My first impression on collecting the latest rental car was just how small it felt. Considering the previous bolide was a Ford Explorer, perhaps that’s not a surprise. Certainly, by American standards, the Kia Rondo is not large.
The version I received is the 5-seater. A 7 seat option is available as well – and it does actually feel like the proverbial tardis, as there is plenty of space inside it. This was first evident when I lifted the tailgate, to put my suitcase and Laptop bag in. The boot area is huge, and there are a number of underfloor cubby areas as well, though no one of these is particularly large, in any dimension. Sadly, like most cars of this type in America, there is no luggage cover at all, so whatever is left in the boot remains on display.
The feeling of space then continues inside the cabin, too. There’s plenty of legroom for rear seat passengers, ample width for three people, and because the car is slightly taller than your average hatchback, more than enough headroom, even though you do sit higher than normal.
The test car was fitted with the optional 2.7 litre V6 engine. Developing 182 bhp, you would have thought that this would make the car really rocket along, but in reality it does not feel that fast. Pleasingly brisk, for sure, but as with most American cars, I have to wonder where at least 33% of the quoted bhp has gone to. I can’t even blame the very smooth shifting 5 speed automatic gearbox, which also offers a manual mode if you want to zip up and down the gears yourself. The engine itself is refined, and the extra smoothness of the V6 is very welcome, and must constitute a major selling point against the 2 principal competitors – the Mazda 5 and Toyota Matrix – neither of which offer more than a 4 cylinder motor. As well as driving a more reasonable sized vehicle, it was also good to get in something with brakes that actually felt like they would stop the car when you pushed the pedal. Indeed, those in the Rondo work well, and were progressive in their feel and effective. The handling will not win prizes for ultimate excitement, but again, unlike last week’s Explorer, I was pretty sure I could get round curves, following the line I intended and with no prospect of tipping the car up.
Korean cars have made huge leaps in the quality of their interior trim in recent years, and at first glance, the Rondo looks like it continues that trend. Sadly, all is not quite as good as it could be. The steering wheel is quite thin and moulded from hard plastic. The EX version has a leather cover. The dash itself, although very cleanly styled, and with good tolerances between the different mouldings, is also made from rather hard and unyielding plastic. For interior practicality, though the Rondo scores well: door bins, lipped storage areas along the dash above the large glove box and to the left of the wheel, are complemented by a large two-level storage bin between the seats, and various storage compartments in the centre console, all of which were eminently usable. The driving position is good, as you sit higher than a conventional hatch, and there is excellent visibility all round, making this an easy car to position on the road.
This class of car does not sell in particularly large quantities in the US. Most Americans think it is simply not big enough. Actually I can’t see why it is not. I’ve driven the outgoing Matrix, and its badge-engineered Vibe clone, and could never recommend that as it was unbelievably noisy. The new model offers a 2.2 litre engine as well as the 1.8, which may address the problem, but it is also far uglier than before. The Mazda 5 does offer a third row of seats as standard, and the sliding doors are quite practical. It’s a nice car, though again the lack of anything bigger than a 2.3 litre 4 cylinder option is a limitation. So, I conclude that the 6 cylinder Rondo probably gets the nod. I think it looks the best, it’s just the cheapest, and slightly cheap plastics excepted, had no serious shortcomings. The Koreans are still getting ever better!
There is a postlude to this. When I arrived at Hertz at Heathrow this morning, there were worryingly few cars. Apart from a line of Mercedes ML-Classes in the distance, you could see and count everything else. And there was the Rondo’s twin brother, the Carens. However, Hertz had other plans for me, and there was an old style Mondeo Estate with my name on……….. as all cars were pre-allocated to customers, changing to anything else was out of the question. The petrol engined Carens has a 2.0 litre 4 cylinder engine, developing 142 bhp, so not a lot less than the American claim. It would be interesting to see how much slower (if at all), it really is!