The Kia Rondo takes up little space yet it seats up to seven adults. It's shorter than the six-passenger Mazda5, but it offers more third-row legroom than a Toyota RAV4. We found the ride, handling and brakes of the Kia Rondo excellent. It's a good vehicle for running around town or for taking the whole family on a long trip.
A four-cylinder engine comes standard with an EPA-rated City/Highway 20/27 miles per gallon. We found it to be strong, offering good acceleration performance for passing on two-lane roads, and it's smooth and quiet when cruising down the highway. This 2.4-liter four-cylinder comes mated to a four-speed automatic transmission with a manual mode.
A smooth 2.7-liter V6 with a five-speed automatic is optional. It's rated 18/26 mpg and delivers more thrust more smoothly and adds just $1,000 to the retail price, making it a bargain.
The seats are comfortable whether in cloth or leather. The driver sits relatively high and the Rondo feels like neither a car nor a sport utility. In addition to people, it can haul lots of stuff; just flip down the back two rows of seats.
For 2009, both engines are upgraded in power. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder was rated at 162 horsepower last year, but is now at 175 horsepower in ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) form, and 167 horsepower in SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) form; the SULEV version is sold in the states of California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Oregon. The 2.7-liter V6 was 182 horsepower, and is now 192 in all states. There is a new Plus Package for the LX trim level; it includes alloy wheels, carpeted floormats and heated front seats ($590). For the upper-grade EX trim level there is a Premium Package, which includes a power sunroof, Infinity AM/FM/MP3/Sirius 315-watt digital audio system with a six-CD changer, and navigation ($2400).
The Kia 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 less-expensive 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.
The wheelbase is long when compared to the total length, resulting in short front and rear overhangs (the part of the car that extends ahead of or behind the wheels). That helps maximize interior space.
The five-spoke alloy wheels are simple, silver, and individual, with each of the five spokes having a stylish twist.
The Kia Rondo has a versatile interior. Counting all the ways the three rows divide, recline and fold, Kia cites some 32 different seating configurations with the optional third-row seat.
Since 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 back there, not the best place for adults. 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 those spots.
The second row is split 60/40, and both sides slide forward to increase legroom in the third row; moving the second-row seats forward is also how you gain access to the third row. The second-row seats recline, as well.
For cargo carrying, both the second and third rows fold flat easily; 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 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 briefcases. 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 interiors. The cloth looks better in gray than beige: Less old-fashioned. The perforated gray leather seats added a real touch of class. After a full day of driving, the cloth bucket seats in the LX, our test model, were still comfortable.
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.
Cubby storage includes a compartment on top of the dashboard, more convenient for the driver than the glovebox because it's easily reachable. For its part, the glovebox is a good size. 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; most noise comes from the tires over freeway expansion strips. Even with a window rolled down at 80 miles per hour, it was easy to carry on a conversation.
You can't go wrong with either engine in the Rondo. The 2.4-liter engine is smooth, throaty and robust, with enough acceleration performance that you may forget it's a four-cylinder. It makes 175 horsepower, is matched with a four-speed automatic transmission with a manual mode called Sportmatic, and is EPA-rated at 20/27 mpg City/Highway.
The V6 only costs $1000 more, however, and gets just one or two fewer 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 vehicle feel smoother and more solid. And if you carry six or seven passengers using the optional third-row seat, you'll appreciate the extra horsepower. The 2.7-liter V6 produces 192 horsepower and has an EPA-estimated 18/26 mpg, making it a good blend of performance and fuel efficiency.
With the four-cylinder engine we found passing trucks on two-lane roads easy. 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 necessarily designed.
The Kia Rondo is an excellent choice for a family vehicle. It's a front-wheel-drive, seven-passenger vehicle with a low price, a tidy size, high fuel mileage, ample cargo room 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.