SCOTTSDALE, Arizona - In the world of music, "rondo" means forward movement. That sounds like an apt description of Kia's newest model, which falls into the "crossover" category. As a brand, the South Korean automaker has been moving ahead strongly in the past couple of years. Each new or redesigned model has stepped significantly ahead of its predecessors.
"When you develop a brand," said executive vice-president Len Hunt, "you must always be true to the core values." In Kia's case, those are value, quality, safety, and warranty.
"Safety is really coming through as a big feature," Hunt added. In fact, it's the Number Three reason people give for buying a Kia. Like other Kia models, the Rondo contains six airbags. Standard equipment also includes antilock braking, electronic stability control, a tire-pressure monitor, and bumpers that withstand a 5-mph bump.
"Crossovers fit a multi-everything lifestyle," said Steve Kosowski, manager of long-range strategy and planning. Rondo is for people who "need three rows of seats, but not all the time."
Actually, Rondo comes in either a two- or three-row configuration, seating five or seven occupants. Two trim levels are offered, LX and EX, with either a four-cylinder or V-6 engine.
The 2.4-liter four-cylinder develops 162 horsepower and 164 pound-feet of torque, driving a four-speed automatic transmission. A five-speed automatic mates with the 2.7-liter V-6, which generates 182 horsepower and 182 pound-feet. Both transmissions incorporate Sportmatic for manually-selected gear changes. Four-cylinder Rondos earn an EPA gas-mileage estimate of 21 mpg in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway. With the V-6, estimates dip to 20/27 mpg.
Kia claims a "European feel" to the Rondo design, with its relativley long wheelbase and short overhangs, plus a squarer-than-usual rear liftgate. The large rear door opening rivals those of minivans. Derived from the Optima sedan's platform, the Rondo is unique from the rear floor back. Elsewhere in the world, the Rondo is called the Carens.
When a third-row seat is installed, the 60/40-split second-row seat slides forward by more than a foot, to ease access. Kia promises more room in all three rows than the Mazda5 can deliver. The company also claims 32 seating configurations. Interior touches includes damping on the grab handles and glovebox door.
An altogether pleasant vehicle, the Rondo rides beautifully on smooth highways, and seems untroubled by at least moderate imperfections. Slight body motions do occur on wavier pavement, which can become more than slight as the surface gets woozier.
Strong acceleration can be expected with the V-6 from a standstill, but it's accompanied by some blare at higher rpm. Although the V-6 version does not have an especially refined feel when taking off, it gets the job done handily.
Rondos are very easy to drive, with light steering feel (but not excessively so). No particularly sporty sensations are evident, but this wagon tracks well on expressways, with only an occasional and slight hint of uncertainty.
Comfortable and supportive seats offer good thigh support. Huge front headroom is complemented by very good elbow room. Leg space is okay but not special. Even though the backseat is just a trifle hard, occupants get impressive space, especially for feet and legs.
On the dashboard, a fair-sized glovebox sits low. Gauges are distinctive but not quite as readable as some. The trip odometer is particularly hard to see, at least some of the time.
With a four-cylinder engine, the Rondo LX is actually more appealing than the more costly EX V-6. No, it's not quite as quick from a standstill. But after a short partial hesitation, it gets underway quite respectably. The four-speed automatic behaves quite well, too - just about as smoothly as the V-6's five-speed. The LX edition is more than adequate, so not everyone will crave the more costly EX model.
All told, the Rondo comes across as a good choice for longer trips, and it doesn't seem like an especially big vehicle. So, maneuverability is another "plus." Nice, easy views all around are helped by bountiful glass.
Both LX and EX models come with either the four-cylinder or V-6 engine, but Kia also offers a four-cylinder LX base model at a lower price. Regular LX models include 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, a CD player, power windows, power locks, and power mirrors. Rondo EX models add Michelin tires on 17-inch alloy wheels, chrome highlights, foglamps, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and upgraded audio.
Prices start at $16,395 for the LX base model, or $17,895 for the regular four-cylinder LX. The EX edition starts at $19,195. Tucking a V-6 under the hood adds an extra $1,000, and the third-row seat runs $500.
Rivals include the Toyota Matrix and related Pontiac Vibe, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Chevrolet HHR, and Mazda's Mazda5. Each of those vehicles is somewhat unique, which suggests that Kia plans a broad assault on the competition.
This is "not a mini-minivan," said Ian Beavis, vice-president of marketing. "Minivan people are a different brand altogether," and Kia offers the Sedona for them. The company's ultimate goal is to have more people say, "I'm a Kia type of person."
Kia intends primarily to target young couples. Secondary customers include young singles, families with older children, and empty-nesters. Kia is "now stepping into the mainstream," Beavis insists. Rondo sales began in December.