My wife thinks I'm gullible -- but I love a good magic show. It's not that I believe in magic, but I really enjoy the illusion. The whole key to the Rondo is illusion that borders on magic. There's no way that you can cram that much car into that little space, not even if you're Doug Henning. But somehow, Rondo manages to be both small and large at the same time.
Rondo is simply styled, without a lot of frills or nonsense. That's a good thing -- simplicity is a style all its own. Kia is building a brand identity with its inverted trapezoidal two-bar grille and big badge and expressive headlights, and Rondo extends that identity with a slightly cartoonish grin. Rondo's profile is rather squat and leaned-back, as if the vehicle is sitting back on its haunches. The tailgate design is the most involved section. It looks like a chunk was excised from the lower third of the tailgate and rear fender -- like you could find that chunk somewhere else, and it might be entirely intact. Pretty cool looking, actually, though I wonder if some interior space wasn't sacrificed in the name of style.
My test vehicle rode on the stock 17" alloy wheels, which are big enough to keep the Rondo from looking like a cheapo econobox.
Fit and finish on the exterior was exceptionally good, with deep, rich paint, glossy chrome accents and tight seams and gaps. Nice work, Korea.
In the Driver's Seat
My lovely assistant opens the door to the Rondo and -- voila, interior space galore! That's how a great magician like Doug Henning would review this Rondo.
I'm forced to deal with the realities -- yes, there is an almost astonishing amount of space inside this small package. And there's a very impressive list of standard equipment, as well, including power windows, power door locks, heated side mirrors, cruise control, air conditioning, six-speaker CD sound system, keyless entry and redundant controls for audio and cruise on the steering wheel. But there are also some cheap material choices that invade on the experience. My test vehicle wore cloth seats, and even though clean, they already bore ugly water marks and stains throughout the cabin. Some of the dash materials were flimsy and uninspiring, especially around the edges. The center console was particularly cheap, with sharp, uninviting edges and seams. You can say that you get what you pay for -- I'd rather pay for quality, rather than an abundance of features.
My Rondo was equipped with an optional ($500) third row seat. Don't expect any magic here -- the third row is for kids and small adults only, and not for long trips. Access is pretty easy for the limber. The second row folds and slides forward easily, leaving a decent gap through which you can clamber. You just wouldn't want to camp out back there for very long. It would be perfect for elementary school carpools, though -- probably exactly the target market for Rondo.
On the Road
My Rondo was a top-of-the-line EX V6, motivated by a 2.7 liter 24 valve double-overhead cam V6 that sent 182 hp and 182 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels through its five-speed automatic transmission. There's also a 2.4 liter in-line four-cylinder engine available that makes 162 hp and 164 lb-ft of torque with a four-speed automatic. With a curb weight of 3511 lbs, Rondo is curiously porky for such a little vehicle, a couple of hundred pounds more than the Mazda5. The V6 is perfectly capable of propelling the Rondo with some spirit. Cornering is adequate, if not inspiring, and overall road feel is better than okay, but not much. If I sound unenthusiastic, it's because I am -- driving the Rondo wasn't as much fun as I had hoped. I was hoping for a romp from the low center of gravity and relatively squat stance. I got a ride that was closer to minivan, very sedate, and vaguely econobox.
Rondo's four-wheel independent suspension is good, its four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake-force distribution and electronic stability control are also good. Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering keeps the car on course. Kia is serious about safety, and there's a mess of airbags, LATCH connectors for the kid seats, front seatbelt pretensioners and other safety features to brag about.
If you are considering a Rondo, you really ought to drive a Mazda5 before you buy. The two vehicles are very close in purpose, size and price, but the Mazda5 is much more enjoyable to drive. Mazda chose to go with a sliding rear passenger door in the minivan style, and access to the third row is much easier than in the Rondo.
There are other crossovers to think about, but if you need to carry six passengers and cargo in a small, efficient space, Rondo and Mazda5 have pretty much carved out the niche for themselves. I expect other manufacturers to follow them down the path of the mini-minivan in the near future -- it's a vehicle that makes a lot of sense.
And, quite possibly, some magic.