As gas prices creep relentlessly (and perhaps, permanently) toward $4 per gallon, American cars are beginning to look more and more like European cars. Well, more like the cars that are popular in Europe (and Japan), places where gas has cost a lot more than $4 per gallon for quite some time.

Consider the new Kia Rondo. It's just been added to the Korean automaker's lineup for 2007 and is basically a compact minivan - very similar to the urban runabouts you see in London or Tokyo.

Like them, it's smallish on the outside, so it's well-suited to congested urban/suburban driving. Its abbreviated dimensions (just 179 inches long) let it fit where other vehicles won't - and get in an out of those tight spots without having to stop, turn the wheel, put it into reverse - then inch forward and repeat the process a couple of times. Its turning circle is just 35.6 feet - so you're less likely to ride up on the curb (and scuff a wheel) when attempting U-turns. With a traditional minivan like Kia's own Sedona, you'd need another two-plus feet (38.2 feet, total) to make the same turn.

And yet, the Rondo's still decently roomy inside, with comfortable seating for four - and viable seating for five (even six) adults in a pinch.

A third row is even available optionally - though it's really not for adults unless they're both small-framed and nimble. Or very understanding. Still, the Rondo can work as a primary family car - especially for young families with toddlers and kids who haven't hit their teens yet. It can cart them and their stuff around to after-school activities just as well as a standard minivan - and can even pull a 5,000-lbs. trailer. (Most minivans have a 3,500-lb. max towing rating.)

Yet unlike the typical full-size minivan, the Rondo can approach 30 mpg on the highway - vs. mid-low 20s (like the Sedona). And with a base price of $16,395 for the EX, it's also a lot less expensive "up front" than most traditional minivans, too.

Kia offers the Rondo in base LX and more fancy EX trim - with your choice of either a 2.4 liter, 162 horsepower four-cylinder engine or a 2.7 liter, 182 horsepower V-6. The smaller engine is the best choice for the mileage conscious, with an MPG rating of 21 city/29 highway. But the more powerful V-6 (which may be ordered with either trim) is not far off the four-banger's pace at 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway. It also comes with a five-speed automatic vs. the four-speed automatic used with the 2.4 liter engine. Both transmission have a Sportmatic semi-manual function that permits driver-controlled up and downshifts.

With the third row up, available cargo space drops to 6.5 cubic feet - and that's the Achilles' heel of the Rondo's layout relative to a standard minivan. Assuming all three rows are occupied, there's little space leftover for cargo. If you need a vehicle that can carry six people - and six people's stuff - the Rondo may be too small for you. On the other hand, if you only need the third row every now and then - and most of the time, it's just three or four people and their stuff - you'll probably find there's plenty of room. With the second row down, the Rondo offers almost 36 cubic feet of cargo room - and the second row seats have almost a foot of travel, fore and aft - allowing the available cargo space/passenger space to be tailored to the specific situation.

While it's not built to be a tire-scorcher, the Rondo's pleasantly zippy. The V-6 version, for example, is about half a second quicker, 0-60, than a V-6 Ford Escape - 9.5 seconds vs. 10 seconds or so - despite the Ford having anon-paper power advantage (200 hp vs. 182). And the bigger, clumsier Escape costs more up front, drinks more gas down the road, can't tow as much - and doesn't offer a third row.

Also to the Rondo's credit:

Curtain and side-impact airbags, electronic stability control, a tire pressure monitor and ABS are included on even base LX models. So are a CD-playing stereo, 16-inch rims with H-rated performance tires, power windows and locks. Only AC is missing from the roster. If you step up to the LX with the Popular Equipment Package, you'll get it - along with some interior trim upgrades - for $17,895. Add the V-6 and the tab runs to $18,895. On top-of-the-line EX Rondos, you can order leather seats ($1,000) and a Premium Package that includes a power sunroof and 315 stereo rig with 10 speakers and a six-disc in-dash CD changer. The third row is a stand-alone $500 option.

Later in the year, remote start and keyless entry will be added to the roster. A roof rack and body kit are also available.

Like all Kias, the Rondo boasts a very reassuring 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain coverage - which is considerably better coverage than you'd get with a "name brand" import like Toyota (five years/60,000 miles) or Honda (ditto), neither of which currently offer anything quite like the Rondo right now anyhow. (KIa's parent company Hyundai offers a just-as-good warranty, but doesn't have a model like the Rondo in its lineup right now, either.)

Kia might have given some thought to offering an all-wheel-drive version of the Rondo - even perhaps making it standard equipment. That would have given it a leg up on Suzuki's XS4 (which comes standard with AWD but doesn't have as much interior room ) as well as the Mazda5 (which offers third row seating but only comes with a four-cylinder engine).

A manual transmission option might have been nice, too - and could have pushed the highway mileage of the four-banger Rondo into the low 30s. And given its intended purpose as a family- hauler, an available rear-seat entertainment system (or at least, satellite radio) probably should have made it onto the options list.

But those are mostly subjective niggles. For the money - and for the mileage - the Rondo's hard to fault.