We just gave back the keys to a vehicle that would have shamed my old Camaro RS in more than just number of usable seats. It also had 12 more horses from two fewer cylinders, drank a little less gas, had a sunroof that probably won't leak until well after the 10 year warranty runs out and would carry as many as seven full-grown friends.
Kia's new Rondo is classified as a compact MPV in Europe, where it's been sold as the Carens since 2003. Add 17" wheels and that 182 hp V6, and Uncle Sam calls it a midsize wagon. Kia, of course, wants you to call it a crossover. Most shoppers will see it as a stylish, comfortable, affordable people-mover. Just don't call it a minivan.
Maybe all that name calling is what gave the Rondo somewhat of a personality disorder, because it's not really sure what it is either. With seven seats, a family-attractive price, durable upholstery and room for baby junk in the trunk, it might be the perfect kid-carrier. But with those 17-inch chrome wheels; that muscular 182-horsepower V6; a 10-speaker, subwoofered, Infinity stereo and a manumatic 5-speed, it could easily be a sport sedan.
Our tester for 14 days was a black-cherry Rondo EX with fog lights, roof rails, a classy chrome rub strip below the doors, chrome door handles and grille inserts and big shiny Kia logos on both snout and tail. Inside it had a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, power sunroof and cubby holes galore. According to the sticker, a real buyer would have to part with $22,495 including $600 in delivery charges and $500 for the third-row option to own this Rondo.
Our first impression of the Kia after seeing it sitting next to a PT Cruiser was how much longer, wider and taller the Korean is than we expected. It's a fairly large vehicle, almost a foot longer than the PT, four inches taller and wider, on a wheelbase only three inches longer than the Chrysler. Those dimensions are all within a few inches of Rondo's real competition, the Mazda 5.
The interior pieces look nice and fit together well, but feel cheap and hard. The Rondo had fewer than 6,000 miles on it but the steering column was already badly scratched from misaligned keys. Cupholders and storage bins were numerous and lined with rubber pads, which is nice. Not nice is that those liners won't come out, making common baby spills nasty to clean up. My wife liked the innovative addition of the bag hook on the passenger side, but wished our tester had the dealer-installed cargo net in back.
One family member likened the seats' "double raschel" fabric to dirt-collecting door mats, a concern we have as well. The upholstery felt durable and will probably hold up well to wear, but those tiny little indentations are destined to be filled with all manner of crushed Cheerios and scattered saltines. We'd be interested to see how the optional leather seat covers compare.
Once the third-row seats were flattened, the car easily carried our traveling gear. Luggage, baby stroller, groceries all fit with room to spare. My wife had no problem unloading a grocery cart into the cargo space and found the rear door easily opened and closed. With the rear-most seats in use, cargo space virtually disappears. Any trip with more than five people and bags are going on top. With the front seats pushed to comfortable positions, the second row can get a little tight on passengers' knees. Luckily the second row slides fore and aft as well, providing some versatility there. Put short-legged tots in the third seat or else you'll get complaints. It's tight back there.
Any car I drive needs to have a hole in the roof. I'm just weird like that. The Rondo's power roof though was positioned to shed happy sunshine either on the back of my head or the rear passengers' feet. A few inches forward or aft would have made it much more enjoyable to at least one row of seats.
The Rondo has a long list of standard and optional features, but there are a few conspicuously missing. Where's the iPod support, or at least an auxiliary audio jack? Satellite radio? Outside temperature guage? Compass? Power seats? Rear DVD for the kids? None of them available even on upper end models. Leaving those things off keeps prices down, but will it keep families out of the showroom?
One big selling point for the Rondo is safety. Kia packs all versions of the car with standard ABS, stability control, and six airbags. If you'll be hauling a tiny tot, you'll like how easily a child seat can be installed in the middle row. The LATCH attachment points are easily accessed and, with as much rear head room as a Honda Odyssey (40"), there's plenty of space to pull those straps tight. Experts advise putting child seats in the center position for greatest safety, which is no problem to accomplish in the Rondo, but doing so prevents the middle seats from folding forward, which blocks access to the third row.
LX model Rondos come with 16-inch wheels, but our EX Rondo's optional 17s help make its somewhat tall, fat dimensions look and feel more lithe and athletic. Several observers didn't believe how big its shoes were until checking the Michelins' sidewalls. And this is where we hit one of the vehicle's personality quirks. Yeah, sure, those oversized shoes do a commendable job ridding the car of the minivan stigma, but Mommy and Daddy can barely afford Junior's shoes, much less 225/50 R17's that can run as high as $900 a set. To be fair, other brands (we prefer Black & Round™) can be had for a good bit less, but just know that original spec replacements ain't cheap.
The choose-your-own-gears transmission is nice on a car in this class and price range. If only the Rondo trusted the driver to know which gear was needed. The transmission forced second to third too quickly, but didn't allow fourth to fifth until way late. So the manumatic is no good for cool, autocrossing parents and worthless for squeezing a few more miles out of each precious gallon.
And that brings up another catch: fuel mileage. My dad always says, "If you've got horses, you gotta feed 'em." And the Rondo's got some pretty hungry horses. Kia claims 21/29 for the 4 cylinder and 20/27 for the V6. In two weeks, we put a little over 600 miles on the odometer and ran about 33 gallons through the 15.8 gallon tank.
Roughly estimated, we averaged about 23.5 miles per gallon. I'll admit my right foot weighs more than my left, but in my defense, that V6 is nice to hear. The Rondo even gives you a moment or two to enjoy that beastly growl before actually moving. From a standstill, the engine easily overcomes even the grip of those front 17s, but on the highway, a stab of the accelerator brings a second of lag before things get going, then takes its sweet time settling back into cruising gear.
Other than the occasional foot-induced outburst from the under the hood, the Kia was pleasantly quiet. A 300-mile round trip to J.P. Coleman State Park in Mississippi was comfortable and enjoyable mostly. The one comfort complaint came from the driver's seat. There seemed to be no comfortable place for the driver's left elbow. The window sill was perfect height, but too rounded for a rest, the door pull too low to be useful.
Fuel-consumption on the highway rose to a more acceptable level, and the seats were easily adjustable (though no power adjust is available) for the long haul. The view out of the unfashionably-tall glass was welcome in both traffic and on the roads around picturesque Pickwick Lake.
My uncle, a professional mechanic, gave the Kia a once over and, well, honestly, wasn't completely in love with it. The 17-inch wheels excited him, but only because he sells tires as well. His biggest concern as a mechanic was with the car's long term reliability.
Another gearhead family member and father of two liked most of what the Rondo offered, but wasn't about to trade in his 9-year-old Toyota Sienna for one. He admired the available V6, the comfortable ride and the amenities at the price. But the real killer for him? Kia's reliability record.
And that's what we heard from most people we talked to about Kia's Rondo. "Nice car," they said. "How long will it last?" Clearly the job of erasing Kia's cheapo image falls on the shoulder of its 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain and 5-year/60,000-mile basic limited warranty, but maybe Rondo buyers should take my friend Bill's advice. Lease it for two years, and let someone else worry about replacing the tires.