Kia’s newest SUV is a slick machine, as long as you don’t look too closely.
With the tall-hatchback Soul and the compact Sportage, one might think Kia has the crossover market covered. But there's enough room between the former’s front-drive-only configuration and the latter’s near-$24,000 price for the sporty, stylish 2021 Kia Seltos, a subcompact CUV that’s built on the same architecture as the characterful Hyundai Kona, but packaged with much more traditionally handsome SUV styling.
Slotting in between the Soul and the Sportage, the fast-selling Seltos vies for the wallets and pocketbooks that likely cross-shop the Chevrolet Trailblazer, Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-30, and aforementioned Kona. With a rugged appearance and surprisingly sporty driving dynamics (courtesy of our tester’s optional turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-four), the Seltos offers a lot to small-SUV shoppers. That said, they might be turned off by its sub-par interior quality for the price. Thus, the case of the Seltos is a battle between style and substance – coming to a verdict depends entirely on the buyer’s priorities.
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The 2021 Kia Seltos, particularly in SX Turbo trim, is possibly the best looking vehicle in its segment. The “tiger nose” grille, long a signature of the South Korean automaker, is a bit different than before, dovetailing directly into the LED headlights thanks to a unique eyebrow that extends out from the upper grille notch. The headlights themselves have an unusual shape, making a bold statement that’s aided by a surprisingly tough underbody skid plate in the lower half of the front bumper.
The taillights boast geometric LED accents that recall the headlight’s scallops, but the Seltos loses points with its fake exhaust graphic in the rear bumper. Helping matters, our tester’s 18-inch wheels give the Seltos a planted, sporty stance. Two-tone paint, separated by a tasteful piece of chrome trim, calls attention to the small SUV’s jaunty D-pillar – this example is a formal Cherry Black over Clear White, but if it were our cash, we’d pick the distinctive black and Starlight Yellow scheme. Rocker panel cladding is par for the small-SUV course, rising toward the rear and reducing the Seltos’ visual height.
Interior styling is pure modern Kia, with a freestanding, 10.3-inch center infotainment screen running the company’s UVO software. Leather wraps the thick-rimmed steering wheel and chunky shift selector on every Seltos trim except the base LX, and our SX Turbo tester gets convincing faux leather on the seats, accented by honeycomb-shaped perforations. Some of our favorite design features are the three-dimensional tessellations that serve as speaker grilles, and at night, those speakers light up and pulsate to the music. The effect is a bit gaudy, but it adds to the fun.
Unfortunately, looking at the interior is a lot more enjoyable than sitting in it. The center console, dash top, switch surrounds, and door panels are all molded in rigid, unyielding plastic, with the only respite being the center and door armrests. The materials are also unacceptably shiny in addition to feeling down-market. The dashboard casts downright hazardous reflections on the windshield in broad daylight – entering an underground parking garage from a sunny street required peeking out the side window to ensure the path ahead was clear.
In spite of its lackluster interior materials, the Kia Seltos is a reasonably comfortable commuter. The front seats offer adjustable, well-placed lumbar support and good cushioning for long drives, although the seat bottom is too short for anyone with more than a 28-inch inseam. A reclining rear seatback is somewhat unusual in this class of vehicle, and it’s a welcome addition to a spacious and comfortable back seat.
According to Kia, the Seltos gets 40.0 inches of front and 38.4 inches of rear headroom, numbers that match the Chevrolet Trailblazer and beat out the Mazda CX-30, Honda HR-V, and Hyundai Kona. At 41.4 inches of front and 38.0 of rear legroom, the Seltos is class-competitive and spacious enough for four passengers. That said, the Honda, Hyundai, and Mazda all beat the Seltos up front, and the Honda and Chevy offer more stretch-out space in the rear, too. Even so, only the tallest passengers will complain about space, and everyone else will be fine.
There’s also plenty of cargo volume; with the adjustable rear load floor in its lowest position, the Seltos can haul along 26.6 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 62.8 cubic feet with them folded. That’s quite a bit more than any of the aforementioned competitors. The Trailblazer comes closest with the seats up, at 25.3 cubes, while the HR-V tries its best to hit 55.9 cubes with its rear seats folded. Somewhat surprisingly, the Seltos’ Hyundai Kona cousin comes up rather short, with just 19.2 and 45.8 cubic feet of luggage space, seats up and down.
More plaudits go to the technology found in the 2021 Kia Seltos. A 7.0-inch driver information display appearing between two analog gauges make for a simple, intuitive, and informative instrument cluster. UVO infotainment is familiar and easy to operate, and the SX Turbo comes with embedded navigation, although it went mostly unused despite its attractive graphics – blame standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The sound coming from the Bose-branded, illuminated speakers (also unique to the SX trim) was adequate, with hissing high notes countered by decent mid and low tones.
