Once upon a time, auto makers competed for first-time buyers with entry-level cars. They were always the smallest car in the lineup and could be bought with no options to keep the prices as low as possible.
Times have changed, consumers are shifting to crossovers, so manufacturers are now offering entry-level SUVs. Some inexpensive cars are still being made, but with consumers shifting to larger vehicles, more and more small crossovers are being offered that start at around and under $20,000.
The newest competitor is the 2020 Hyundai Venue, which starts at under $18,000 in SE trim. It is one of the few vehicles of any kind that still offers a manual transmission in its base trim. Our test version was a mid-range SEL model that featured a Continuously Variable Transmission and two optional packages that pushed the price up to $23,425. The top-of-the-line Denim model include a — you guessed it — exclusive denim color with a white roof.
The good news is, the Venue is remarkably spacious for such a small vehicle. It is also reasonably entertaining to drive around town, with the CVT tweaked to coach the maximum performance out of the 121 horsepower produced by the normally-aspirated 1.6-liter engine. The ride is also more comfortable than you would expect from such a short wheelbase.
The bad news is, Hyundai apparently kept the price down by skimping on interior materials. All of the surfaces are covered in nothing by hard plastic. The result not only feels but looks cheap. That's surprising because Hyundai has been upgrading the interiors of all their other vehicles in recent years.
In a week of test driving, we found the Venue to be a practical affordable city vehicle, As a subcompact, it is best designed for single, couple and small families, especially since rear seat room is limited. But it offers more head, shoulder and leg room than expected, making it more enjoyable to drive than most previous entry-level cars.
Even the base Venue also comes with an impressive list of tech features. They include an 8-inch touchscreen audio with Android Auto and Apple Carplay. Safety features include forward-collision warning, automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and driver-attention warning.
Despite the crossover SUV designations, some of these vehicles are best described as small, tall wagons. They include the Honda HR-V, Fiat 500L, Kia Soul and the Nissan Kicks. Although they look like SUVs, they cannot be ordered with all-wheel-drive, which was available on all the first crossovers. That's something those of us who live in the wet Pacific Northwest should consider, especially when a base Subaru Impreza with standard AWD starts at under $19,000.
To be fair, Hyundai makes an effort to bridge this gap by including a Snow setting in the Venue's drive mode. We didn't have a chance to test it since we took delivery of our vehicle just after Memorial Day.
There are a growing number of low-cost crossover SUV on the market. The 2020 Hyundai Venue may currently be the least expensive, but it is worth considering beyond that because of its interior space, peppy in-town performance and comfortable ride. If you need a new vehicle and want something bigger than a subcompact car, put it on the top of your shopping list.
2020 Hyundai Venue SEL
Base price: $17,350 (SE)
Price as tested: $23,425
Style: Subcompact SUV
Engine: 1.6-liter (121 hp, 113 lbs-ft)
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission
Modes: Normal, Sport, Snow
EPA fuel economy: 30/34
Length: 159 inches
Weight: 2,557 to 2,612 pounds
Final assembly point: Ulsan, Korea
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