Mountain Wheels: Compact Kia Seltos and Hyundai Venue provide smaller Korean SUV options

Positioned between trees and the Soul and Sportage, Kia’s new Seltos is an engagingly upscale small crossover with lots of flashy design.
Courtesy photo

If you’re like me, and you don’t watch cable TV, and you’ve been locked in your house for four months, it’s possible that you’ve missed a few things, especially in the new car world.

The Korean twins of the automotive universe, Kia and Hyundai (and their upscale offshoot, Genesis, which I have never actually seen or driven since its debut as a free-standing brand) have been making great strides in the U.S. market. As you may have heard, it’s practically impossible to get a new Telluride, Kia’s very successful upscale, full-sized SUV.

So let me tell you about two smaller Korean models there’s a chance you may have never heard of, especially in a county where large SUVs are practically the court-ordered vehicle of choice.

One, the Hyundai Venue, hopes to recapture some of the bargain-minded customers it used to serve, as its other products have all magically become larger and more expensive. The other, the Kia Seltos, is a sexier offering that, to me, seemed like a Korean version of the Range Rover Evoque: stylish, glossy, but still only $29,485 in the turbo SX AWD model I drove (a super-base model starts lower than $22,000).

Seltos, designed with much of the Telluride’s upscale (for Kia) flash in mind, sits somewhere between the boxy Soul and the no-longer-tiny Sportage as a bright and flashy urban cruiser with enough flexibility to handle camping duties. I actually enjoyed it more during some gravel-road drives a few months back, where a click of the AWD lock button helped it feel absolutely confident and composed, even on washboard ruts.

The power component is also there if you get the 175-horsepower, 1.6-liter turbo option, which still earned well in excess of its 30 mpg highway rating, assisted in its ease of motion by a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission. A 2.0-liter, four-cylinder with 146 horsepower is the vehicle’s other option, connected to a CVT transmission.

Just as the diminutive Soul still stands out in a crowd, the slightly larger Seltos is definitely a distinctive-looking little machine. I had one in a peculiarly strong Starlight Yellow — sort of a DayGlo, off-greenish shade — and the car is designed in such a fashion to make you guess it’s considerably more expensive than it really is.

You get lots and lots of uniquely textured surfaces, a grille that literally lights up, a glossy black roof and a slightly truncated roof rack and rail system, plus glossy black mirror caps and red wheel centers. In the back, a tall and ultra-stylish brake light arrangement also adds to the wow factor. It also shares a variant of the Telluride’s lighting arrangement, with vertical three-lens fog lamps and chrome-injected, two-level, multilens headlamps and turn signals.

Inside, it’s not quite as glossy, but it’s also bordering on people-friendly roomy, so that’s a bonus. It is literally so black, however, I did not notice a cordless phone charging pad until the day I handed back the keys. Piano black gloss, some very unusual polyangular speaker cones and, well, more black. Also, try your luck at a set of console controls that include a volume knob, a start knob, a single AC temperature control and a three-mode drive control, all of which are basically the same size.

Headroom is just a tad tight and rear visibility a bit impaired by large second-row headrests; second row seating is elevated and passengers get fair but not astounding amounts of legroom, plus reclining seats. 

The cute and pleasant Venue goes a little more austere on the whole package, and the $23,405 SEL model I drove was certainly more reminiscent of the earlier days of vehicles such as the now-upscale Santa Fe, and is, for the love of Pete, the seventh SUV in the company family. Venue is Hyundai’s entry-level offering, 5 inches smaller even than the Kona and comes with a single standard engine, a 1.6-liter with either a six-speed manual or a somewhat more responsive “intelligent” CVT transmission.

Hyundai says the vehicle “empowers the urban entrepreneur lifestyle many consumers experience in today’s fast-paced environment,” or at least perhaps did before COVID-19; I guess that means that it’s affordable, and has space for at least some of the stuff you need to carry around in 31.9 cubic feet of storage, some 25 percent less space than Kona.

The Venue starts at $17,350 and tops out at a $22,050 base price for an all-denim trim model, which I believe is a bit different than the 1978 Levis Edition Jeep CJ-7 my neighbors have parked in front of their house.

It is indeed a tallish little ride, notable for its metallic checkerboard/cross-shapes grille, lower-mounted headlamps and LED running lights, a tall beltline and lots of glass, despite its size. Someone in the American focus group did not tell the Koreans that the wheels look like five-bladed swastikas, something you cannot unsee when you see it the first time.

The driving experience was pretty decent for its basic offerings, and I drifted awfully close to 40 mpg on a drive, with 32 mpg the stated combined total. That CVT, Hyundai’s first attempt at a one-speed transmission, has a simulated gear range that universally goes into the highest spot when you switch to semiautomatic mode or to a buzzier fifth gear when driving in sport mode.

Cabin finishings are still pleasant, however, with a slightly rounded dash covered in stippled plastic, all flowing over some oblong-shaped air vents. The 8-inch information screen is indeed a big deal here, including some hard control buttons. And the climate controls are delightfully bewildering, with three knobs — temperature and fan speed on the outside and a digital display of the fan speed contained inside the middle knob.  

Andy Stonehouse, Summit Daily News
Andy Stonehouse

Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Golden. Contact him at

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