One of the biggest challenges in this new world of high fuel prices is how to haul an entire family of seven without using a giant vehicle that drinks gas faster than you can afford to pump it?

Not to worry.

Kia now has a small crossover that can carry your big family or group of friends, yet won't require frequent visits to the gas pumps for $75 fill-ups.

It's the new Rondo, introduced earlier this year as a 2007 model. This is a remarkable little wagonlike crossover that has an optional third row of seating, making it the least-expensive and most fuel-efficient family hauler on the market.

How inexpensive? With the $500 extra for the third seat, our test vehicle, the Rondo LX midlevel model, listed for $18,995, including $600 freight.

And its EPA ratings using the new 2008 formula (more realistic than the previous way of estimating mileage) are 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway with the base four-cylinder engine. The tank holds 15.8 gallons of fuel, about half as much as some of the big SUVs.

The Rondo is one of six new vehicles Kia has introduced in the United States since January 2006 as the company, a subsidiary of South Korea's Hyundai, pushes for a bigger share of the U.S. market. Fuel efficiency is one of the key attributes of most Kia vehicles, and helps add to the value equation.

These cars usually are priced less than their Japanese competitors, and have a much-better warranty, as well -- extended powertrain coverage for 10 years/100,000 miles. The basic warranty covers the vehicle for five years/60,000 miles, and includes 24-hour roadside assistance.

Rondo's only direct competitor is the Mazda 5, a microvan that also comes with a third seat. But it has room for only six, and when equipped comparably to the seven-passenger Rondo, costs a bit more.

The Rondo's third seat is intended for occasional use, but unlike the third row in some of the other compact crossovers, the Rondo's has enough room to hold two average-size adults. The middle seat has space for three, and there are bucket seats up front.

Kia says its target customers for the Rondo are "people starting a new stage in life," primarily young couples 25-35 without children, and couples 30-40 with a child or two. But I expect this car to be a favorite among empty nesters who occasionally need the third seat for family outings with the grandkids.

The Rondo is new to the U.S. market, but Kia has sold the vehicle as the Carens in the rest of the world for several years. This is its third generation.

For consumers who want just an inexpensive little crossover without the third seat or even air conditioning, the Rondo LX base model that begins at $16,995 (with freight). That one cannot be upgraded with the third seat or any other options except air conditioning, which adds $900.

It's not a stripped-down vehicle, though, even at that entry price. It comes with an AM/FM/single-disc CD player, as well as power windows, mirrors and door locks, among other standard features.

Safety features standard on all models include electronic stability control, four-wheel antilock brakes, front seat-mounted side air bags, and side-curtain air bags for all three rows. Having all of these features in a small wagon in this price range is unusual.

Under the hood is the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. A four-speed automatic is standard with the four-cylinder engine, which turns out 162 horsepower and 164 foot-pounds of torque.

For more power, you can upgrade to the LX V-6 ($19,495). It comes with a 2.7-liter V-6 engine rated at 182 horsepower and 182 foot-pounds of torque. With the engine upgrade comes a five-speed automatic.

EPA ratings for this one are 18 city/26 highway, nearly the same as the four-cylinder. No manual transmission is offered with either engine, although some folks might prefer a manual model if the price were lower and the fuel economy better.

I have driven the Rondo with both engines, and while the extra zip of the V-6 makes it a bit more fun to drive, the base engine has plenty of power for everyday use. The V-6 might be best, though, if the car is loaded with seven people very often.

The top Rondo model is the EX, which starts at $19, 795 with the four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic, and $20,795 with the V-6 and five-speed. Oddly, though, the EX four-cylinder is not offered with the third seat; it's optional only on the EX V-6 and the midlevel LX and LX V-6.

Kia believes consumers will shop the Rondo against the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe wagon as well as the Mazda 5. The Scion xB and xD also will be competitors, although none of these competitors has the third-seat option.

