2021 Hyundai Venue: Urban econobox a good thing
Years before auto buyers shifted en mass from cars to SUVs, thrifty and practical consumers flocked to so-called econoboxes. As the nickname implies, they were inexpensive small hatchbacks and wagons that competed against low-priced coupes and sedans offered as entry-level vehicles by many companies. Their chief advantage was the large amount of cargo space in the back, especially with the rear seats folded down.
Fast forward to now and buyers don't want hatchbacks or small wagons either. They want SUVs, especially car-like crossovers that ride better and get higher mileage than truck-based ones. But many manufacturers are still making hatchbacks and wagons, especially inexpensive ones. They're just calling them crossover SUVs and no one seems to notice.
A case in point is the subcompact 2021 Hyundai Venue that was first released last year. It is clearly an econobox. To begin with, the base SE version starts at just $18,750, which is very economical. And it is obviously a box on wheels, which results in a huge amount of interior space for such a small vehicle. But it rides higher than a car, which increases ground clearance and driver visibility, like a crossover. It is also styled to look rugged and functional, like an SUV. Most buyers will undoubtedly be convinced they aren't buying something as uncool as a hatchback or wagon.
Hyundai's corporate sibling Kia should get credit for pioneering the concept years ago with the Soul. Another box on wheels, it offered a lot of interior room and cargo space in a package styled and advertised to appeal to young people, but which also found favor with aging baby boomers who appreciated its low price and day-to-day practicality.
Unlike most econoboxes of the past, the 2021 Hyundai Venue does not feel inexpensive on the road. Although the 1.6-liter engine only produces 121 horsepower, the Continuously Variable Transmission is tuned to take full advantage of it off the line. The suspension is also surprisingly effective at absorbing road imperfections. Combined, they produce a perky yet smooth ride around town, although the engine feels strained trying to pass at freeway speeds.
On the other hand, the interior materials are cheap and the dash design is best described as simple. Every surface is coverage in hard plastic and the display screen looks like a large iPhone glued to the dash. It works just fine, however, and the cloth seats are comfortable and feel durable.
Better yet, even the base Venue SE comes with an impressive list of tech features. They include an infotainment system 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. The SEL version adds blind spot collision warning, rear cross-traffic collision warning, 17-inch alloy wheels, and automatic temperature control — all starting at only $19,800.
Although all-wheel-drive is not available on the Venue, it does have a Snow mode that gently sends torque between the front wheels when weather gets bad. Hyundai says it can actually adjust between deep and packed snow, although I didn't have a chance to test that since it arrived in the middle of the summer. It also has a Sport mode that improves throttle response at the cost of more engine noise.
Our test SEL version also has $2,505 worth of additional features, ranging from heated front seats to a power sunroof. Even with all that, the price was a mere $23,490, which is very reasonable for all its features.
There are less expensive entry-level cars on the market, including Hyundai's own Accent, which starters at over $3,000 less. Even the compact Elantra is under $1,000 more. That should make money-conscious buyers reconsider whether they really need to have a crossover. But auto purchases aren't always a rational decision, otherwise more families would choose minivans over SUVs because they are much more practical when it comes to hauling children around. Sliding side doors? Hello? Never mind.
That said, the 2021 is both practical and entertaining to drive around town, thanks to its well-tuned CTV and surprisingly sophisticated suspension. The additional ground clearance is also a benefit on poorly maintained roads where cars bottom out in deep ruts. The Snow mode offers the promise of at least partly compensating for the lack of available AWD, although a winter test is required to confirm that. But there's no doubt the 2021 Hyundai Venue is a great value. Just don't tell anyone it's actually a modern econobox.
2021 Hyundai Venue SEL
Base price: $18,750 (SE)
Price as tested: $23,490
Style: Subcompact SUV
Engine: 1.6-liter (121 hp, 113 lbs-ft)
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission
Modes: Normal, Sport, Snow
EPA fuel economy: 30/33
Length: 159 inches
Weight: 2,557 to 2,612 pounds
Final assembly point: Ulsan, Korea
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