooth power, it has double overhead cams with an aluminum block and heads.
The V6 only costs $1000 more, however, and gets just one or two less miles per gallon, and comes with a fifth gear in the Sportmatic transmission. You don't really need the extra speed of the V6, but it's very quiet and makes the whole car feel smoother and more solid. And if you carry six or seven passengers using the optional third-row seat, you'll appreciate the extra 20 horsepower.
Our LX came with the four-cylinder. Passing trucks on two-lane roads, the four-speed automatic kicked down smoothly and the engine scooted the car forward quickly and silently. We played with the Sportmatic and found it well-programmed. We ran the Rondo up to 80 mph where it was quiet and smooth, feeling like no more than 70. We also did time in Phoenix rush-hour traffic, and the LX was a great zoom-around-town vehicle. At idle, you can barely tell the engine is running.
The V6 with five-speed Sportmatic in the EX worked even better. We drove it like a sports car over twisty roads, and we could barely hear the engine when the transmission downshifted for acceleration; it was a bit slow to kick down into second gear, but was fine at higher speeds. The manual upshifts at 5800 rpm were sharp.
Both models use the same suspension, although the shocks are tuned a bit firmer with the V6 because of the extra weight. The ride and handling are excellent. In the LX, we deliberately hit a speed bump at 30 mph and didn't get jarred. Over freeway expansion strips, we could hear the thunk of the tires but couldn't feel the bumps. We drove through more curves, at least 20 miles of them, and the LX was crisply responsive.
We used the four-wheel disc brakes hard, and they were strong and solid. The performance was pretty darn impressive, especially considering the LX uses 16-inch wheels and tires, and not the 17-inch Michelins on the EX. The front rotors are big at 11 inches in diameter, and are vented for better cooling. It's a good sign when a car excels at a task for which it wasn't designed.
The Kia Rondo is not just an all-new vehicle, it's an all-new invention. It's a front-wheel-drive, seven-passenger, crossover utility vehicle with a low price, mid size, high fuel mileage, vast cargo space and passenger versatility, and complete safety features as standard equipment. It features good leg and shoulder room for the passengers despite its modest length. It comes with either a robust four-cylinder engine or smooth V6, and offers an excellent ride, handling and brakes.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Scottsdale, Arizona.
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