Mention Kia, and certain adjectives jump to mind: basic, practical, affordable.
After test driving the 2011 Kia Rondo for a week, I'll add one more: under-rated.
Kia has made big strides in recent years, and that's immediately apparent when you climb into the well-appointed cabin of the Rondo.
Belying the brand's budget-priced image, the fit and finish is top notch. The heated front seats are comfortable and provide good support. And the handsome dash is laid out intuitively, with climate control and stereo knobs that are large and easy to use.
But you have to drive the Rondo to really appreciate it.
The optional 192-hp V-6 engine on my five-seater test model delivered smooth yet powerful acceleration, and the ride was solid and secure, making the Rondo feel like a more expensive car. On the highway, the cabin was quiet, with minimal road and wind noise.
If you've got two kids, as I do, you'll find the Rondo's generous back seat has ample room for your little ones and their carry-on baggage (stuffed animals, bins of Lego, etc.). As an experiment, I was easily able to fit a third booster seat into the middle position, so carting around an extra kid occasionally would not present a problem.
As my eight-year-old son Curtis explained: "I like the car because it's really big. The back seat can fit three people and it's very spaced out."
One might even say spacious.
Kia obviously designed the Rondo with families in mind. With some cars, you have to dig between the seat cushions to find the child seat anchors. Not the Rondo. The anchors are fully exposed and easy to reach.
If you're regularly ferrying around a lot of children, you may want to consider the Rondo's seven-seater model. Be sure to try before you buy: I haven't tested the seven-seater, but some reviewers have found the third row cramped and hard to access.
For a family of four, however, the five-seater should be more than adequate. The large trunk can accommodate all the gear you'll need for a road trip, and there are plenty of bins and compartments throughout the vehicle - including a large storage area hidden in the floor of the trunk to stash assorted knick-knacks.
One thing that would have been nice is a folding centre rear storage console. My wife and kids like to play Scrabble and other games in the car, and having a convenient place to store miscellaneous items would be a plus, especially on longer journeys.
That said, Kia provided lots of other convenience features in the Rondo, including dual illuminated vanity mirrors, three overhead lights, overhead sunglass holder and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. One quibble: I found myself unintentionally changing the radio station because I kept accidentally pressing one of the buttons on the steering wheel. After a few days of this, however, I learned to adjust my hand position and the problem stopped.
In the safety department, all Rondo models come standard with six airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability control and traction control system.
As I drove the Rondo around town and on the highway, another thing I came to appreciate was the car's excellent visibility. The Rondo has lots of glass, which makes for excellent sight lines when you're backing up, parking or changing lanes.
Our well-equipped test model with upgraded V6 engine, six-speaker stereo, cruise control, fog lamps and 16-inch alloy wheels retails for $23,895 (excluding delivery, excise tax and "colour charge"). A base LX Rondo, with four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission but no air conditioning, sells for $19,995.
The Rondo is no longer sold in the United States, so reliability data is limited. However, based on results from 2007 through 2009, the car earned above-average reliability ratings in surveys by Consumer Reports.
For 2011, the Rondo received a minor facelift that includes chrome interior accents, chrome exhaust tip and electric remote fuel door releases for all trims. The car hasn't received a major redesign since its introduction in Canada in 2007, and while Kia isn't saying precisely when it will happen, an overhaul is in the works.
"We don't discuss timing or specifics on future product. I will say that Kia is currently working on development for the next-generation Rondo," a spokesman said.
The current Rondo's conservative styling isn't going to turn any heads, so it will be interesting to see whether Kia decides to opt for a bolder design with the new model, in keeping with other vehicles such as the Soul and Forte Koup.
Not that conservative is a bad thing when you're looking for basic, reliable family transportation. All things considered, the Rondo is a very competent family hauler at a reasonable price. For families seeking an alternative to a minivan or SUV, this smooth-riding wagon is well worth considering.
2011 Kia Rondo EX V-6 (five-seater)
Type: Compact wagon
Base Price: $23,895; as tested, $23,895
Engine: 2.5-litre V-6
Horsepower/Torque: 192 hp/184 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.5 city/7.7 highway; regular gas