Buying a first new car is a big deal. Shoppers quickly realize that $20, 000 doesn’t go very far when buying new—and they start wondering how low their expectations need to go.
For those millennials not overwhelmed with student-loan debt and able to afford new wheels, several automakers have recently rolled out an affordable new breed of vehicle: the small SUV.
Built on the same platforms as tiny hatchbacks like the Honda Fit and Chevrolet Sonic, these stylish “cute utes” (as they’re affectionately called in the industry) are priced starting about $20, 000. But that quickly escalates by several thousand dollars once popular optional features or all-wheel drive are factored into the sticker price.
So what do you get for your money?
When done well, a tiny SUV delivers room for your stuff, good fuel economy, and a driving position that’s higher than most sedans.
These mini mites make sense for someone living in dense urban environs, where a few inches of vehicle length mean the difference between a parking spot and a parking ticket.
These vehicles could also work well for older drivers because they’re easy to get into, they have upright seats, and they can swallow several golf bags.
With their curb appeal and unique colors, these vehicles may seem attractive in the showroom or during a quick test drive near the dealership.
But as we found in our testing, after a few thousand miles in the real world, their cramped quarters, underpowered engines, noisy cabins, and nervous rides become tedious.
Why? Because they’re all based on crude underpinnings. The HR-V, Renegade, and Trax are also sold in low-cost overseas markets. Their bare-bones suspension setups hurt ride comfort, and manufacturers often spare noise-isolating technology to hit a low sticker price.
Driving in these cute utes quickly becomes a loud, jarring experience, typical of the small-car genre.
As for the value-for-money equation, some subcompact SUVs can cost about the same as a moderately equipped compact SUV once they’re equipped with features most buyers want, such as an automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, and a rear-view camera.
Only the equipment level of the $22, 045 Honda HR-V LX had a price-value equation that made sense to us. But for the $26, 000 or so you’ll spend equipping a Renegade or a Trax, you could move up in size, power, and refinement to our top-rated Subaru Forester or Toyota RAV4 with almost the same level of bells and whistles.
This is a case where shoppers should consider all of their options to ensure they will be happy over the long run and won’t quickly outgrow their cute sport utes.