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2020 Hyundai Venue First Drive Review: Hitting Reset on Affordability

Hyundai’s new subcompact SUV shows that cheap shouldn’t mean unsatisfying.

Passenger cars are too expensive, Hyundai acknowledges, and the automaker that rebuilt itself in North America a generation ago with 10-year, 100,000-mile warranties and a lot of features for the money is playing up its value game with the new 2020 Hyundai Venue subcompact SUV. With just 121 horsepower and no pretentions of hot hatch handling, it's not going to easily qualify for our list of No Boring Cars. But the Venue's cheerful interior and price range that straddles $21,000 just might make it the thing for young city dwellers starting new careers or businesses, or those looking for a personal conveyance for when mass transit or bike lanes won't do.

This is a B-segment, subcompact vehicle that should really be called a car and not an SUV, but calling things cars doesn't move metal these days. To that end, the Venue wears its version of Hyundai's latest SUV grille (note the resemblance to the big, three-row Palisade) as well as "cube"-shaped daytime running lights. The Hyundai Venue is a couple of inches shorter than a Ford EcoSport—which means it's truly tiny—and it's also lower than anything in its stated set of competitors, including the Kia Soul and the Nissan Kicks. Like Chevrolet's battery-electric Bolt, which its maker also markets as a crossover SUV, the Hyundai Venue is available only with front-wheel drive—all you need if you're considering one for mostly urban or suburban commuting.

The front-drive driveline would seem to nod to markets that get no snow, such as the city in which we drove the Venue, Miami, but in fact the automaker is doing those in Northern states a favor. Dealerships there would likely keep only all-wheel-drive models in stock if it were offered as an option, meaning those consumers would end up spending, say, $1,200 or so more for AWD they don't truly need. Better to spend the case on a good set of winter wheels and tires instead (tire shops will often store them for you if you lack space).

Unlike the Chevy Bolt, the Hyundai Venue is no EV, though it's a reasonably fuel-efficient thing, and features the new 1.6-liter Smartstream engine that added 4 mpg to the Elantra, the first model to get it. It features a dual multiport fuel-injector design for better drivability and power, and better center-of-cylinder aim to avoid buildup of lubrication on the cylinder walls.

The naturally aspirated inline-four is paired with an "intelligent" continuously variable transmission; this gearbox, says Hyundai North America product chief Michael O'Brien, has the widest ratio spread of any CVT sold in the U.S., tied only with Subaru's, at 7.0:1. The Hyundai CVT uses a chain instead of a belt for better wear and drivability, O'Brien says, and has a step-gear program built into the software to avoid the single-gear windup that bothers so many critics of variable transmissions.

There's also a six-speed manual available, although it can be had only with the base Venue SE trim level and no factory options. It beats the i-CVT's highway EPA number by 1 mpg, though it falls 3 mpg short in the city. No manuals were offered for testing in our Miami-to-Key Largo roundtrip drive, although the 1.6/stick combo seems enticing for those of us who dream of running around town in a boxful of modern minimalism. The SE manual is the absolute cheapest of the new Venues, at just $18,470, and includes Apple CarPlay and Android for Auto, an 8.0-inch touchscreen with AM/FM and HD radio, and Smart Sense with forward collision-warning avoidance technology. The latter incorporates pedestrian detection (annoyingly aggressive, though they all are), and all Venues also have lane-keep assist, a driver-attention warning function, and automatic high beams. There are no variable chassis modes, no power-up driver's side window, or LED headlamps, even as an option, and the wheels measure 15 inches in diameter.

Our test car was a 2020 Hyundai Venue SEL with the $1,150 Convenience package (power sunroof, sliding armrest storage box, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, blind-spot collision warning, rear cross-traffic collision warning); $1,750 Premium package (heated front seats and side mirrors, LED headlamps and daylight running lights, LED taillights, 205/55-17 Nexen NPriz AH8 tires on aluminum wheels, proximity entry and ignition, SiriusXM capability, three years of BlueLink Wi-Fi connected services); and $135 floor mats. This all brought our Galactic Gray runabout to $23,280, which is the most you can pay for any Venue. There is a Denim trim package that adds exclusive two-tone blue and white paint and a special cloth and vinyl seats, but it cannot be had with a sunroof, so it costs $23,305 with the rest of the above.

The Venue is easy to get in and out of and setting its tilt-and-telescope leather-wrapped steering wheel is a cinch. The interior plastics, especially on the door panels, are hard and clearly cheap to procure, although given the vinyl-padded armrests, we were as comfortable as we'd have been in nearly any luxury SUV. Rear-seat leg- and headroom are decent for a subcompact vehicle, and there's a bi-level cargo floor in back. Flip down the split rear seatbacks, which fold flat, and it's clear there isn't enough room for a bicycle without its front wheel removed, and even then it probably can't accommodate anything bigger than a 26-inch mountain bike. Avid cyclists will have to invest in a good rack.

All this talk of bargain pricing might turn off a lot of enthusiasts expecting a pedal-car experience, but we'll once again reference our own Marc Noordeloos's recent column on the joys of cheap, low-spec vehicles. Unlike Marc and his Ford Transit Connect, though, we can't say much about the Hyundai Venue's handling because we were in South Florida, where the roads are all long and straight. But it probably doesn't matter. Hyundai admits the Venue wasn't built to handle. It shares components and basic architecture with the Accent, Elantra, and Kona, and has a torsion-beam rear axle with tall, upright dampers designed to avoid interior space intrusion.

On Florida's Highway 1 between downtown Miami and Key Largo, the Venue's reasonably comfortable ride was complemented by a reasonably quiet interior. The 1.6 Smartstream certainly feels peppier than its 121 ponies would suggest, though the engine loudly drones under full throttle, and there's a good deal of suspension squat, both which likely contribute to any perceived acceleration thrills. Still, you won't feel uncomfortable squirting into adequately sized traffic gaps.

Dial the SEL and Denim models' Drive Mode Select switch to Sport and it's supposed to make the steering heavier and juice the responses of the accelerator and CVT, though we felt only the transmission perk up. The steering is light and direct but feels a bit loose, requiring small correctional inputs. While soft and comfortable for the most part, the chassis felt a bit stiff over parking-lot speed bumps, causing some uncouth head toss. Perhaps the Venue is an SUV, after all.

The most satisfying move the 2020 Hyundai Venue made was in heavy downtown Miami traffic, when the drive-route directions required a sudden move shift to the left lane. There was little space, but we were able to slowly pull into a tight space and leave room for the truck behind to move forward in the right lane.

So, yes, the 2020 Venue is a city car. It's also a cheap, maneuverable, and stylish lifestyle vehicle, all for roughly 20 large. Viva la minimalist-car movement.

2020 Hyundai Venue Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $18,470
ENGINE 1.6L DOHC 16-valve inline-4; 121 hp @6,300 rpm, 113 ft-lb @ 4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual, continuously variable automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 27-30/34-35 mpg
L x W x H 159.1 x 69.7 x 61.6 in
WHEELBASE 99.2 in
WEIGHT 2,557-2,752 lb