Almost a quarter-century ago, Chrysler rocked the automotive scene by putting a two-box body on the K-car platform, calling it a minivan and inventing the soccer mom. Unfortunately, the intervening years haven’t been kind to the concept; the mini minivan is no more. In fact, the 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan is almost two feet longer than the full-sized 1984 Dodge Ram van. If you’re looking for a three-row people mover that won’t max out your garage, you can always go the CUV route– if you’re into poseurmobiles. Or you can consider the Mazda5 or Kia Rondo. But do these reborn minivans carry the torch, or has the genre’s flame fizzled-out?
The Mazda5 Grand Touring and the Rondo EX adhere to the original formula. Both are built on passenger car platforms and share drivetrains with economy cars. Both are within a couple of inches of the size of the original Chrysler minivan. Both have three rows of seats; like the original Caravoyagers, the third row is optional on the Rondo. And like those early minvans, you can have a flat cargo floor if you desire. But that’s where the similarities between them end.
Mazda and Kia took decidedly divergent design directions. The Mazda5 looks like the love child of a Mazda3 and the space shuttle. The family DNA shows in the grille that precedes a steeply sloping hood and windshield. While the more traditionally minivannish of the two, it shows some style with a beltline that swoops upward from the obligatory swept-back headlights, past the dual sliding doors and toward the rear– where you’re greeted by two huge silver… things… mounted next to the rear window. These pods contain the LED taillights and backup lights. They’re easy to see, but look oh-so-last-decade.
The Rondo eschews zoominess for cute. With its huge headlights, trapezoidal grill opening and rounded corners, it looks like one of the talking cars in the Chevron commercials. The Rondo departs from the standard minivan recipe with parking lot-unfriendly hinged doors instead of sliders. The softly rounded shape continues to the rear where it’s abruptly terminated with a sharp crease below the rear window.
At first blush, both vehicles look similar inside, down to the shift levers sprouting at a 45-degree angle from the console. However, differences abound. The Mazda5 is rated at six passengers, offering front buckets, center captain’s chairs and a two-person bench in the wayback. The Rondo claims to seat seven, with a split bench in the middle and an optional two-seater in the rear. Unfortunately, the compact dimensions of both become glaringly apparent when you get to the rearmost seats. There’s only enough room for preteens (or adults you hate) in the back of either minivan. If you have to buckle the kids into car seats or booster seats, hip room’s too tight to mention. In an attempt to give access to the torture chamber, the door openings are wide and the center seats slide forward. But you’ll still have a long stretch to get everyone settled back there.
The second row is much better. The Rondo provides ample legroom, even with the front seats pushed all the way back. But all the Rondo’s second row does is recline, move fore and aft and fold flat. The Mazda’s does that and more. Flip-up the cushion on the left side and there’s a storage bin large enough to stash an extra supply of diapers for long trips. Flip up the cushion on the right and there are cup holders and tray you can flop over into the space between the seats. Lift the bottom of that tray and there’s a net beneath to hold small toys and other flotsam that seems to be de rigueur for traveling with young ‘uns nowadays. In contrast, the Rondo’s rear cup holders slide out of the bottom of the console at floor level where they would be totally useless for little ones who are strapped in high above them.
Both cars offer plenty of space up front. But the Mazda5 has a very annoying bulge at the side of the console where the driver’s leg should be. It partially blocks the accelerator, making you hold your foot at a strange angle. Then, when you rest your leg against the console, it’s against hard plastic with a 90-degree edge on it. If you’re above average size, you’ll notice they made it feel so spacious by downsizing everything in the interior. The steering wheel is the size of a dinner plate and every time I wedged my 6’3” carcass behind it I felt like I was in a parent-teacher conference sitting in a third-grader’s chair. The mail-slot sized sunroof opening only added to the sensation. The second-row seats have very low backs-– so low in fact that when the headrests were all the way down they didn’t even come to the top of my shoulders. You adapt to the seven-eights scale furniture eventually, but it’s still disconcerting.
