Most automotive niches are crowded places these days, especially with the rush to build crossover variations of every kind of SUV and station wagon.

The compact-minivan segment has a population of two: Kia Rondo, which arrived for the 2007 model year, and Mazda5, which came out for 2006.

Calling Rondo a mini-minivan might be a stretch since it doesn't include sliding rear doors, as does Mazda5, but in any other respect, Rondo has the shape, feel and versatility that defines the breed. It can even be had with a folding third seat.

Of course, the very word "minivan" has become anathema, redolent of baby powder and lawn fertilizer. As for compact minivans, there may be plenty of them trundling around Asia and Europe, but in the United States, such things have been limited to small but tall wagons such as Pontiac Vibe, PT Cruiser and the host of small crossover SUVs.

Rondo cuts a different figure, unabashedly wearing the bulbous profile of a minivan without trying to disguise itself as some sort of adventure wagon. Kia also has a regular-sized minivan, the Sedona, but Rondo offers something that is more compact and maneuverable.

Actually, Rondo drives with remarkable poise, considering its tall form. It has a nice ride and handles like a well-sorted sedan. The small V-6 is powerful and refined, and the Kia has the very non-minivan quality of being fun to drive.

The styling may be dorky, but that high roof and huge windows make Rondo pleasant to be inside, which is a fairly reasonable tradeoff unless you're cruising for dates. Nobody feels sexy in a minivan.

And being a division of Hyundai, the South Korean industrial giant, Kia comes with a great warranty: 10 years or 100,000 miles for the powertrain and five years or 60,000 miles for everything else.

Kia Rondo

Vehicle type: Seven-passenger, four-door compact minivan, front-wheel drive.

Engine: 2.7-liter V-6, 182 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 182 pound-feet torque at 4,000 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Wheelbase: 106.3 inches.

Overall length: 179 inches.

Curb weight: 3,443 pounds.

EPA rating: 20 city, 27 highway.

HIGHS: Sharp handling, refined engine, interior space.

LOWS: Modest styling, cramped rear seat, disappointing fuel mileage.


Base price: $20,195.

Price as tested: $22,495.


* Premium package, with power sunroof, audio system upgrade, $1,200.

* Third-row seat, $500.

* Shipping, $600.

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Performance: The 182 horsepower goes a long way in this lightweight, with good acceleration and freeway power. At 2.7 liters, the V-6 is a small unit with big torque. The base engine is a 2.4-liter four with 162 horsepower.

Fuel mileage was a disappointment. With an EPA estimate of 20 city and 27 highway (or 19 city and 26 highway, under the new 2008 testing standards), I expected Ronda to go easier on gas than it did. It seemed to suck down a full tank awfully quickly.

Drivability: This is a nice driving, good handling little wagon. The suspension is firm for good handling, yet soaks up the rough stuff with impressive ease. The steering is light but responsive.

For an inexpensive vehicle, Rondo comes with a decent array of standard safety and drivability features, such as four-wheel disc brakes with antilock, electronic stability control and full-length side air curtains.

Styling: If you like the shape of a jelly bean with wheels, you'll love Rondo. For those whose tastes tend toward the cute and endearing, you'll love Rondo, too.

Interior: A pretty basic cabin, well-equipped in this top-drawer model but without much style or flair. But really, everything is clear and easy to use and pretty comfortable.

Front and middle seats are roomy, but that third row is tiny and should be reserved for those still in elementary school. The seat folds easily into the floor for an expansive rear cargo area.

Bottom line: With a base price under $17,000, Rondo has a lot going for it.