AUTO REVIEW: The 2021 Kia Seltos Is a Strong New Contender Among Affordable Compact SUVs

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Tribune News Service/TNS) -
Kia Seltos
2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD (Kia/TNS)

Kia’s three-row Telluride not only won North American Utility Vehicle of the Year, Motor Trend SUV of the Year, and Car & Driver’s 10 Best, among many others; it’s so popular that Kia dealers have less than a 10-day supply on hand (a 60-day supply is considered normal). Perhaps that’s why Kia executives are calling it the Sell-U-Ride.

Now comes the Seltos, which slots between the smaller and quirkier Soul — recently redesigned as well — and the Sportage. As is increasingly the case with Kia, the Seltos shares its underpinnings with Hyundai, in this case the Hyundai Kona. That said, the Seltos is larger, with a greater cargo capacity and a slightly higher starting price. Utility aside, the Kia is far better looking than its Hyundai cousin, which is stylistically challenged by an over-caffeinated design and cheap gray plastic cladding reminiscent of a Pontiac Aztek. Instead, the Kia’s black wheel arch cladding is more subdued, blending with front and rear skid plates and chrome trim that lend the Seltos’ appearance a sophisticated sporty off-road classicism, capped by an optional two-tone roof.

The inside story is similarly impressive.

Offered in LX, S, EX and SX trim levels, the asymmetrical dashboard orients its controls towards the driver, although they’re still easily accessible for the front seat passenger. A large, horizontal, hi-res, full-color touchscreen is easy to read, reach and operate. A row of redundant physical buttons underlines the screen, making shortcuts a breeze. The climate control is located beneath that in a row of simple elegant controls. At the base of the center stack is Qi wireless charging, a USB port and space for knick-knacks.

Piano black plastics and a gracefully simple design offset the abundance of hard-grained plastics. Still, it’s a nicely trimmed cabin for the price, and the center stack in particular looks as if it was plucked from a German car rather than a Korean one.

The front seats strike a good balance between comfort and support. The test car’s seat heaters have three settings, and warm up quickly and effectively. The power front driver’s seat electrically adjusts for height, seatback angle and forward/rearward travel, making it easy to find a good driving position. There’s also a manually adjustable tilt/telescopic steering wheel. The front passenger’s seat adjusts fore and aft, and for seatback angle, but not for height. Regardless, they prove to be roomy, as do the surprisingly spacious back seats. A generous cargo area with adjustable height floor allows for substantial cargo flexibility.

Kia Seltos
2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD (Kia/TNS)

The base Seltos engine is a 2.0-liter Atkinson Cycle four-cylinder engine that produces 146 horsepower through a continuously variable transmission. A more powerful 1.6-liter turbocharged four is also offered, and generates 175 horsepower with a seven-speed dual clutch transmission. The EPA rates the 2.0-liter engine at 27 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, with the turbo engine faring slightly worse, but still impressive, at 25 mpg city, 30 highway.

The test vehicle was a top-of-the-line SX Turbo, with the turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and seven-speed dual clutch transmission used in several other Kia models. There’s a hint of turbo lag at initial throttle input, but power comes on quickly in a smooth surge, and throttle response is lively at speed. Coupled with quick steering that has great on-center feel, the Seltos is an easy trucklet to drive smoothly. Emergency braking is impressive.

Despite being an inexpensive crossover, the Seltos shines when the road turns rough, unpaved or curvy. Through the twisting roads of Texas Hill Country, bump absorption was impressive, with no side-to-side rocking or road shock. Even crowned two-lane roads and uneven road surfaces don’t upset the Seltos’ composure. Abrupt maneuvers fail to bring out tire squeal, and the Seltos always proves controllable, with higher cornering limits than you might expect in a mainstream CUV. It’s quite remarkable for this price class, and is a class above in demeanor.

It’s also fun to drive, thanks to an all-wheel drive system that uses torque vectoring to maintain the vehicle’s intended path through corners. There’s also a locking center differential for when the road turns slick, in addition to three selectable driving modes that regulate throttle response, transmission shifts and steering feel.

That said, the lack of steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters is disappointing. Flicking the transmission lever is a lot less thrilling, not to mention less safe since you must remove your right hand from the wheel.

While Kia didn’t provide any 2.0-liter models to test, if the Hyundai Kona is any indication, it will be less entertaining to drive, but still impressive.

The cabin is quiet at speed, although there is some road noise over rough surfaces, but it’s not objectionable. That makes it easier to hear the Bose audio system, and while sound quality is OK, it calls to mind the old truism about the brand — no highs, no lows, must be Bose.

That said, the number of driver assistance systems depends on trim level, with the LX being deprived of most. Instead, opt for the S, with lane departure warning, lane following assist, lane keeping assist, forward collision warning and automatic high-beams. Nevertheless, my favorite is Leading Vehicle Departure Alert, which alerts you when vehicle ahead has pulled away and you haven’t noticed because you’re texting. It works as advertised, flashing a notice in the instrument cluster. But it would be more effective if it also made a sound in conjunction with the on-screen notification, because if you’re busy texting, you won’t notice the screen flashing in front of you.

Even if you’re not texting, you’ll find the Seltos hard to resist. In a segment overstuffed with competitors, the Seltos stands out as a strong new entry that Kia may have a hard time keeping in stock.

Maybe it’s the Selluride Junior?

Kia Seltos
2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD (Kia/TNS)

2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD

Base price: $27,890

Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder

Horsepower/Torque: 195/175

EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 25/30 mpg

Fuel required: Regular

Wheelbase/Length/Width: 103.5/172/70.9 inches

Ground clearance: 7.3 inches

Cargo capacity: 26.6-62.8 cubic feet

Curb weight: 3,317 pounds