TTAC readers seem to care not a whit for the flashy stuff. The Jaguar F-Type, possibly the most anticipated press car this year among journalists, lifestyle bloggers and other dubiously affiliated members of the media, garnered less than 50 reader comments. Meanwhile, reviews of the Chrysler minivans regularly generate hundreds. In a quest to be of greater service to our readers (and because I know that another Generation Why can scarcely be tolerated), I decided to sample something that is hopefully of genuine interest to you all: a minivan that is not available in the United States. Like the Chevrolet Orlando, the Kia Rondo is available in a number of countries that did not support the Iraq War, among them, Canada. Like the Chevrolet Orlando, it is supposedly “right-sized” for Canada, thanks to a smaller engine, a smaller physical footprint and an available manual transmission (which will be popular in Northen Quebec and nowhere else). And like the Chevrolet Orlando, it’s hard to rationalize buying one of these when you can have a Dodge Caravan for similar money. Like the Orlando and the Mazda5, the Rondo’s roots lay in a global compact car platform – in this case, the same one that underpins the Hyundai Elantra and the Kia Forte. The relationship between the products is akin to how the Volkswagen Touran is the slightly larger, MPV twin of the Volkswagen Golf. The strut suspension up front, the torsion beam out back and even the 2.0L Theta 4-cylinder and 6-speed automatic are carried over from the Hyundai/Kia corporate parts bin, and the cars don’t feel terribly different to drive.
Around town, the higher driving position and premium-feeling interior make the Rondo a decent place to spend time. Visibility is excellent, thanks to the wraparound glass throughout the greenhouse, and the CUV-esque way that you sit up high in the car. Kia’s UVO infotainment system is one of the easier ones to operate, with clear, intuitive menus and an easy to operate touchscreen. All of the controls are well laid out, though there are some odd quirks – the top model EX Luxury that we tested only has a cooled driver’s seat, but the passenger seat doesn’t get that same consideration. At a glance, the materials and design of the interior looks “premium”, but look a little deeper and the facade disappears. The lids of the many storage bids feel a bit flimsy on closer inspection, while the headliner has the “egg carton” feel of a typical economy car when pressed. Even so, I would give it the edge over the rather drab Orlando and the now-dated Mazda5 as far as interiors go. Like most of these European-style MPVs, seating in the second row is generous but the third-row is useless for anyone past puberty. With the seats up, there’s a measly 8.6 cubic feet of space, which then expands to 32.2 cubic feet once folded. With both rows down, you’re up to 65.5 cubic feet.
The Rondo’s road manners also leave something to be desired, resembling the base Elantra rather than the more sporting Elantra GT. All of the chassis and powertrain flaws present in this vehicle family are only magnified in the Rondo, though it does a good job of masking them. In a daily commute, the Rondo is basically transparent, moving along in relative silence, isolating you from most road imperfections. Handling is as you’d expect – not great. Excess bodyroll makes the Rondo feel like a Bayliner through corners, while the three-model steering system, as seen on the Elantra GT and other Hyundai/Kia products, does little to help improve driver engagement. I left it in Sport the entire time, and while it firmed up the steering a fair bit, feedback was non-existent.
Power from the 2.0L engine, with its 164 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque is adequate. On the freeway, there’s enough power to pass other cars without making it a white knuckle experience. Around town, it’s let down by poor throttle calibration and a sluggish 6-speed automatic transmission – similar to the Dodge Dart, the Rondo suffered from a perceptible lag when trying to weave and bob through urban traffic. Press the accelerator and there would be a very noticeable “One onethousand, two onethousand” gap between when your foot moved and when the car would start moving forward. When you’re trying to close a gap that might get you out of a blocked lane in congested, rush hour traffic, this kind of delay can be the difference between making it and having someone else get there first. Fuel economy in mostly city driving was 23 mpg, three mpg off of its city rating, and a rather respectable showing given that downtown Toronto’s driving conditions are far from those mandated in fuel economy tests.
The Rondo’s biggest issue isn’t its competitive set, but the Dodge Grand Caravan. In an urban metro area like Toronto, the Rondo has a lot going for it. It’s quite fuel-efficient, easy to drive in traffic (though the lag in power is a real problem) and is “right-sized”, in that it’s short enough to park easily while also narrow enough to weave its way through busy streets and tight parking garages. It has lots of premium features, from heated rear seats to a panoramic sunroof to a backup camera, that make it a very nice place to be when you’re doing errands around town. But you’ll pay for all of that too. In Canada, where vehicles are a fair bit more expensive than the United States, our tester rang up at $32,195.
But I’m not sure that’s quite good enough. Dodge has an iron grip on the Canadian minivan market for a reason. The Caravan is cheap, powerful and has enough room for multiple hockey bags, and you don’t necessarily have to fold the third row of seats to accommodate them. When it’s time for that, the Stow ‘N Go system makes it as easy as possible for a harried parent to do so. Fitting just one hockey bag in the Rondo would immediately require the folding of the third row, and then some creative maneuvering to make it fit. Oh, and there’s also the whole “sliding doors vs hinged doors” debate. For many people, the Rondo will be on the losing side of that one.
Talk of hockey bags and thriftiness may seem like a tired joke to our American audience, but Canadian readers will be able to affirm that these are the realities of life up in the Frozen North, and our auto market reflects that. Last year, Dodge sold 51,552 Grand Carvans in Canada, making it the fourth best selling vehicle in the country. Our love for small vehicles and fuel efficiency would suggest that a vehicle like the Rondo would do well here, but in 2012, just 6316 Rondos were sold, with the Mazda5 and Chevrolet Orlando not doing much better either. Canadian consumers seem to be playing against type in this particular segment, and given their unique needs and the absolute rock bottom prices one can get a Caravan for, it’s easy to understand why.
Kia provided insurance, a tank of gas and the press vehicle for one week. Thanks to AutoGuide.com for the photography.