Like the rock and cacti so prevalent in Phoenix, the new '07 Kia Rondo is an unusual formation.
Is it a multipurpose vehicle, as the Europeans like to call cars with shrunken minivan or tall wagon proportions?
Or is it a cross/utility vehicle, the broad category for any car-based utilitarian product in North America?
Kia Motors America prefers the CUV moniker, which fits. The Rondo is a fun ride, with reasonably lively on-road characteristics and plenty of space and amenities for the money.
The Rondo LX Base model begins at a mere $16,395. Although, be forewarned, that trim level lacks air conditioning and body-color side mirrors.
The Rondo joins the Mazda5 as the only true MPVs being sold in North America, although Kia sees theMatrix/Pontiac Vibe as competitors, too.
Overseas, the Rondo is known as the Carens, an innocuous name American consumers apparently disliked.
The Rondo on sale now in the U.S. is the third-generation of the Carens, which is based on Kia's Optima/Magentis midsize sedan platform. The Rondo shares many suspension, braking and steering parts with the Optima. But it is unique from the rear floor back because of the optional third-row seat.
A test of the comfort level in the third row — a $500 option available in all but the LX Base trim — suggests it will be a tight squeeze for adults. Otherwise, the Rondo is roomy for adults of average height.
The Rondo is powered by either a 2.4L DOHC inline 4-cyl. engine making 162 hp and 164 lb.-ft. (222 Nm) of torque or the 2.7L V-6, generating 182 hp and 182 lb.-ft. (247 Nm) of torque. Buyers get a 4-speed automatic with the 4-cyl. and a 5-speed auto with the V-6.
Both engines have aluminum heads and blocks, as well as intake-only continuously variable valve timing, while the transmissions offer a manual-shift mode.
Both mills were sufficiently powerful on flat roads, but the I-4 predictably wheezed in hillier terrain.
The 4-speed automatic was better than expected, but both transmissions occasionally deliver abrupt and harsh downshifts.
Perhaps more irksome was the Rondo's rack-and-pinion power-assisted steering, which had a poor on-center feel at higher speeds and, in general, was a bit vague. This might be OK, as the Rondo customer will not be demanding razor-sharp steering. Perhaps the upcoming sporty SX trim will give more precise steering feedback.
Likewise, the independent MacPherson-strut front and independent multi-link rear suspensions are tuned not for hard cornering but to absorb most road imperfections.
Kia's decision to offer a V-6 in the Rondo appears to be a smart one. The V-6 Rondo matches the highway rating of 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) of the 4-cyl.-only Mazda5 with a 5-speed manual. However, the Mazda5 gets an additional 2 mpg (0.85 km/L) in the city, achieving 22 mpg (10.7 L/100 km).
The interior of the Rondo reflects the great strides Korean brands have made in recent years. Even the base LX trim, with comfortable cloth seats, sports a nicely stitched faux leather armrest.
The Rondo has six standard airbags, as well as tire pressure monitoring, 4-wheel disc brakes and standard electronic stability control.
The Rondo represents a good value, topping out at $20,195 for an EX V-6 sans options/accessories. Destination and handling for all Rondos is $600.
Sales targets are modest, at 20,000-plus units annually. If there is a U.S. market for MPVs, the Rondo will find it.