With a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $16,995 for a five-passenger version and $17,495 for a seven-passenger model, the new-for-2007 Kia Rondo offers a less-costly alternative to many so-called "crossover utility vehicles" whose prices are right up there with rugged sport utility vehicles.
For example, the 2007 Mazda CX-7 crossover SUV with five-passenger seating has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $24,345. The seven-passenger, 2007 Saturn Outlook crossover SUV starts at $27,990.
But the Rondo, even with an uplevel, 182-horsepower V6, five-speed automatic transmission, seven seats and every manner of factory option available, including leather interior trim, power moonroof, upgraded Infinity AM/FM stereo and rear spoilers, scarcely breaks the $25,000 level.
Like other newfangled tall wagons, the Rondo rides on a car platform and has carlike handling.
Passengers sit up higher from the pavement than they would in a regular auto. But they're not so high up that they have to climb upward to get inside the Rondo.
Best of all, with six air bags, electronic stability control and antilock brakes all standard, the Rondo earned five out of five stars in federal government frontal crash testing and at least four out of five in side crash testing.
And as with all Kias, the Rondo comes with a noteworthy new-vehicle warranty. It provides limited bumper-to-bumper coverage for five years or 60,000 miles, whichever comes first, and limited powertrain coverage for 10 years or 100,000 miles.
This warranty is important, because despite talk by Kia officials that vehicle quality is improving, the quality of other automakers is improving, too. And Kia's ratings in the much-publicized, 2006 J.D. Power and Associates' Initial Quality Study and Vehicle Dependability Study remained below industry average.
The Rondo uses a version of the front-wheel drive platform that's in the Kia Optima mid-size sedan.
Indeed, the nearly 15-foot-long Rondo is a half foot short of the overall length of the five-passenger Optima. This is despite the fact the Rondo is available with third-row seating. Chalk it up to nearly negligible front and rear overhangs on the Rondo, where there's little of the Rondo metal body hanging out past the wheels in front and back.
Don't be deceived by pictures of the Rondo. It looks smaller in photos than it is in real life.
Styling is pleasant, if not a bit plain in front. In contrast to many crossovers, the Rondo doesn't try to look like an SUV. It looks like what it is -- a tall, mainstream, five-door wagon.
The test Rondo, a five-passenger LX with popular equipment package that added air conditioning, among other things, to the low-priced base Rondo LX, rolled over road bumps without fuss and kept the rough stuff away from passengers. It wasn't a cushy ride as much as it was a stable, well-managed ride that let me feel the road without being fatigued.
The power-assisted, rack-and-pinion steering had decent on-center feel, didn't need correcting in long-sweeping curves and interacted with the driver predictably and comfortably.
I appreciated the good placement of a "dead pedal" -- a flat, sort of upright spot to the left of the pedals for the driver to brace his or her left foot.
Views out of the wagon were good enough so I could see much of the traffic around me. But I couldn't see around large SUVs, pickup trucks and vans, and the metal pillars at the sides of the Rondo's windshield can obscure views of pedestrians during turns.
Kia also doesn't offer a rear park assist system, even as an option, for the taller-riding Rondo.
But there are many standard features on every Rondo including height-adjustable driver seat, 16-inch wheels and tires, tachometer, covered front center armrest with two storage areas and power door locks and windows.
Any model of Rondo can add third-row seating for just $500.
Just don't be fooled by the price for the base model. It doesn't include air conditioning, which is a $900 extra on that model only. Air conditioning is standard on other Rondos.
No all-wheel drive is offered, in part because Kia wanted to keep pricing low.
The test vehicle came with the base, 162-horsepower, 2.4-liter, inline four cylinder mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. I barely noticed shift points, because the tranny worked so smoothly.
Peak torque is 164 foot-pounds at 4,250 rpm, and power came on quickly. I didn't notice much straining of the four cylinder, even on highways. Overall engine sounds were pleasant, and the Rondo interior was quieter than expected, with just wind noise emanating at highway speeds.
Obviously, the Rondo's best fuel economy rating comes in the test model -- five passengers and the four-cylinder engine. The U.S. government pegs the fuel mileage at 21 miles a gallon in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway, putting this Rondo model about midpack among today's wagons for gasoline usage.
The uplevel engine is a 2.7-liter V-6 that puts out 182 horses and 182 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm.
Shoppers who like sporty performance will find more powerful wagons elsewhere.
The Mazda CX-7 comes with a turbocharged four cylinder generating 244 horses and 258 foot-pounds at 2,500 rpm. And Saturn's Outlook crossover comes only with V-6s that offer at least 270 horsepower.