2008 Kia Rondo EX V6 Review
By David Surace
Photos by Kelly Surace
I’m going to have to be forgiven for thinking the Kia Rondo, with its hippie-dippy ad campaign, is being aimed squarely at the center chakras of the “heightened awareness” crowd, of which I’m surely not a member. “Experience… MPG HAPPINESS,” says the sugary voiceover in the commercials, along with “HUGE CABINOCITY” and “PRECISION STEEROLOGY”. In the background, a rainbow-colored assembly of individuals (the Heightened Awarenesses?) pretend-sing a cover of “Let the Sunshine In”, the final song from the psychedelic Broadway musical, Hair. It’s like a liberal arts education in 30 seconds.
I don’t know about you, but when I look at the Kia Rondo, I don’t see the modern version of a battered mid-60’s VW Transporter. I also don’t see a replacement for the mean, nasty SUV. Wait, come back!
What I had for a week was a three-row microvan, yes, except without sliding aft doors. It was comfortable, it was quiet, it was FAST as the dickens thanks to the underhood V6, yet thrifty on fuel. If you still can’t bake that into your granola, you’re missing out.
You clever Autosavants out there already know this vehicle as the Kia Carens, another popular player in the space-van segment which currently rocks Asia and Europe, but is the proverbial 90-lb weakling here in the States. What you’re looking at is actually the third generation of this vehicle, one that was made with the gutsy intention to enter an American automotive market which, at the time anyway, wasn’t particularly interested in small, feature-packed vans.
You’ll have to get past your selfish id in order to really like this Rondo though: it’s not much to look at. Even vanilla would be too flavorful a descriptor; how about stale All-Bran. The shape is bulbous and guppy-like, and the designers did nothing to help the situation with creases or details to catch your eye (unlike the rowdy Mazda5 I tested earlier). The C-pillar makes an awkward kink ahead of an already-kinked D-pillar, which I’m sure adds a little more room to squeeze through the back door and wiggle into the third-row seat, but it does nothing for looks.
What miracles, then, $4.00-a-gallon gas will make. Suddenly anything that’s small and fuel-efficient is the toast of the party. What should we call this phenomenon? Petrol goggles?
See, most of the Rondo’s personality seems focused entirely on function rather than form, which in American traffic makes it look like a kale/soymilk-shake in a crowd of 3000-calorie Banana Berry Blast Smoothies(tm). In other words, you’d be forgiven for wanting to pass it up on the dealer lot. I know I would.
The problem is, you and I would be missing out on a few things, even outside of the gas mileage which I’ll get to in a minute. For one thing, the Rondo simply reeks of quality. The doors shut with a resounding FOOMP. Inside, the google-eyed dash is made of somewhat cheap hard plastics, but it’s all intelligently designed and bolted together very well. There’s sound-deadening everywhere; the Rondo is an isolation-chamber at every speed. Space is dear in this vehicle, especially for the third-row passengers because the vehicle can’t get away from being small, but the seats are cushy-comfy in the traditional Korean way, and the leather in my EX-level tester didn’t squeak once. The Rondo, like most new Kias I’ve driven, is Self-Esteem Central.
Another thing: the drivetrain. If you spend money on this car, I highly recommend you get the EX V6 model, if only because this 185hp, DOHC 2.7 liter V-6 and its five-speed automatic is one of the most sorted-out powerplants I’ve ever driven. I believe most of the credit actually goes to the transmission, with a short 1st and 2nd gear rush and a long, loping 5th gear which conspire to squeeze the most out of Kia’s “Mu”-family engine.
The handling also adheres to the Korean cushy-comfy metric, and the steering is nice and pointy but not soliloquy-inspiring, which makes the EX V6 model that much more of a surprise when you mash the gas pedal. It’s simply rapid, not in a way that urges you to take it to drag night or enter an autocross, but in a way that inspires confidence merging onto the interstate or turning left onto a busy four-lane. This is an example of how a bunch of figures on paper–185hp and 182lb-ft of torque vs 3,511 lbs curb weight–says nothing about the actual experience. The word I’m looking for to describe the acceleration is: effortless.
In fact, I took the Rondo on a long weekend trip to see family in Texas, through pockmarked interstate, weird construction projects and bad drivers–ok, yes, it was Houston–and the general feeling was calm. Not the sleep-inducing variety either, but the kind of quiet confidence that allows you as a driver to stay alert and refreshed even after a five-hour stint behind the wheel. While it would probably be merely ok on a skidpad, the Rondo is simply gifted at highway cruising.
There are several factors in convergence there, among the pointy handling and somber quiet of the cabin, but one of the big contributors to that Celestial Seasonings feeling is the gas mileage, which on my tester rounded out to about 23mpg (factoring just the highway trip alone, it made a solid 25mpg), which falls on the high side of the EPA numbers on its sticker, 18 city/26 highway. No great shakes among 40mpg hybrids, true, but we’re still talking about a three-row vehicle with the aforementioned sur of power.
You should also be aware that the 2.4L 4-cylinder model, which I did not test, makes almost the exact same EPA figures (19 city/26 highway), even though it’s down 20hp and 18lb-ft of torque and has to make due with a 4-speed automatic. As I mentioned before, those figures might be misleading, but less power is less power, and I don’t know if the Rondo would be so appealing to me without that unexpected rush of power. So for the record, if you find yourself looking at Rondos, I highly recommend you skip straight to the EX V6.
Maybe I need to re-assess my beliefs about the targeted marketing for this little guy. Maybe Kia’s advertising hits the spot after all. In its American context, the Rondo is a big porcelain mug of Celestial Seasonings for the road, a quirky and homely vehicle which only shows its best qualities from behind the wheel, with a major commitment of your time and a long stretch of interstate. You have to “get it” to get it; like Ken Kesey would say to his acid-tripping band of Merry Pranksters, “you’re either on the bus or you’re not on the bus.”
More to the point, Kia Motors America’s slogan is The Power to Surprise. As it turns out, the Rondo EX V6 has that in spades.
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