A faltering economy and robust fuel prices are certainly taking their toll on the automotive environment. Everyone, from major car companies to local dealerships, are feeling the heat.

For average drivers, especially those with big families or young families, there's a whole new way of looking at their people movers. Money may be tight but they still favor a vehicle that has plenty of seats while also being inexpensive, fuel efficient, safe, reliable and comfortable. Not too ugly, either.

Tall order, and the void left by no-longer-desirable mammoth SUVs is hard to fill. For many people, even the standard-issue minivan is looking big and bulbous and wasteful.

Here's where Kia Rondo fits in with a pint-size minivan that could reasonably serve those who are stunned by current financial events. Though not as roomy as a standard minivan (the third row of seats is strictly for little kids) and lacking the ruggedness of an SUV, Rondo does deliver on those attributes listed above.

The compact-minivan niche is small indeed, with only Mazda5 competing for the same ground. But watch for this practical vehicle type to grow in numbers as more people downsize for economy.

Though small and modestly priced, Rondo makes few compromises in drivability or accommodations. Hardly exciting the drive, the little van handles decently, rides comfortably and gets good performance from the 185-horsepower V-6. A 162-horsepower inline-4 comes standard on base models.

Sticklers for details might note that Rondo does not have that signature feature of today's minivans: sliding rear doors. Instead, there are regular back doors like those on a sedan.

That's a minor issue and shouldn't deter those who view regular minivans as not mini enough.

Kia Rondo EX V-6

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

Engine: 2.7-liter V-6, 185 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 182 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.

Transmission: Five-sped automatic.

Wheelbase: 106.3 inches.

Overall length: 179 inches.

Curb weight: 3,443 pounds.

EPA rating: 18 city, 26 highway.

HIGHS: Thoughtful interior, engine power, compact size.

LOWS: Mushy suspension, dowdy styling, teeny third-row seat.

PERFORMANCE: The V-6 accelerates smartly and provides quiet freeway cruising. The five-speed automatic performs well enough, with occasional clunks.

Fuel mileage is not bad though not great. I averaged about 22 mpg.

DRIVABILITY: Rondo feels balanced and competent in turns, though the soft suspension allows plenty of body sway. I'd like the ride to be more firm.

The steering is responsive and the four-wheel disc brakes are plenty strong. Standard safety features include antilock brakes, electronic stability control and full-length side air-bag curtains.

STYLING: Rondo has that jelly-bean-on-wheels look of a typical minivan, with a sloping nose and a chiseled rear. Not sure what the designers might have done otherwise, but the styling is pretty dull.

INTERIOR: The interior in the test Rondo felt upmarket, with a good-looking dashboard and materials that seemed high quality.

The middle seat slides fore and aft for legroom, which helps it feel fairly roomy, though still tight for three across. As for the optional rear-most seat, well, unless you have very young children or just sometimes need extra seating, skip it.

There's essentially no luggage space behind it, though it and the middle row flop easily into the floor for a flat loading deck.

BOTTOM LINE: Base models start at $17,000, and Kia shares its excellent warranty with parent company Hyundai: 10 years or 10,000 miles powertrain, five years or 60,000 miles for everything else.

Base price: $20,195

Price as tested: $23,495


Power sunroof, audio system upgrade, $1,200.

Leather seats, $1,000.

Third row seat, $500.

Shipping, $600.