We are blessed in this country with a large assortment of efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles.

No, the hydrogen fuel cell has not yet arrived to the general public. And the totally electric car is still awaiting revolutionary battery technology.

But gas-stingy cars have been arriving in growing numbers the past two to three years giving families an attractive shopping list. Choices of 30-miles-to-the-gallon or better have never been so good, and those small to mid-sized fuel sippers have never been so good. And as gas prices steadily escalate toward the once-unthinkable $4 a gallon, this is a good thing. We are indeed blessed.

The problem is that people have to begin thinking smaller to count these blessings and keep dollars in their pockets and out of the hands of the oil industry. They have to be willing to give up guzzlers in favor of sippers.

This all came to mind again last week while behind the wheel of yet another new edition to the growing collection of gas misers, the Kia Rondo.

Well, actually, the Rondo is on the fringe of fuel sipper territory, rated at 20 city/27 highway in V-6 guise and 21/29 with a 4-cylinder. Not wonderful but okay.

But the Rondo is a rare vehicle, one that will carry four adults in stretch-out comfort with almost 32 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row. Because of the space car-pooling and efficiency takes a leap forward in this newest version of small.

So exactly what is this strangely named new Kia? It's more a small minivan with conventional doors than a small car, closer to a Mazda5 than a Honda Fit. Based on the Kia Optima sedan - it stretches out 179 inches and weighs in at 3,443 pounds - can be purchased with a 2.4-liter 162-horsepower inline 4-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed automatic or a 2.7-liter V-6 making 182 horsepower mated to a five-speed automatic. A manual transmission is not offered, but both automatics come with a shift-it-yourself feature.

The Rondo can be purchased with a third-row seat - a $500 option - that will accommodate children. As you might expect in a vehicle this size, storage is all but eliminated with the third row in use.

Prices range from $16,995 including destination charge for the base LX 4-cylinder model to $20,795 for a decently equipped V-6 EX model.

Leather seating, sunroof, a 350-watt Infinity sound system and a few other extras can take the price into 23-grand territory.

But here's the good part. The base LX four-banger comes well equipped with full power accessories, height-adjustable driver's seat, 16-inch alloy wheels, stereo with single CD player and a nice compliment of safety features including four-wheel ABS with electronic brake-force distribution, front side airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags, stability control, driver and front passenger head restraint whiplash protection and tire pressure monitoring.

The only thing missing for a well-equipped livable vehicle is air conditioning. That can be added for $900 bringing the bottom line to just under $18,000.

The Rondo is perhaps a perfect compromise for many people in today's market - a low-cost fuel-efficient compact vehicle that can more than adequately serve as the family car whether on a long vacation trip or commuting to and from school.

Our 200-mile week-long experience came in a six-cylinder EX version that arrived with premium stereo, sunroof and third row seating for $22,495.

We found the V-6 sprightly in around-town driving. It has plenty of punch for merging and passing and it seemed to have a mind of its own on the open road, wanting to run with the big dogs. Several times we were astonished to find we had edged up to 80 miles per hour in an area we normally drive 70 to avoid a ticket.

We didn't drive the 4-cylinder, but we think it will be an adequate performer especially with light loads of just two or three passengers.

The cost of a V-6 compared to a 4-cylinder is negligible, but you will lose between one-to-two miles to the gallon.

A base 4-cylinder comes in at around $17,000. Add air conditioning, a necessity if for nothing else its resale value and you are looking at $18,000. The base V-6 sells for $19,500 with air conditioning and a few other features not found on the base 4.

And here is a statistic that may excite the family guy with a fishing boat; the V-6-equipped Rondo has a rather healthy towing capacity of 5,000 pounds. That's 1,500 pounds more than many small SUVs including the Ford Escape V-6, Toyota RAV4 V-6 and the Chevrolet Equinox V-6.

The Rondo handled surprisingly well on our favorite back-road twisties keeping its composure at speeds we usually reserve for more planted vehicles. And the car was generally quiet at highway speeds, but with some wind noise coming from around the mirrors. In this price range, we'd give the Rondo four stars for interior solitude.

Maybe more important to mom is parking lot maneuverability. The Rondo shines in this area, too, with a small 36-foot turning circle.

The driver's seat offers a decent seating position and visibility from a perch that is Honda-like. In other words, you won't find many vehicles at any price range with a better view in all directions.

Our usual back-seat passenger proclaimed her seating position comfortable with scads of leg room. And she praised how easy it was to enter and exit. Basically, just open the door and sit.

The interior in our test car was well done and the standard cloth seats attractive and accommodating. The gauges are clear and the switchgear is straight forward and easy to use.

Storage cubbies abound including a bin with a power-point large enough to hold any size cell-phone. One neat idea is a shallow tray above the glovebox that will hold such thing as sunglasses and other small objects. A center bin that doubles as an arm rest will swallow bigger items. The front cupholders are big enough to handle 20-ounce plastic bottles. Kia says its five-passenger version has eight cupholders and its seven-passenger edition comes with 10.

Add in Kia's now famous 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and the Rondo is one of the big, good surprises of the 2007 model year.

Essentials

Base price, $16,995; as driven, $22,495
Engine: 2.7-liter V-6
Horsepower: 182 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 182 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3/2
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 179 inches
Curb weight: 3,443 pounds
Turning circle: 36.1 feet
Luggage capacity: 31.7 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
Fuel capacity: 15.8 gallons (regular)
0-60: 8.7 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Dodge Caliber, Mazda5, Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe

The Good
A lot of features for the price
Exceptional list of standard safety equipment
Long warranty

The Bad
We wish for better gas mileage in a compact vehicle

The Ugly
Potentially poor resale value needs to be figured into buying equation