The Rondo is roomier than the Matrix/Vibe and Mazda 5, because it is built on the chassis of the midsize Kia Optima sedan. The Mazda 5 is on the chassis of the compact Mazda 3 sedan.

Rondo's exterior is similar to that of the Matrix, but it's also somewhat like that of two larger crossovers, Honda CR-V and Mitsubishi Outlander, both of which cost much more.

Calling the Rondo a crossover might be a stretch, though, because it does not have an all-wheel-drive option and it has limited ground clearance (less than seven inches fully loaded). It comes only with front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive is available on the CR-V and Outlander, but not on the Matrix/Vibe or Mazda 5.

There would not be enough room for the third seat if the drive system were extended to the rear wheels, Kia said. Fuel economy also was a factor in deciding not to offer all-wheel drive, which usually lowers a vehicle's gas mileage.

The Rondo is surprisingly roomy, especially up front. The bucket seats are quite comfortable even for larger people, and middle-row passengers have decent leg and knee room. All passengers are provided cupholders. We put the 9-year-old twins in the third seat, and didn't hear any complaints. They thought it was "cool" riding back there.

One drawback is that there is only a small cargo area behind the third seat - 6.5 cubic feet. But when that seat is folded away, the space behind the second seat expands to 31.7 cubic feet. Without a third seat at all, there is 35 cubic feet of cargo space. The third seat has a 50/50 folding feature, creating a flat load floor, and the middle seat has a 60/40 split.

Cloth seats are standard, but leather is offered on EX models for $1,000, which also includes front seat heaters. A six-way manually adjustable driver's seat with height adjustment is standard, along with a four-way adjustable front passenger seat.

The middle row slides forward up to almost a foot to allow for easy access to the third row. In models without the third row, the middle seat does not move. Without the third seat, there are storage bins with lids in the cargo-area floor, in the space where the third seat would otherwise fold out of the way.

Other options offered on the Rondo include a body trim kit ($995); crossbars for the integrated roof rails ($200); an LX convenience package ($300), which adds remote keyless entry and cruise control (already included on EX); and a premium package ($1,200), which tacks on a power sunroof, upgraded Infinity 10-speaker, 315-watt audio system with six-disc CD changer).

Neither audio system provides an external input jack for an iPod or other MP3 player.

Our seven-passenger test car came with the roof rails and LX convenience package, for a total sticker of $19,495, including freight.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. Contact him at chambers@star-telegram.com.

At a Glance: 2007 Kia Rondo

The package: Compact, five-door, four-cylinder or V-6 powered, front-wheel-drive, five- or seven-passenger crossover utility vehicle.

Highlights: All new for 2007, this is the lowest-priced seven-passenger vehicle on the market, and also the most fuel-efficient. Based on the architecture of the Kia Optima midsize sedan, it is quite roomy for its overall size, and quite economical to buy and operate.

Negatives: No manual transmission offered; no all-wheel drive option.

Engine: 24-liter inline four-cylinder; 2.7-liter V-6.

Transmission: Four-speed automatic (I-4); five-speed automatic (V-6).

Power/torque: 162 horsepower/164 foot-pounds (I-4); 182 HP./182 foot-pounds (V-6).

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Side air bags: Front seat-mounted, front and rear side curtain, standard.

Electronic stability control: Standard.

Length: 179 inches.

Cargo capacity: 6.5 cubic feet (behind third seat); 31.7 cubic feet (third seat folded); 35 cubic feet (no third seat).

Curb weight: 3,333-3,511 pounds.

Fuel capacity/type: 15.8 gallons/unleaded regular.

EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city/26 highway (I-4); 18 city/26 highway (V-6).

Major competitors: Mazda 5, Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, Scion xB, Scion xD, Nissan Versa hatchback.

Base price: $16,995 including freight (LX five-passenger, no A/C).

Price as tested: $19,495 including freight and options (LX seven-passenger).

On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10).