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Kia Rondo: Pleasant surprises at every turn

        One thing I love about exploring new cars each week is that occasional surprise. It happens when you know pretty much what to expect, but then the vehicle delivers a bit more.

        So along comes this whatchamacallit, a mini-minivan or crossover wannabe, called the Kia Rondo. One lip turns up -- it’s a little funny looking, smallish but roomy inside. And then a quick run down the road and the other side of the lip turns up.

Rondo        This is very decent, I tell myself. This is fun. And this is functional, with optional seating for seven and suprising legroom.

        The Rondo, unveiled for 2007, is an odd creature, sure to attract the attention of PT Cruiser types and Toyota Matrix and Mazda5 folks. It strikes me as a smallish minivan, but it drives more like a sprinty Matrix or VW.

         Since it’s an odd fellow, perhaps, Kia invented new lingo to go with it. Rondo’s "giddyupidness," the Korean carmaker says, is derived from a standard 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder engine that delivers 162 horses and 164 pound-feet of torque. That’s a bigger engine than the Mazda5, Matrix and Chevy HHR, boasts Kia, and more horses than the Mazda, Matrix and PT.

         It’s not racy but it has all the oomph you’ll need to get to the airport on time. That is, if the Rondo is too loaded down with the inlaws and enough bags for a four-week stay. It gets a bit sluggish with a full load, but how did you get roped into four weeks with the inlaws anyway?

         The front-wheel-drive Rondo is nimble with independent front and rear suspension, MacPherson struts up front and multilink in the rear. Cornering is relatively flat. Front and rear antiroll bars are standard.

         Rondo is smooth and quiet riding, even at highway speeds. The EPA figures the 2.4-liter engine gets 21 around town, and 29 on the highway. Upgrade to the 2.7-liter 6-cylinder engine ($1,000 more and another 20 horses) and mileage is cut only slightly to 20 and 27.

         "Cabinocity'' (more Kia talk) is huge, says Kia, offering the kind of function found in some minivans. Rondo is a bit taller and wider than the Mazda5, offerinmg 41.3 inches of legroom up front. Second-row riders get three inches less legroom, and third-row folks get only 31 inches. Still, it is not too uncomfortable back there for short hauls -- even among taller types.

          Cargo space behind the third row is a mere 6.5 feet -- enough for a couple of crushable bags -- but fold that third row down and voila! -- 31.2 cubic feet of space.

          That's just good "seat flexology," Kia says. There are 32 different seating configurations possible, if you know your flexology.

          Safety equipment includes electronic stability control and six standard airbags, including side airbags in front and full-length side curtain airbags for all three rows.

          Rondo comes in two trims: LX and EX. The former is decently equipped, with AC, cruise control, remote entry and alloy wheels when you add the Convenience Package.  Upgrade to the EX and get fog lights, 17-inch wheels and Michelin rubber, chrome door handles and front-grille crossbars.

          Or go one better and add premium options like a power sunroof or a 10-speaker Infinity audio system with in-dash 6-CD changer and 7.5-inch subwoofer ($1,200).

           Overall, the Rondo is not much on looks. But it makes up for it with terrific personality, and function. And I call that "buyability."

PRICE: $16,395 (base LX); $20,995 (EX, as tested, with premium options)

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