Kia Rondo: A Minivan That Can

The Kia Rondo minivan is a great buy for large families on a budget

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Rebates, available V6 engine, seven-passenger capacity, excellent warranty

The Bad: Quality doubts, fuel economy could be better, scant luggage space behind third-row seats

The Bottom Line: A compact people-hauler for families on a tight budget

Up Front

I never thought I'd say this about a Kia (KIMTY), let alone a Kia minivan, but the 2008 Rondo is a terrific vehicle. It's a small minivan that's far roomier than a compact car and can seat up to seven, yet it gets decent (if not great) mileage and has five-star government crash test ratings. Even better, through Sept. 2, Kia is offering big cash discounts off the Rondo's already low list price.

The Rondo is an excellent choice for young families on a tight budget. It's only 179 inches long, the same length as a 2009 Toyota (TM) Corolla. But it is 2.4 inches wider and more than 7 inches taller, so it has more head, hip, and shoulder space than the Corolla and other compact sedans. The Rondo's optional third-row seats are too tight for most adults, but there's plenty of room for a driver to carpool with up to six children.

The Rondo's only real direct competitor is the Mazda5, a similar compact minivan that was improved as of the '08 model year. Otherwise, the Rondo's closest rivals are totally different styles of vehicle, including compact hatchbacks such as General Motors' (GM) Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix, small SUVs such as the Toyota Rav4 and quirky niche models such as the Scion xB and the Chevrolet HHR. However, only the Mazda5 and Toyota Rav4 also have an available third-row of seats.

Sales of both the Rondo and Mazda5 have soared this year. The Rondo's U.S. sales were up 15% in July, to 2,556, and up 51.7%, to 18,530, in the first seven months of this year, while the Mazda5's sales jumped 39.7%, to 1,336, in July, and 43.7%, to 13,313, in the first seven months of this year. Mazda is controlled by Ford (F).

One reason for the Rondo's success is the rebates of $1,500 to $2,000 Kia is offering on the model right now (alternatively, there are also low interest loans available). On top of that, you may qualify for an additional $1,500 to $2,000 rebate. Depending on which region of the country you live in and if you already own a Kia or certain competing vehicles. Check Kia's web site for details

Even before rebates, the Rondo's price is very low. The entry-level Rondo LX powered by the small engine starts at just $16,995 without air conditioning and $17,895 with air conditioning, and comes standard with such amenities as full power accessories, 16-inch alloy wheels, a fold-down second-row seat and a CD player. Add $500 for the optional fold-down third-row seats. The upscale Rondo EX powered by the larger engine starts at $20,795, and can be fancied up with a 10-speaker/6-CD sound system and a sunroof for $1,200, and leather upholstery for another $1,000.

The Rondo has several other advantages over the Mazda5. It's slightly longer and wider, so it's a bit roomier and seats a maximum of seven, vs. six for the Mazda5. And, while the Mazda only comes with a four-cylinder engine, the Rondo is available either with a 2.4-liter, 162-horsepower inline four-banger, or a 2.7-liter, 187-horsepower V6. The small engine is paired with a four-speed automatic transmission, the bigger one with a five-speed automatic.

The big doubt about the Rondo is its long-term dependability. Kia came in third-from-last in J.D. Power & Associates 2008 Vehicle Dependability Study, which was announced on Aug. 7, behind every other company except Suzuki and Land Rover. (Mazda was ranked higher, but also below the industry average.) New models such as the Rondo and Kia Optima sedan (on which the Rondo is based) appear to be very well made. But even if they are, lingering quality doubts will probably depress their resale value.

However, the Rondo (like all Kia models) has a stellar warranty, including five years or 60,000 miles of basic coverage and free roadside assistance in the event of a breakdown, plus 10 years or 100,000 miles of powertrain coverage. The Mazda5's basic warranty and roadside assistance programs only last for three years or 36,000 miles, and its drivetrain protection for five years or 60,000 miles.

The Mazda5, on the other hand, is more fuel-efficient. With the small engine, the Ronda is rated to get 19 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway, and does almost as well (18 city/26 highway) with the six-cylinder engine. With an automatic transmission, the Mazda5 is rated to get 21/27. However, the base model Mazda5 Sport, unlike the Rondo, is available with a stick shift, and that version of the vehicle is rated at 22 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway, which is pretty incredible for a six-passenger minivan.

Behind the Wheel

The Rondo isn't especially quick or sporty. I clocked my test EX with a six-cylinder engine at 9.2 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60. Loaded down with baggage and passengers, the four-cylinder version of the Rondo is probably downright pokey. Then again, you don't buy a minivan for its sportiness—and the Mazda5 is pokey, too.

Everything inside the Rondo fits together well and seems solidly made. In classic minivan style, the center console juts out from the dash between the driver and front passenger, giving the front seats a cockpit-like feel. The cabin is quiet and well-insulated. If you pay close attention, for instance, you realize that the engine is fairly noisy when you punch the gas, but from inside the cabin the noise is barely audible. The door on the sunroof has a heavy, well-built feel, as does the glove box door.

There are lots of thoughtful design touches, too, from several covered storage spaces in the rear deck area to a little trough over the glove box where you can toss keys and sunglasses. Small triangular windows at each end of the dash add to the airy feel of the front seat area. There are bottle holders molded into the storage bins in the rear doors (a convenience that's often eliminated in compact vehicles) and pouches on the backs of the front seats where rear passengers can stow magazines and maps.

Without the third-row seats, the Rondo has nearly 32 cu. ft. of luggage space in back, which is plenty. The big negative about the interior is that there is virtually no luggage space (a mere 6.5 cu. ft.) when the third-row seats are in place. So, on long trips the Rondo isn't practical for more than four or five people unless you buy a roof rack for luggage.

Buy It or Bag It?

Rebates are a wild card when you're buying a car in a weak market, and the Rondo is no exception. Since the beginning of this year, the Rondo's average selling price has been $19,429 before cash rebates, and only about $18,000 after rebates, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). At that price, the Rondo is a screaming bargain, and (as mentioned above) some buyers can qualify for even bigger discounts.

By contrast, the Mazda5 starts at $18,665 with a stick shift and $19,615 with an automatic transmission. It has been selling for an average of $20,204 after an average cash rebate of $857, according to PIN. However, though there are lease deals and no-interest loans on the Mazda5 right now, Mazda isn't offering cash rebates on the model.

Some other competitors are offering cash back. There are rebates of $1,500 or more on the '08 HHR through Aug. 19, lowering that model's average price to just under $18,000. The '08 Pontiac Vibe is selling for an average of just $16,818, after an average cash rebate of $2,571, according to PIN. Even the new '09 Vibe, which is much nicer, carries an average cash rebate of $1,115, according to PIN, lowering its average price to about $19,000. (Both PIN and J.D. Power, like BusinessWeek, are units of The McGraw-Hill Companies.)

There are no cash rebates on Scion xB right now, but both the '08 and '09 xBs sell for an average of only about $18,000, according to PIN. However, the xB doesn't have the carpooling capacity of the Rondo. With optional third-row seats, the Toyota Rav4 does, and Toyota is offering $500 off on the '08 Rav4 through Sept. 2. But the Rav4 is relatively pricey, with an average selling price so far this year of $24,671, according to PIN.

Dollar for dollar, you can't beat the Rondo's people-hauling capacity and other features right now.

Click here to see more of the 2008 Kia Rondo.

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