Neither the Rondo or the Madza5 have an abundance of cargo room with the third seat up. The Mazda’s trunk has enough room to hold a small suitcase or a few soccer balls. The Kia offers only 6.5 cubic feet. Fold down the third row in either, though, and there’s plenty of room for the beer run. The Rondo has 35 cubic feet behind the second seat and the Mazda5 holds 44 cubic feet.
The Mazda5 Grand Touring and Rondo EX are both at the apex of their respective model’s food chain. The Mazda blows the Kia out of the water equipment-wise. Both come with the usual power stuff, remote locking, six-speaker sound systems, and steering-wheel mounted radio and cruise controls. However, the Grand Touring also includes leather seats, electroluminescent gauges, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, the aforementioned sunroof, heated seats, Bluetooth and it an optional nav system. The leather, sunroof and heated seats are optional on the Rondo EX and you have to pay extra for third row seating. The remaining electronic toys aren’t available at any price.
In return, the Rondo offers two things that aren’t available on the Mazda5. The first is electronic stability control, standard on the Kia. The second is a V6 engine. Mazda’s excellent 2.3-liter four-pot pumps out 153hp; it isn’t enough to provide the zoom-zoom you expect, especially if there are three or four people on board. It takes almost 10 seconds to stroll from 0 to 60 mph. You find yourself wishing they built a MazdaSpeed5.
The Rondo’s standard 2.4-liter four cranks out 162hp, and the smooth 2.7-liter V6 ups the ante to 182hp. With the larger engine, the Rondo does the 0 to 60 shuffle in just under nine seconds. Around town it’s more than sufficient. Push the mill into the higher RPM ranges to wring-out more speed and methinks it doth protest too much. With both of these vanlets, you should plan your passing maneuvers in advance, especially in hilly terrain.
The Kia and Mazda both handle fairly well for nose-heavy 3500-pound boxes. The Mazda5’s steering feels more directly connected to the front wheels than the Rondo’s, but it exhibits more body roll when pushed into a corner. Both are very maneuverable in city traffic and small enough to squeeze into spaces where larger SUVs fear to tread. You wouldn’t want to enter any gymkhanas, but there is driving fun to be had. As an added bonus, the base-level Mazda5 is available with a five-speed manual transmission.
For highway cruising, the Rondo beats the Mazda5, hands-down. Its front seats are more supportive and much more comfortable. The large analog instruments are easier to read than the Mazda’s high-tech electroluminescent ones. The radio controls are much more straightforward than Mazda’s radio cum nav system, where you have to agree not to sue them just to get to the basic radio functions. The only really annoying thing about the Rondo was the wind noise around the rearview mirror on the driver’s side.
The Mazda’s shrunken front seats and strange shaped console conspire to keep anyone above average size from getting comfortable. That, added to a resonance that boomed through the interior at speeds above 40 mph, made me wish I’d taken the Rondo every time I drove it.
Pricewise, it’s advantage Kia, as you’d expect. My fully-loaded tester listed for $23,495. They’re offering $2k incentives, so you’re just above the $21k mark before you start haggling. The admittedly much-better-equipped Mazda5 stickered for $25,395 (currently there are no incentives offered).
When you’re talking about a Kia, there are a few other considerations to factor in. First is the horrible first-year depreciation. You can expect the Rondo’s value to drop by about a third of its sticker price as soon as you drive it off the lot. Then, there’s the matter of durability. Although Kias have improved quality-wise and include one of the best warranties in the business, it’s still too soon to tell how well the Rondo will hold up over the years. Everything in my tester was tight and felt solid. But that doesn’t mean it’ll hold up for five or ten years.
In spite of that, I preferred the Rondo. It was more comfortable, more fun to drive and provided more straightforward controls than the Mazda5. Still, either is preferable to the bloated monstrosities they currently market as “minivans” and would probably do 95 percent of what people driving SUVs need a vehicle to do. Maybe the real minivan’s time has come again.
[Kia and Mazda provided the cars reviewed, insurance and a tank of gas.]