Setting the subcompact Seltos family apart from other crossovers is its available turbocharged powertrain. While the LX, S, and EX trims come standard with a 2.0-liter, port-injected inline-four, the S Turbo and SX boast a boosted 1.6-liter four making a healthy 175 horsepower and 195 pound-feet. What’s more, the turbo engine comes exclusively with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, offering a big improvement in response and sportiness over the standard engine’s continuously variable transmission.
Weighing in at 3,317 pounds, the SX Turbo has plenty of hustle for a small crossover, and it also corners with some verve. That’s due to a multi-link rear suspension that helps keep the tire contact patch consistent – competitors, like the CX-30, HR-V, and Trailblazer, use a less sophisticated torsion-beam rear axle. Quick steering (2.5 turns lock to lock) and a 34.8-foot turning radius give the Seltos surprisingly zesty reflexes on twisty roads.
The Seltos SX Turbo also includes a center differential lock that keeps the rear axle engaged, improving traction in extreme weather. Furthermore, hill descent control would provide greater stability off-road – we didn’t test either feature in our sunny, pleasant week with the Seltos, but the hardware is certainly more rugged than in many crossover SUVs outside the Jeep line. Another pleasant shock? Even the base Seltos LX comes standard with all-wheel drive, although the buyer can choose a slightly better equipped Seltos S with front-wheel drive for the same price.
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What the Seltos LX is missing, however, is standard active safety. For that, shoppers must climb one rung up into a Seltos S, which includes automatic emergency braking, forward collision monitoring, and lane-keep assist, but confusingly offers all-wheel drive as a $1,500 option. All of that’s immaterial to the top-spec, all-wheel-drive-only Kia Seltos SX Turbo, which includes just about every safety and technology feature Kia has in its arsenal.
In addition to forward collision prevention technology, the SX gets blind spot monitoring and collision avoidance (shared with the mid-level EX trim) and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality and Highway Driving Assist. Working with lane-keep assistance and adaptive cruise control, Highway Driving Assist reduces driver fatigue and keeps the Seltos centered in the lane, even on gentle freeway curves. It’s not a hands-off system, but it’s otherwise very advanced.
With the zippy turbocharged engine, the Kia Seltos gets 25 city, 30 highway, and 27 combined miles per gallon – we saw about 24 mpg during a week of spirited, in-town driving. Helping fuel economy is engine start/stop, as well as an Eco mode that blunts the throttle severely, encouraging the driver to make careful speed adjustments in the name of economy.
The turbo’s fuel economy is down a bit from the base engine’s 27 city, 31 highway, and 29 combined mpg, but it’s still competitive with the class. The all-wheel-drive Mazda CX-30 gets 24 city, 31 highway, 26 combined, while the Trailblazer RS AWD achieves 26/30/28. Equipped with the same 1.6-liter turbo as the Seltos, the Kona gets 26 mpg city, 29 highway, and 27 combined mpg. The teacher’s pet of the class is the Honda HR-V, which drinks fuel at a rate of 26 mpg city, 31 highway, and 28 combined in all-wheel-drive form.
The subcompact-crossover class trades heavily on value, and the Seltos delivers. A low starting price of $21,990 is a reasonable deal given the LX model’s space and standard all-wheel drive – spend the same money to get a Seltos S with front-wheel drive and more active safety tech. We drove the top-rung Seltos SX Turbo, which starts at $27,890 and rises to $29,925 as tested, thanks to $130 floor mats, a $95 cargo mat, $345 worth of two-tone paint, and a $1,130 destination charge. To us, under $30k seems reasonable given the torquey turbo engine, spacious cabin, and user-friendly technology features – tacky materials notwithstanding.
The Mazda CX-30 Premium AWD, by comparison, starts at $29,950, with a slightly smaller cabin, less torque, and not as much rough-road capability (but a far nicer cabin). The Chevrolet Trailblazer Activ is $27,000, although adaptive cruise control isn’t included in its lower cost of entry. The Honda HR-V EX-L AWD gets genuine leather and a long list of active safety features for its starting price of $27,320, although it makes just 141 hp. Finally, the closely related Hyundai Kona Ultimate asks at least $29,450 when equipped with all-wheel drive.
At the beginning of our test, we pondered what priorities would matter most to this segment’s theoretical customer, and with lots of space and eager performance, the Kia certainly seems like a strong pick. That said, the 2021 Seltos is a higher-quality dashboard away from being an unqualified class winner.
Seltos Competitor Reviews
Gallery: 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo Review
2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo