SCOTTSDALE, AZ – Much like the rock and cacti so prevalent here, 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 product in North America with a hint of utility?

Regardless, Kia Motors America seems to prefer the CUV moniker, which is suitable.

The new Rondo is a fun ride, with reasonably lively on-road characteristics and plenty of interior volume and amenities for the money.

The Rondo LX Base model will sell for a mere $16,395. Although, be forewarned, that trim level lacks air conditioning and body-color side mirrors.

Kia says it created the entry model because, although the brand is trying to move up-market, it can’t neglect its value heritage.

The Rondo joins the Mazda5 as the only true MPVs being sold in North America, although Kia sees vehicles such as the Toyota Matrix and Chrysler Pacifica as competitors, too.

Overseas, the Rondo is known as the Carens, an innocuous name American consumers apparently disliked.

The Rondo coming to the U.S. this month in mass quantities (Kia already has sold 594 units since last October here) 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 most adults. Kia officials admit most buyers like the thought of having a third row but rarely use it.

Otherwise, the Rondo is roomy in the first and second rows for adults of average height.

The 5-seat Rondo has 107.8 cu.-ft. (3.1 cu.-m) of interior volume (155.9 cu.-ft. [4.4 cu.-m] with seven seats); 31.7 cu.-ft. (0.9 cu.-m) of cargo capacity sans the third row; and a scant 6.5 cu.-ft. (0.2 cu.-m) of cargo space with the third row, which folds flat and is split 50/50.

The 60/40 second row slides and reclines but doesn’t fold flat into the floor.

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. Both mills are found in the Optima. 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 the region’s flat roads here, but the I-4 predictably wheezed in hillier terrain.

The 4-speed automatic was better than expected, but both transmissions occasionally delivered abrupt and harsh downshifts.

Perhaps more irksome was the Rondo’s rack-and-pinion power-assisted steering, which tracked poorly at higher speeds and, in general, was a bit vague.

This might be OK, as the Rondo customer will not be demanding aggressive steering. However, hopefully the upcoming sporty SX trim, to be unveiled at next month’s Chicago auto show, will provide 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, which may fit nicely the needs of the Rondo’s target audience of young couples with children and older, empty nesters.

Kia’s decision to offer a V-6 in addition to a 4-cyl. for the Rondo appears to be a smart one.

The V-6-equipped 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 Rondo’s wheelbase of 106.3 ins. (270 cm) is exactly 2 ins. (5.1 cm) shorter than Mazda5’s. However, the Kia has wider front and rear tracks and is 2 ins. wider, overall, than the Mazda.

On the styling front, the Rondo proves the point that Kia – like its sister brand Hyundai – needs more daring sheet metal for its products. The wedge-shaped Mazda5 looks sportier and is more appealing than the more traditional wagon-like Rondo.

The Mazda5 also has an edge with its handy sliding doors. Kia, on the other hand, opts for conventionally hinged doors for the Rondo because too many consumers negatively equate sliding doors with minivans.

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.

For a little flair, stylish but subtle orange trim surrounds the climate-control dials and is more prominent around the hazard-lights button, placed atop the center stack.

Hard plastic abounds inside the Rondo, but the execution is surprisingly good, with no noticeable flashing or panel gaps.

However, in one Rondo EX tested, the passenger-side airbag cover was a shade lighter than the rest of the black dash.

The Rondo has six standard airbags, as well as tire pressure monitoring, 4-wheel disc brakes and standard electronic stability control.

Also standard are heated body-color mirrors (EX only); cruise control (optional on LX, standard on EX); and power doors and windows.

LX buyers wanting keyless entry will have to spring for the $300 Convenience Package, which also includes cruise control.

Two options, a $1,000 Leather Package (leather seats, heated front seats) and a $1,200 Premium Package (power tilt/sliding sunroof, 10-speaker Infinity audio system) are available with the EX trim.

Notably absent are all-wheel drive, a power driver’s seat and a base audio system that is MP3-capable.

Still, 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.

The Rondo’s prospects hinge solely on Americans’ willingness to buy into the compact MPV body style that is popular in Europe and Japan. Sales targets are appropriately modest, at 20,000-plus units annually.

Mazda5 sales have been good, but not as good as originally hoped.

If there is a market for MPVs in the U.S., the Rondo will find it.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com