2021 Kia Seltos First Drive: Redefining the Entry-Level SUV

What is Kia’s encore after the crazy-successful Telluride? The subcompact Seltos.

Brand: Kia
Product: Seltos
Release Date: On sale now
Price: $21,990 ($29,485 as tested)
From: kia.com

The Telluride was a raging success for Kia last year. The company swung for the fences and knocked it out of the park, creating a surprisingly luxurious three-row crossover that ended up being the best value in the three-row SUV segment. The Telluride was named America’s best SUV for 2020, was a Car and Driver 10 Best pick, and  is a finalist for World Car of the Year. Even now, Kia can’t ship Tellurides to dealers fast enough; the average turnaround time for them at dealers is a little over a week.

That success raises the expectations for Kia’s next SUV — which happens to be the Seltos, a stylish subcompact crossover arriving for the 2021 model year. It starts for a little under $22,000 — even with all-wheel-drive, if you wish — and tops out around $30,000. It’s shoehorning its way into the Kia lineup between the new Soul and the larger Sportage SUV.

The Seltos plans to grab market share in a segment that grew 18 percent in 2019: subcompact SUVs. As such, Kia gave it about as broad of a mandate as possible. They want the Seltos to appeal to Gen X and Gen Y buyers, but also car-downsizing Boomers and first-car-buying Gen Z-ers.

Kia gave me a vibrant, Starbright Yellow Seltos SX Turbo AWD to drive around Texas Hill Country for a day. Judging from that brief, curated introduction, Kia’s ambition for the Seltos may be warranted. I can’t say whether it will match the Telluride’s award tally. But the Seltos, at least in fully-loaded spec, will blow away most of its segment with its capability, looks and space. And it will reel in some buyers who weren’t even shopping for a subcompact.

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What We Like

The Seltos, at least the version we drove, has a decent transmission. Many subcompacts offer a dispiriting powertrain with a droning CVT to maximize efficiency. Upper-trim Seltos models, however, receive a 175-horsepower, 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. It’s not brilliant, but it provides more driving character than much of this segment. (That said, I suspect there’s a reason Kia didn’t provide the base engine, a 2.0-liter four-pot with a CVT, for the media to sample.)

The Seltos continues Hyundai and Kia’s recent run of producing exceptional-looking SUVs. It’s sharp and sophisticated, a definite aesthetic upgrade over the eccentric Soul and the wide-eyed Sportage. Hyundai and Kia also deliver clean, sensible, well-designed interiors — but think closer to “redone airline terminal” than “opulent living room.”

The Seltos also offers a ton of interior space — enough to transcend segment boundaries. You get 62.8 cubic feet of cargo space with the seats folded. That’s more than the Lexus UX, NX or RX crossovers offer. There’s also ample room for human cargo; Kia claims it beats out the Toyota RAV4 in passenger volume.

Watch Out For

Kia didn’t quite nail luxury here the way it did with the Telluride. (A $22K–$30K car has to make sacrifices somewhere.) A fair amount of road and tire noise enters the cabin; the top-trim “Sofino” seats are leatherette, not leather; cheap plastic is there if you’re looking for it. And while the driver can luxuriate with a 10-way power-adjustable seat, the front passenger is left operating a hand crank.

Also, adventurous does not equal off-road-capable. Kia will show the Seltos kicking up dirt in its ads; the Seltos acquitted itself well on the quick ranch loop that served as our off-road course. But those front and rear skid plates are decorative, not functional. It’s not meant for serious off-road use.

The Seltos also doesn’t have a tow rating. Kia didn’t bother to test for it.

Other Options

One alternative that buyers should consider is the Mazda CX-30 ($21,990+), which has a little more horsepower. Another Seltos rival could be its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Kona ($19,050+). It uses the same engines and runs on the same platform, but it’s smaller and cheaper. It was named one of KBB’s best cars to buy for 2020, and there’s also an awesome electric version. And if you like the idea of the Seltos but can afford to splurge a bit, check out the Mercedes-Benz GLB-Class ($36,600+).

Verdict

The Seltos is charming, attractive and useful. Those qualities make it a noteworthy standout among subcompact crossovers. It offers versatility and value for an entry-level car, though I would level up to at least the S Turbo trim ($25,940) to score the upgraded engine.

I like it, and I’d recommend it. I probably won’t be delivering paeans about it to random people like I did with the Telluride, but Kia deserves to — and presumably will — sell plenty of Seltoses. (Seltoi?)

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Kia hosted us and provided this product for review.

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