2021 Kia Seltos First Drive Review: Small outside, big inside

The law of supply and demand is a simple concept we’ve understood for centuries, and it remains critical for every company today. When consumer’s preferences change, businesses must adapt. As automotive industry evolves and crossovers have increased in popularity, automakers have had to adjust their product decisions to meet demand.

It’s pretty basic, actually. If crossovers are popular, build more crossovers. The 2021 Kia Seltos represents Kia’s fifth member of its SUV family and will slot between the Soul and Sportage. It offers a more conventional crossover design than the Soul, but it stays on the larger end of the subcompact SUV range. Instead of having one entry per segment, Kia is splintering its niches narrower and narrower yet giving each new entry (hopefully) sufficient differentiation. In this case, the Seltos will bring capabilities like all-wheel drive and a younger style to differentiate it from its two siblings.

There are some similarities, though. The Seltos shares its platform with the Soul and Hyundai Kona, which were recent finalists at MotorTrend’s Car and SUV of the Year, respectively. Although the Soul and Kona share the same wheelbase, the Seltos’ wheelbase is a bit longer, measuring 103.5 inches (1.1 inches longer), while it expands to 172.0 inches in length (6.8 inches longer than the Soul).

Kia is powering the Seltos with the same two engines as its little brother—a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 146 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque and a 1.6-liter turbo that’s good for 175 hp and 195 lb-ft. Just like in the Soul, the naturally aspirated engine is coupled to a CVT, and the turbo gets a seven-speed dual-clutch.

What’s odd is the structure of the trims, as there are two base models—one with less equipment and standard all-wheel drive and another with more features and front-drive. The LX 2.0L AWD and S 2.0L FWD are the two base trims, but you can also get an S with the 1.6-liter engine and AWD or upgrade to the EX with the naturally aspirated motor. The SX serves as the top trim and is only available with the turbo.

We traveled to San Antonio, the heart of the Texas Hill Country, to drive the 2021 Kia Seltos for the first time on American soil and find out how well it’s positioned in the segment—which includes the Jeep Compass, Honda HR-V, and Nissan Rogue Sport.

The first thing I noticed is how well the steering was weighted on the SX 1.6-liter turbo. There’s such responsive feedback and balance that the Seltos can challenge Mazda for the best-handling small SUV title.

Another prop—the suspension. Texas country roads can be in rough shape, and small SUVs tend to deliver harsh jolts on anything but smooth pavement. But whether there were bumps or ruts on the pavement, the Seltos did a great job keeping the body vibrations to a minimum. Having all-wheel drive means you get an independent rear suspension, and we saw exceptional body control on the twisty parts of our drive route, keeping the body planted at all times. (Front-drive models come with a torsion beam).

Unfortunately, only the 1.6-liter has that steering feeling. We had a chance to briefly drive the base 2.0-liter and didn’t notice the same kind of balance, feedback, or weight that we saw on the SX 1.6. Bear that in mind when shopping.

Although I prefer the 2.0-liter for its balance and smoothness, the 1.6-liter feels far quicker. The CVT on the naturally aspirated base engine is quiet and refined, whereas the seven-speed with the 1.6 turbo engine has some jerkiness, especially at low speeds.

But in terms of performance, the 1.6-liter turbo has good punch and feels agile on the road. Both powertrains have three drive modes available—Normal, Smart, and Sport. Like its name suggests, Sport turns things a bit more dynamic, and you’ll feel the steering stiffen a bit while the transmission will hold gears longer. Smart will change depending on the driving conditions and how aggressively you’re driving. That said, the EX trim with the 2.0-liter engine felt lighter than the SX 1.6T I drove most of the day.

Regardless of which engine or trim you drive, you’ll hear some wind noise at high speeds, but tire noise is minimal. Most folks will drive the Seltos on pavement most of the time, but the AWD system includes a center locking differential that can split the power equally between the front and rear axle for better traction when you’re off-asphalt. A downhill crawl assist feature also comes with this traction system.

Inside, the Seltos is profoundly spacious for a vehicle of its size. Whether you sit in the front or the rear, there’s space for four adults and their gear. With the driver’s seat adjusted to my 6-foot-tall frame, there’s still enough legroom in back, and those sitting in the back also have sufficient headroom. The rear seat backs also recline, making the seating position even more comfortable. Those seats can fold completely flat, and the cargo floor can be lowered by about 3 inches, giving you more space to haul your stuff.

Although you’ll feel hard plastics on the dashboard and door panels, there are soft surfaces on the armrests. The leather of the seats on the SX feels a bit rough, but it’s better quality over the EX’s leatherette. Still, the materials are decent for a model under $30,000.

The 10.3-inch screen looks premium for an entry-level SUV, though it’s only for the top-trim SX. During our drive, the screen froze a couple of times while using Apple CarPlay; pressing the media button would solve the problem, but it was annoying not being able to swap through apps or even change the song through the display. All other trims get an 8.0-inch screen with CarPlay, Android Auto, and Sirius XM. The infotainment system is easy to use and pretty quick to respond, but I wish it had better graphics.

All Seltos models arrive with two USB ports; EX and SX trims add one USB port, air vents for rear-seat passengers, and a one-zone automatic climate control system. Part of what distinguishes the Seltos’ interior from the rest is the fractal-like design of the speakers, which adds a young vibe to the cabin. For the first time in a Kia, a Bose sound system is available, and it delivers crisp sound throughout the cabin thanks to its eight speakers.

And although we weren’t able to see this in person because we drove in daylight, the top trim also adds disco-like mood lighting, which will change the color of the ambient lighting depending on the melody of the song—a feature that came straight from the Soul.

Safety wise, there are a slew of optional driver assistance systems, including smart cruise control, lane keep assist, and even blind-spot collision avoidance, which will apply the brakes if there’s a vehicle on your blind spot when trying to change lanes. Rear cross-traffic collision avoidance assist can also apply the brakes in case there’s traffic moving behind you when you reverse, and leading vehicle departure alert will notify the driver when the vehicle in front is moving.

Kia is pricing the Seltos at $23,110 for the LX AWD and S FWD base models. Adding all-wheel drive to the S adds $1,500. The S with the 1.6-liter engine costs $26,610, while the EX with the 2.0-liter engine and the SX with the turbo are available for $26,410 and $29,010, respectively. Although the starting price is very close to the Sportage’s base model, higher trims don’t see as much of a price hike. Other competitors, however, have a lower base price, such as Honda’s HR-V.

Overall, Kia has supplied the Seltos with the style, interior space, and technology to stand out in a segment that’s seeing demand soar. And you’re not only getting the looks; the Seltos delivers on the handling and fun factors. By splitting up the segment, Kia is strategically positioning the Seltos as the hot option.























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