• First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos

First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos

A Vicious Korean Uppercut Into The Subcompact Crossover Segment

William Clavey By: William Clavey March 3, 2020


    • What's Good: Solid value proposition, Highest cargo hold in its class, Fun and engaging to drive
    • What's Bad: Turbo engine only available on top-tier trim level, Buzzy 2.0L engine, Dual-clutch gearbox a little rough around the edges

AUSTIN, TEXAS – If you find there are way too many crossovers and SUVs on the market, wait until you read about this one: the 2021 Kia Seltos. Yup, it’s yet another, the sixth with a Kia badge, and slotting between a Soul and/or a Niro (this is becoming hard to follow) and a Sportage.

In all fairness, Kia still didn’t have a subcompact all-wheel-drive crossover to take on highly popular models like the Honda HR-V, Nissan Qashqai, Mazda CX-30, Ford EcoSport, Mitsubishi RVR, Jeep Renegade, and—ahem—Hyundai Kona. So here it is, the Seltos, another solid Korean punch that’ll hit hard when it arrives in Canadian showrooms this spring.

Understanding What People Want

The 2021 Kia Seltos’ standout feature really is its value-packed proposition. The final presentation is so good, that its packaging seems to have been thought up by the ultimate masters of the art, presenting itself as a perfectly sized utility vehicle.

Yes, it’s based on a Hyundai Kona, but Kia went through great lengths to allow the Seltos to look, feel and drive like its own thing. During the entire presentation in Austin, Kia spokespeople shoved the reminder down our throats that this is not a Kona for a full hour.

For instance, the wheelbase, while borrowed from its corporate cousin, was slightly stretched and the entire roof was raised, so it’s roomier, especially out the rear.

First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos

First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos

Such dimensional manipulation has a direct impact on the vehicle’s overall cargo space, which allows the Seltos to stand tall over the entire segment. The trunk is massive for its size with 752 liters of space, and stretching its wings to a full 1,778 liters when its rear seat is folded flat. That’s more than the current segment leader, the Nissan Qashqai (1,730 liters).

Pricing ranges between $22,995 for a base front-wheel-drive Seltos and all the way to $34,505 for a full-spec AWD SX Turbo. Again. Well priced. And unlike its other cousin, the Hyundai Venue, the Seltos can be had with all-wheel-drive. That feature kicks off at $24,995.

Two engines power Kia’s Greek-named crossover. The entire lineup essentially utilizes a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder good for 146 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque, mated to a continuously automatic transmission Kia calls iVT. This engine can be had with both front-and all-wheel-drive.

First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos

First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos

The Seltos SX Turbo, on the other hand, gets a turbocharged 1.6-liter four mated exclusively with all-wheel-drive. Power is rated at 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. The only gearbox available for that one is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Unfortunately, this drivetrain is only available when you opt for that single most expensive trim. Kia should offer this engine as a standalone option on the more affordable variants.

Actually Fun

There’s an overall sense of quality when driving the Seltos, a feature which further accentuates its value proposition.

While material quality is within a similar scope as other vehicles in this class, it’s the execution that really allows the Seltos to set itself apart. Fit and finish is immaculate, and the entire cabin appears to be worth more than it is thanks to clever use of surface materials and patterns that fool the eye. In this regard, only the Mazda CX-30 feels more upscale.

The Seltos’ beefed up cabin certainly allows it to be easier to get in and out of than a Kona, something I personally enjoyed given my six-foot frame. It’s the same story out the rear, where legroom is considerably better than its Korean relative. This remains a small vehicle, however, so don’t expect it to be as roomy as a RAV4 or a CR-V, for instance.

No matter the engine you choose, though, the Seltos is fun and engaging to drive.

First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos

First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos

It doesn’t provide hot hatchback performance, but you’ll be happy to know the Seltos can be thrashed hard and will take the abuse. The base 2.0-liter engine isn’t very powerful, but it’ll rev eagerly to redline if you command it to do so, and the CVT gearbox will quickly respond to your orders if you need to get somewhere in a hurry. The only real complaint we noticed with that engine is how loud and buzzy it can get when put through its paces.

The Seltos has a nimble, European feel to the way it handles a corner. The entire structure is rock solid, and there’s an enjoyable level of resistance in the steering wheel we quite liked. We feel like Kia engineers cared enough to make the Seltos fun to drive, a quality that’s becoming increasingly rare in this category of vehicles.

The 1.6 turbo, meanwhile, is a peach of an engine. Sure, turbo lag is there, which does hinder its low-speed performance, but once it starts boiling, it pulls strong and provides ample acceleration given the Seltos’ weight. We had more fun flogging this little Kia on sunny Texan roads than we should have and couldn’t ignore its charming personality. We recommend opting for this turbo engine if you can afford it.

The dual-clutch gearbox works well at maximizing this engine’s high-revving character. Shifts are quick, and when you set the thing into sport mode, you get a set of cool shift lights in the dashboard that add to the Seltos’ already feisty personality.

First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos

First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos

We would, however, have appreciated some paddle shifters like in a Forte GT, and we continue to find this gearbox rough around the edges when driven calmly. It stutters, knocks, and simply feels unrefined.

But these are minor caveats that the target consumer will probably never notice. Kia understood that most subcompact crossover buyers will look for value, space and technology before spirited performance, which explains why the turbo engine is reserved for only one trim level.

It’s packed with cool creature comforts and tech, like leather seats, a heated steering wheel, a sunroof, dual phone connectivity, the ability to find your Seltos with your phone if you lose it, and an optional Bose sound system that’ll play relaxing noises like waterfalls and chirping birds – all for under 30 grand.

In other words, Kia may very well have swung yet another homerun with the Seltos, one that should allow it to please families with its value all while taking a strong leap ahead of some rivals.

2021 Kia Seltos

BODY STYLE: Subcompact crossover
CONFIGURATION: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive
ENGINE: 2.0-liter four cylinder (146 hp / 132 lb-ft) / 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (175 hp / 195 lb-ft)
TRANSMISSION : Continuously variable automatic (CVT) / Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
FUEL ECONOMY: 2.0L FWD: 7.7L combined / 8.2L city / 7.1L/100 km highway  – 2.0L AWD: 8.2L combined / 8.8 city / 7.6L/100 km highway – 1.6T AWD: 8.7L combined / 9.4L city / 7.9L/100 km highway
OBSERVED FUEL ECONOMY: 8,4L / 100 km (2.0L) – 9,2L/100 km (1.6T)
CARGO CAPACITY 752 liters (1,730 liters total)
PRICE: $22,995 – $34,505 (as tested)