With the Rondo, Kia bucks that trend. Kia doesn't call it a minivan, but the Rondo is the epitome of one in terms of style and size. It's a full 10 inches shorter than Kia's Sedona minivan, and has an optional third row that creates a cramped seven-seat configuration. There's plenty of cabin room for two rows, and it delivers a pleasant ride, yet although Kia hits a few home runs with the Rondo, they aren't enough to capture a pennant — or sway current minivan owners.
Kia really wanted the Rondo to be "different." There's this whole "ugly beauty" aesthetic in the design world — think Scion xB — that companies are currently pursuing. The theory is, although the design might alienate most shoppers, the people who like it will really, really like it. I don't see the jelly bean styling of the Rondo getting many of those extremely positive reactions, though. The greenhouse is just way too tall, the profile is too stubby and neither the front nor the rear end offers any interesting angles.
The huge windows, while creating a frumpy exterior look, are actually a pleasant change of pace once you're inside the Rondo. They're preferable to the high beltlines of most of today's cars and SUVs and are terrific for sightlines; there are even small windows near the front pillars that give a better view to the right or left of the driver.
Trying to sell anyone on the Rondo's ugly beauty might be tough indeed. During a week of driving it, I felt too much like a suburbanite with at least two children, and I have no kids and live in the city. To pull off the cool-transport attitude, you want the opposite effect. There's just no way to feel cool in the Rondo, and if everyone sees me driving what they think is a minivan, I might as well buy a real minivan.
The Rondo's interior is filled with severely molded plastic. The bulky, gray stuff makes up most of the substantial areas of the interior — including the dash, glove box and center stack — and probably contributed to the opinion of many who sat in the Rondo that the cabin felt cheap. However, the radio and air conditioning controls and the steering wheel felt very nice to the touch and were almost welcoming.
It's the interior where you have to remember that the Rondo's base price is under $17,000. That might be high for a compact car, but this is supposed to compete not only with minivans but also with compact SUVs like the Honda CR-V. There is no compact SUV or full-size minivan on the market with a lower starting price than the Rondo.
With that in mind, I really didn't find the interior to be inferior. The front captain's chairs are much more like a minivan than an SUV and took some getting used to, but everything was laid out ergonomically, and the optional leather seats were quite comfortable over long hauls.
The second-row seats offered a lot of both leg- and headroom; I don't think it would be possible for anyone shorter than Kobe Bryant to hit their head on the roof of the cabin. The second row slides back and forth and reclines. The optional third row is tight, as one would expect in a vehicle this size. Small children might enjoy it, but anyone old enough for a driver's license shouldn't ride back there for more than a few minutes.
Cargo hauling is an obvious plus for the Rondo, with its 74.4 inches of cargo room with the second- and third-row seats folded flat. That's more room than the Toyota RAV4, which sports one of the largest cargo areas in the compact SUV class. And yes, you can get a lot of stuff back there. However, the second-row seats are cumbersome to fold. It's a three-step process that includes pulling the seat bottoms forward with a strap, then removing the head restraints and storing them in holes on the turned-upward seat bottom. When that's done, the seatback folds flat where the seat cushion used to be. This is how many SUVs and other vehicles handled fold-flat cargo areas in the past, but for a new model to do it this way is a major flaw.
It's especially disappointing because the busy families looking at the Rondo are most likely to need a one-handed — or even one-button — method of expanding the cargo area, given one hand is likely to be busy with shopping bags, the laundry, a baby seat or even a baby. These owners will be frustrated if they need to change the layout on the fly.
Luckily, I found the cargo area with just the easy-folding third row down plenty large enough for most shopping duties, even a back-to-back grocery and Costco run. It's rated at 35.0 cubic feet, which is slightly less than the Honda CR-V and RAV4.
My biggest gripe with the Rondo concerns its performance, or, more precisely, its poor gas mileage. The optional V-6 engine in my test car had plenty of pep despite its somewhat sluggish automatic transmission. That triumphant feeling of ample passing power on the highway, however, will quickly fade at the pump. The EPA rates mileage at 20/27 mpg (city/highway) with the V-6 and 21/29 for the base four-cylinder. We observed less than that — mid- to high teens — in mainly city driving. The EPA numbers are similar to those for front-wheel-drive compact SUVs like the CR-V and V-6-powered RAV4, but both of those SUVs are more refined on the road than the Rondo.
The Rondo's ride, though, is exceptional. It glided smoothly over the bumpiest of Chicago's potholed roads. You could run errands in the Rondo all day with no backache.
Steering is intuitive, and despite a long wheelbase and its overall length, the Rondo was easy to navigate in tight spots. The upright seating position creates terrific forward visibility, and the huge windows help things out back.
The Rondo could be a very nice highway cruiser, but it suffers from some expected wind noise because of its awkward, tall shape. It's actually taller than both the RAV4 and CR-V, even though the step up is shorter.
Like many Kias, the Rondo comes equipped with a number of safety features that are standard on even the least expensive, base trim level. Front-seat-mounted side airbags, side curtain airbags for all three rows, four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, electronic stability control, a tire pressure monitoring system and front active head restraints are all standard.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had not crash tested the Rondo as of this writing.
Rondo in the Market
The Rondo is an odd duck to be sure, and not just because of its looks. No vehicle on the market offers this much interior and cargo room for so low a price. Even when decked out with leather, an upgraded Infinity sound system, a moonroof and a V-6 engine, my test vehicle was just more than $23,000. That kind of value statement is very alluring.
The question, though, is who is going to see that value? Thrifty compact-SUV shoppers who can no longer find a sub-$20,000 vehicle? Minivan owners who are looking to downsize and save money? I'm not sure, because Kia's full-size Sedona minivan starts at a price similar to a V-6 Rondo, but with a much more powerful engine.
The Rondo's transmission issue and sub-par gas mileage are significant cons, but all the other factors, like value, safety and comfort, will add up nicely for that elusive buyer who wants everything the Rondo offers, but doesn't want a full-size minivan. For everyone else in the market, nothing about the Rondo seems to add up.
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