Korean automaker Kia made its first splash into the American market with uncommonly (if not alarmingly and suspiciously) cheap cars that managed to survive the tricky stateside market, despite numerous quality complaints and styling often beaten out by entries in the Pinewood Derby. Having survived such a battered infancy and placed millions of cars on millions of roads, Kia has had the luxury of getting to stick around long enough to figure out what makes people buy cars, and how to build them accordingly. The Kia Rondo, though not the best car in the lineup, is a very good example of everything Kia is doing right today.
There is no shortage of Kia reviews these days, and the writers are largely the same cynical sorts who had hated the earlier incarnations from the brand, but their tone has changed remarkably. The overriding theme seems to be, "When the hell did Kia start making really great cars?", and I couldn't agree more.
The Kia Rondo is billed as a 7-seat family vehicle, though it looks more like a small wagon or voodoo shrunken minivan. In Europe, Asia and even the curious nethers of Eurasia, they call this popular form the MPV, which is often also called the "multi-purpose vehicle." The styling, however, even in the American market, is perfectly contemporary, so if the looks turn you off too much, this is only a matter of personal taste, and not a reflection on any lack of effort on their part.
My tester was a five-seat configuration, which left me curious about how much capacity those last two passengers must have for claustrophobia in a seven-seat configuration, but in a package this compact, it's easy to see how it's still doable, and the sort of thing you can decide even before a test drive. The last row in any car, even the Mazda5 or bigger, is typically reserved for the smallest members of the family, or last minute tagalongs who lack the ability to capably bitch about seating space in any situation.
The power plant is designed for economy, not sport handling, and it does deliver capably. It outperforms any of my growing-up-era Hondas, and those are cars I still recommend today. The fuel efficiency more than makes up for the lack of gusto, since it's not a shortcoming of the vehicle's designers, but a calculated decision, and one easy to understand with gas prices such as they are as they top the $3 mark.
Last thing about the economy is that it's a total economy package. With a well equipped sticker barely breaking the $20,000 mark (and base models around $16,000), you don't have a whole lot of options in the price range. Not having choices doesn't mean you only have bad choices either. The Kia Rondo is a pretty nice, pretty comfortable, reasonably peppy choice that still lets you carry your passengers (ranked by row in terms of likeability), and does it with degrees of quality and reliability you may not have realized was even on the table.
Guess what, I was surprised myself, but it's on the table.
The cabin is easily 95% ventured on the road to the impossible land of Ideal, which is the thing it took Toyota four-decades to touch, and an improvement over other entry-level vehicles by heaps. Some of the controls aren't quite where you might like them, but I imagine you'll master them within 100-miles of ownership (as I did in the same time on my test). The ride is every bit as comfortable and engineered inside and out for comfort as you should expect from a modern car, but the real kicker (price? comfort? styling? value?) has yet to be mentioned.
It's all about the safety, baby, the safety. Across the board, the Rondo has class-leading safety ratings (five-star for everywhere but the second-row, which is still fully four-stars), with dual front and side airbags, active headrests and seatbelt pretensioners up front, and side curtain airbags for all three-rows. Electronic stability control, tire pressure monitor and Antilock Brakes are standard (yes, I said and meant it when I said standard), so when you're looking at goody options, you don't have to choose between premium sound and safety, which is nice when you don't have to explain the decision to your wife and kids.
It looks better than you might expect, has a flat-floor and cargo capacity far better than you'd expect, and will floor you in every category except for horsepower (and torque, to get technical,) but the balance more than offsets the equation, even with price held off to the side, which you really can't put aside.
Strongly consider the V6 option and take both models out for comparison's sake. The V6 will leave you happier over the long run (and the short run, assuming it's just shy of a quarter-mile), and it's only an extra 5% add to the cost. That's about a thousand smackers on the sticker price, and a downside to the fuel economy of 1mpg city, 2mpg highway. Even at $3/gallon (being liberal) and 15,000 miles/year, that's a difference of $107-$114 per year to take the V6. You have the numbers, so now you can make the decision for yourself.
The rest of the car is a no-brainer, assuming you're in the market. If you're not, of course, it doesn't much matter.