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2023 Affordable SUV Challenge: Which SUV Is the Best Value for the Money?

kia seltos sx turbo awd 2024 02 exterior dynamic profile scaled jpg 2024 Kia Seltos | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

In our recent comparison test of affordable small SUVs, we gave greater weight to the value portion of our scoring because shoppers looking at these vehicles are likely budget-minded and want their money to go as far as possible. To do this, we increased the category’s maximum number of points and reworked the criteria we used to score each SUV’s value. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the most expensive vehicle in the test, the 2024 Kia Seltos SX Turbo, tied for first place in our value scoring with the least expensive vehicle in our test, the 2024 Chevrolet Trax Activ. Read on to find out how these two very different SUVs ended up with the same value score.

Related: What’s the Best Affordable SUV of 2023?

How Do We Calculate Value?

To calculate value, we consider both as-tested features and as-tested price; we’re only judging the specific vehicles in front of us, not the model as a whole.

From our scoring breakdown: The value score is based on both features and as-tested price, with equal points for the two variables — up to 30 points for features and another 30 points based on price. Comfort and convenience features we look for include all-wheel drive; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, whether wired or wireless; wireless charging; the number and location of USB ports; moonroof type; a power front-passenger seat; memory front seats; heated and ventilated seats; steering-wheel heating; multizone climate control; cargo-area seat-folding releases; liftgate operation; the extent of bumper-to-bumper and powertrain warranties; and whether no-cost scheduled maintenance is included.

For the price component of the score, the least expensive SUV gets the maximum 30 points, with the other SUVs awarded proportionate whole-number points based on their prices. The points for features and price are then added together and multiplied by three for a maximum weighted score of 180 points.

How Did the Chevrolet Trax Get Here?

chevrolet trax activ 1 2l turbo 2024 03 exterior front angle scaled jpg 2024 Chevrolet Trax | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

With an as-tested price of just $26,540 (all prices include destination), the Trax was the most affordable vehicle in our test and also $2,765 less than the second-most affordable Toyota Corolla Cross Hybrid. The bulk (73%) of the Trax’s 123 points in the value category come from its lowest-in-test price.

The remaining 27% of the score came from its included features. The Trax was decently equipped and earned points for things like its heated steering wheel, heated front seats, moonroof and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity and wireless device charging.

Having the lowest price and a solid list of features is a good way to win (or in this case, tie for first place) in this category. It also helped the Trax overcome a significant penalty we’d built into the scoring for vehicles without all-wheel drive; in essence, front-wheel-drive vehicles like the Trax gave up 15 points after taking into account the category’s weighting. To wit, the other FWD vehicle in the comparison, the Volkswagen Taos, finished last in our value scoring.

How Did the Kia Seltos Get Here?

kia seltos sx turbo awd 2024 03 exterior front angle scaled jpg 2024 Kia Seltos | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

The 2024 Kia Seltos SX Turbo took the opposite path to its shared value win. As the most expensive vehicle in the test — $33,085 as-tested, or $6,545 more expensive than the Trax — it was awarded the lowest number of points (23) for its value score’s price component. After its overall score had been weighted, the pricing component represented 56% of the 123-point total.

The difference was made up by the Seltos’ strong list of features and the best warranty in our test: five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage. The Seltos was the only vehicle in the test with a power liftgate — and it had hands-free operation. It was also the only vehicle in the test with ventilated front seats. The Seltos did lose points in our features accounting for its lack of wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and lack of a heated steering wheel. It also lost points for not having dual-zone automatic climate control, only having a single-zone system.

It’s worth noting that the Seltos came in last place in a separate cost-conscious category: real-world fuel economy. The Seltos, with its optional turbocharged four-cylinder engine, had significantly worse fuel economy than all other vehicles in our test at the end of our 200-mile drive route with an average of 28.4 mpg. (Also worth noting: While the Seltos had the lowest fuel-economy score, it still was the overall winner of the comparison test.)

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What Does It All Mean?

One thing we constantly emphasize in our comparison tests is that the shopper needs to consider what’s most important to them when looking at the results. If fuel efficiency matters most, for example, the 2023 Toyota Corolla Cross Hybrid is the clear leader; however, the base S trim level we tested did not score well in many of the subjective categories it was judged on or in the features portion of our value scoring.

The lesson here is that you can spend much less on a small SUV these days and still get a very good one in the Trax Activ, though you won’t get AWD. If you’re willing to spend more, you can get something like the Seltos SX Turbo that has upscale features and a premium feel. Which side of the value coin you choose is up to you; we’re just here to help.

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Photo of Brian Normile
Road Test Editor Brian Normile joined the automotive industry and Cars.com in 2013, and he became part of the Editorial staff in 2014. Brian spent his childhood devouring every car magazine he got his hands on — not literally, eventually — and now reviews and tests vehicles to help consumers make informed choices. Someday, Brian hopes to learn what to do with his hands when he’s reviewing a car on camera. He would daily-drive an Alfa Romeo 4C if he could. Email Brian Normile

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