If Toyota is the new GM, Kia is the new Toyota. After establishing a U.S. beachhead with price-oriented products, the Korean automaker has gradually expanded its reach by replacing its penalty boxes with vehicles sporting upmarket features and class-leading safety, while maintaining the brand's value promise. The Rondo is yet another example of the kind of mass market machine The Big 2.5 should be building, but isn't.
The Rondo boasts Kia's latest design language– which is about as familiar to the average American as Urdu. Translation: the Rondo's sheet metal splits the difference between a smart-looking pope-mobile and a shrunken minivan. The details are a bit fraught, what with over-sized headlights ruining any hope of proportionality and a rear window treatment the likes of which haven't been seen since the days of the Azteks.
Clearly, the Rondo's a family bus with no sporting intentions whatsoever. And? In a world where car designers snort swage lines, flame broil perfectly innocent door panels and Bangle big butts (and they cannot lie), the plain Sook Rondo is a handsome beast. May Giorgio Guigiaro have mercy on my soul.
Ten years ago, a Kia's cabin was a space best suited to contemplating how little you paid for your perch. (Rumor had it the Sephia's interior was made out of old scotch tape.) Grab a seat behind the Rondo's wheel, poke, prod and play with the surfaces and controls, and you'll feel like you found a twenty dollar bill in your pocket. The Rondo's plastic quality and control snickery are on a par with Honda and Toyota's offerings, full stop. Even without factoring the price differential, it's an accomplishment that should give GM supporters pause for thought. And yes, it matters.
Unlike some down market products I could mention (cough Cobalt cough), the Rondo's interior feels as finished as an episode of Law and Order. The corporate stereo head unit is a model of ergonomic (if not aural) clarity. The HVAC knobs are a breeze to operate (so to speak). The large oval vents break up the dash's landscape with symmetrical precision. The headliner is made from genuine woven material. All the Rondo's attempts at cheap chic are successful.
As a 180” car riding on the Optima platform, the Rondo's second row comfortably accommodates all but pro b-ballers and WWF refugees. The van's optional third row is perfect for your friends– provided you secretly hate them. More importantly, the Rondo's got your genetics covered. Mom and Dad get torso and head airbags and seat belt pretensioners, while everyone else gets side curtain airbags and five star government crash safety (save for four stars on rear seat side impact).
Cargo carrying is the Rondo's party trick. The second row does the flip and fold trick, the third row sinks into the abyss below and hey presto! You've got a perfectly level floor– to the point where a stranger happening upon a Rondo post-seat submersion would be forgiven for thinking the vehicle is a cleverly disguised delivery van. Between the huge rear hatch and the sky scraping roof, the Rondo is a big-box compatible schlepper.
Given the Rondo's 3500 lbs. curb weight, its [optional] 2.7-liter V6 generates a no-more-than-merely-adequate 182 horsepower. At least Kia did the right thing and hooked it up to a five-speed automatic gearbox. Acceleration is brisk when the car is unloaded. With a full crew, highway merging takes the patience of a Vulcan. There's no chance of a pistonhead mind meld with the base Rondo's 162hp 2.4-liter in-line four. Besides, the extra power only costs you a grand up front and one and two mpg at the pump (20/27 vs. 21/29 mpg).
Even better, at highway speeds, the V6's song is quieter than the wind noise off the side mirrors. If you should somehow mistake silent speed for handling prowess, the Kia steps up to the plate with a coffee klatsch of e-nannies, including electronic stability control and ABS. Hear that Toyota? They're standard issue.
The Rondo drives like white bread tastes. Or the Midwest looks. Or Lindsay Lohan acts. Understeer? I suppose. More to the point, the Rondo's leather-wrapped wheel connects to a precise rack and pinion setup, with proper weight and feedback. The brakes work. Nuff said?
The Rondo's ace: msrp. Actually, it's four aces. My nearly fully-loaded tester stickers at a family-friendly $21.5K. Considering a starting price in the high 16's, I'm going on record as saying the Rondo is the best family-car value in the U.S. It eviscerates Honda's Element and CR-V, Toyota's RAV4 and anything else in the price bracket. By building honest vehicles like the Rondo and pricing them aggressively, the Korean conquest of America's mainstream automotive market steamrolls ahead.