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The lumpy looks of earlier Rondo models are gone. (Dan Proudfoot for The Globe and Mail)
The lumpy looks of earlier Rondo models are gone. (Dan Proudfoot for The Globe and Mail)

First Drive Kia Rondo

Kia's family hauler now has upscale features Add to ...

The ventilated-as-well-as-heated driver’s seat of the $32,195 Kia Rondo EX Luxury serves as Exhibit A in this family hauler’s move upscale as a 2014 model.

A ventilated seat? It may just help a driver avoid getting hot under the collar when the little sweethearts back in the cheap seats go high decibel.

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There’s progress in the $21,695 base Rondo, the LX, as well.

The visual appeal of the improved quality material topping the dash takes this Rondo beyond the old. The interior hush at highway speeds, the solid crunch of the doors closing, both impress the ear. Even the stitching in the LX’s cloth door panels appears to be the stuff of pricier cars.

Whether at the top of the range or the bottom, the new car is a rich ride at a reasonable price. And the lumpy looks of the earlier Rondo are gone: the new Rondo is lower and wider than the category stalwart, Mazda5, with crisp lines and artfully shaped side glass.

As with its predecessor, the 2014 Rondo is sold with seating for five or seven. The $21,695 model is a five-seater with a manual transmission. All seven-seaters are automatics; the LX with seven sells for $25,195 and this is the model Kia Canada anticipates to account for 37 per cent of sales.

Our six hours of drive time – on a route meandering between Galveston and Houston – are split between an EX seven-seater, $28,195, and the top-of-the-line EX Luxury, also for seven (but note that only the driver scores the ventilating seat).

All models drive much the same. The differences within the $8,000-plus price range covering all those Rondos with automatics are in their multitudes of features, rather than performance. The same engine, automatic transmission and suspension are used throughout.

The four-cylinder is smaller than before – the V-6 is no longer available – but Kia makes the point the new engine’s direct gas injection gives it almost as much power as the previous one while improving fuel consumption. The new six-speed automatic also contributes to fuel efficiency and near-silent operation at cruising speed.

Too bad acceleration is slow and the engine screams in protest when you squeeze the gas pedal. Rondo is right for those of us who are content with slow and steady cruising, but the lack of throttle response will eliminate it from some shopping lists.

Really, with this car, it’s all about accommodations. Start with the front: we were as impressed with the cloth-covered seats and all-black base interior in the $21,695 LX, in which we rode from the Houston airport to Galveston, as with the leather and two-tone trim of the EX Luxury on the drive out of Galveston the next day.

Kia’s target for seat comfort was the Volkswagen Tiguan, a compliment to VW’s generally superior seating. The Rondo’s front seats are indeed more supportive than most – though those occupying the passenger side in the EX Luxury will resent the fact the driver’s seat has power adjustment including lumbar support, heating and ventilating, while they’re stuck with limited manual adjustment and heat.

Rear passenger comfort depends on whether two or three rows of seats are in place. With just one row in place, in the five-seater configuration, there’s adequate room for three although foot room is pinched under the front seats.

With the rear bench pulled up out of the cargo floor for seating for seven, things get tighter. The normal back seat needs to slide forward to provide usable leg-room for the pull-up two-seater. The reality is the Rondo’s compact exterior dimensions compromise legroom throughout the vehicle when seven persons squeeze in. The fold-up back bench is for kids, the smaller the better for all concerned. Access is challenging for adults, and facilitated only on the curb side.

Kia brags about storage spaces. There are 14: the underfloor trays ahead of the rear seats are the best example of the unexpected. Count the features as well, a major selling point for all Kia and Hyundai models. The base Rondo comes with air conditioning, keyless entry, power windows, heated front seats and six-speaker audio with voice recognition and Bluetooth. USB and iPod connections are provided.

The $26,995 EX adds such niceties as a heated steering wheel, automatic climate control, leather upholstery and rear-door pull-up mesh curtains of the sort associated with German luxury cars. A rear-view camera is provided, with an eight-inch navigation screen. The $32,195 EX Luxury heats the rear seats as well as the front, takes care of the navigation, replaces the hand brake handle with electronic control, ventilates the driver. There’s more: panoramic sunroof, front and rear parking warning, but let’s leave the full recital for Kia salespeople.

A provocative notion comes to mind as a result of driving a Mercedes-Benz B200 almost daily in Toronto and stepping in to a Rondo in Houston, how these two angular-but-boxy hatchbacks really are eerily similar despite being perceived as different.

As premium brands like Benz and one-time economy car specialists like Kia increasingly bring to market models that are a close match in price, shape and purpose, cross-shopping is becoming a sprawling bazaar, unimaginable even five years ago.

This is not to say that Kia is set to duke it out with German luxury makers. But recognize it’s getting closer. The 2014 Rondo cannot challenge the current Benz B250, falling far short in power, but its performance is on par with the original B-Class (2008-2012) with the base model engine that I purchased for EX Luxury money. The Kia’s interior is richer, more attractive. The warranty is superior, at five years against three years for the Benz.

The new Rondo looks as stylish as any European – as have all Kias introduced since design chief Peter Schreyer was hired away from Volkswagen in 2006. He’d been head of design at Audi as it began its rise.

Kia’s rise is under way. The question now, is how much further it can become.

Tech Specs

2014 Kia Rondo

Type: Four-door hatchback with five- or seven-seat configuration

Price: $21,695 for base LX five-seater; $25,195 for LX seven-seater; $28,195 for EX 7-seater; $32,195 for EX Luxury.

Engine: 2.0-litre, direct-injection four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 164 hp/156 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic; base LX only model with six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.2 city/6.3 highway with automatic; 9.4 city/6.2 highway with manual; regular gasoline

Alternatives: Chevrolet Orlando, Mazda5, Dodge Journey

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