Review: 2020's most affordable new crossovers
It probably hasn't crossed your mind, but if you're wondering why crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs, are more popular than sedans, keep in mind they aren't much different in length, height, width or ground clearance from cars built 80 years ago, although their packaging and style vary greatly from their ancestors.
Still, it demonstrates that car buyers' needs are not being met by the longer, lower and wider design principles long practiced by automotive stylists over the past several decades.
Yet this newfound fondness for automotive boxes comes at a price. CUVs typically cost more than the cars using the same platform, which is why the 10 least-expensive cars cost less than $19,000, while the 10 least-expensive CUVs cost less than $22,000.
Nevertheless, the 10 least expensive CUVs all come with front-wheel drive, and most offer all-wheel drive as an option. None are truly made for off-road adventures, but they will get you through inclement weather.
Let's take a ride.
Chevrolet Trax, $21,300; Tall and narrow, the diminutive Chevrolet Trax takes the front-wheel-drive Chevy Sonic and stretches it to new heights — literally. But it's not very long, so it possesses unusual proportions.
While its Lilliputian length does make it easy to maneuver and park, It's not particularly powerful, so it's not much fun to drive and fuel economy is unremarkable. All-wheel drive is a $1,500 option. Worst of all, it costs more than the larger Chevrolet Trailblazer.
Toyota C-HR, $21,295: A cacophony of creases, planes and ungainly angles give the Toyota C-HR a wild child demeanor; too bad the driveline didn't get the memo.
Acceleration is leisurely, a feeling exacerbated by the CVT transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive isn't offered. The instrument panel's pleather and piano black trim lend the interior an upscale feel, but the C-HR's styling make the rear seat feel claustrophobic.
Honda HR-V, $20,920: In some ways, the HR-V is the ultimate Honda. It carries far more stuff than you'd expect given its diminutive size, thanks to its folding second row seat. Riding atop the Honda Fit chassis, its responsive handling makes it fun to drive despite its underpowered engine, although it does return excellent fuel economy. Front-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive is a $1,500 option in all but the Touring model.
Mazda CX-3, $20,640: The CX-3's athletically sleek appearance is more than haute couture. It is fun to drive, whether tackling a twisting road or a snow-covered cul-de-sac. The instrument panel lacks the visual clutter common in its competitors and looks as if it comes from a pricier car.
Interior space is adequate up front, but cramped in the rear. Best to fold down the rear seat and expand the 12 cubic-foot cargo hold. All-wheel drive costs an extra $1,400.
Hyundai Kona, $20,400: The over-caffeinated look of the Hyundai Kona cloaks an ingratiating front-wheel-drive subcompact crossover riding atop the Hyundai Accent platform, which starts $4,150 lower. But it's one of the most fun-to-drive CUVs here, despite its merely adequate engine power.
Forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard. All-wheel drive is a $1,400 option.
Ford EcoSport, $19,995: The EcoSport resembles a Ford Edge that's been left in the dryer too long, albeit with tiny tires and short rear overhang that give it an awkward look.
Built using the front-wheel drive Ford Fiesta platform, it's athletic, although the base engine seems short on power. The cabin is unpretentious, yielding to function, not fashion. Rear seat space is tight, but cargo space is decent. Annoyingly, the tailgate swings open, not up. All-wheel drive is optional.
Nissan Kicks, $19,070: Looking modern without seeming goofy, the Kicks handsomely wears the latest in Nissan automotive tailoring. Performance is peppier than you'd expect, although it comes only with front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive isn't available.
Steering is fairly quick and nicely weighted but numb. The cabin is roomy, the seats are comfortably high, and cargo space is a generous 25.3 cubic feet. You'll get a kick out of it.
Chevrolet Trailblazer, $19,000: Larger than the Chevrolet Trax, but inexplicably starting at a lower price, the Trailblazer's unexpectedly large cabin offers good space front and rear, while delivering a comfortable ride given its price.
The base engine comes with front-wheel drive; a more powerful one gets all-wheel drive. Finishes aren't lavish, but they're not cheap either. Of the two Chevrolets here, this is the one to buy.
Kia Soul LX, $17,490: Proving that practicality and haute couture are not mutually exclusive, the Kia Soul is one bodacious box. It's a fun one to drive, with unexpected nuance and poise, although the ride is very stiff.
A six-speed manual is standard; a CVT automatic transmission is a $1,500 option. Front-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive is not offered. And as you'd expect, its cheerfully boxy shape provides for a roomy cabin.
Hyundai Venue, $17,350: America's cheapest CUV, the Hyundai Venue, is a front-wheel-drive hatchback in drag, sharing its driveline with Hyundai's least expensive car, the Accent. But while it's more than a foot shorter than its sedan cousin, the Venue offers more headroom, legroom and an additional 5.3 cubic feet of cargo space. Yes, it costs $2,055 more, or about $39 a month on a 60-month car loan, but it's worth it.