The hits keep on coming for Kia. This time it’s the 2021 Kia Seltos, a rugged little SUV with a handsome exterior, good passenger and cargo space, and very good handling for a subcompact vehicle that slots between the Kia Soul and Kia Sportage. With the turbo engine on upper models, it’s right quick.
It’s important to pick the right trim line because Kia goes light on driver assists on the entry Seltos. You’ll probably want middle trim levels, Seltos S Turbo or EX. Option the car right and you can also have a 10.2-inch infotainment display, all-wheel-drive, and reasonable off-roading-lite experiences. Be prepared to live with firm suspension and some cabin noise at highway speeds.
Overall, this is a great first car for people who’d prefer to spend for a new subcompact vehicle rather than, say, a two- or three-year-old compact SUV of the Sportage class. It’s also as an around-town runabout or a car for people who don’t need a status symbol. Although, from a head-on view, it could be mistaken for Kia’s wildly successful Telluride SUV.
The Seltos is based on the Hyundai Kona, which arrived as a 2018 model. The Seltos shipped to global markets a year ago, and now in the US. At 172 inches, it’s 8 inches longer than Kona, also 2 inches taller, which pays off in more cargo space as well as a bit more room in both seating rows. Four adults could go away for the weekend with soft-side luggage in the Seltos without much trouble. In the Kona, the baggage rules would be: If you bring a backpack, it goes inside the duffel, or it rides on your lap because four more backpacks/laptop bags might not fit in the back.
On the Road With Seltos
I test-drove the Seltos S Turbo with all-wheel drive, a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, keyless entry, cruise control (not adaptive cruise), a leather steering wheel, and a reasonable driver-assist package. It gets to 60 mph in about 7 seconds. In a week of driving split between city and highway, I got 28 mpg, about where the EPA sets the combined driving figure.
The seats are supportive and the cockpit shows good build quality, although there are some hard plastics (with no padded trim covering) that attest to the Seltos’ affordable price point. The driver’s knee may scrape the (also not padded) center console. The cargo area is quite spacious for a small car. Handling is good, although the flip side to that is a ride that’s stiffer than passengers might like on highways.
It would have been nice to have had more than one USB jack in a car with seat belts for five, even knowing that automotive-grade jacks can cost automakers $20-plus.
Seltos Trim Lines
The Seltos comes in five trim lines (model variants) – LX, S, S Turbo, EX, and SX – and the trim lines take the place of options packages. The few options include two-tone paint and sunroof, although production constraints currently force you to pick sunroof or two-tone paint, not both. There are two engines, a 146-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a continuously variable transmission, rated at 29 mpg city / 34 mpg highway, and the 175-hp 1.6-liter turbo-four rated at 25 mpg city, 30 mpg highway.
The SX is quite well equipped, with navigation and a 10.25-inch center stack display, which seems huge in such a small car. The six-speaker audio jumps to eight with branded Bose audio and Sound Connected Mood Lamp, meaning lights in the cockpit that pulse in sync with the music. There’s UVO Link telematics, remote start, wireless phone charging, and an additional USB jack. It is the one model with adaptive cruise control and limited autonomous driving, on limited-access highways.
Driver Assists for the Upmarket Models
Kia offers a lot of Seltos driver assists, including SAE Level 2 self-driving (called Highway Driving Assist). But as you browse the Kia site, eventually you’ll find most of it is not on the cheapest model. (Minor annoyance: the Seltos’ underwhelming website only lets you cross-compare three of the five trim lines at a time. The table above, from kia.com, was snipped in segments from the site and stitched together in Photoshop. Harrumph.) The entry LX, $23,110 including shipping, with all-wheel-drive, has no driver assists beyond a reminder to check the rear seats when exiting, as well as the federally mandated backup camera. The Seltos S, the same price but with front-drive, adds a front-windshield camera that provides automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning/lane centering, and automatic high beams.
The S Turbo and EX (both AWD) add blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert. The top trim line, SX, is the only one with full-range adaptive cruise and active driving assistance (Highway Driving Assist), as well as safe exit assist that uses blind-spot warning to keep the left-side doors from opening into approaching traffic. The top-line SX with optional sunroof and premium paint runs $30,055.
Kia has been showing concept off-roader versions of the Seltos and it’s likely one will come to market to compete against smaller Jeeps. (Also to separate Kia from Hyundai in buyers’ mind: Hyundai luxury/mainstream, Kia sporty.) There’s nothing like a Jeep, as Jeep people say, but there’s an opportunity for brands that get serious about off-roading albeit with nice cockpits and good reliability.
Should You Buy the Seltos?
There are several good cars in the subcompact crossover category. As a group, they’re luring passengers away from compact sedans. The Seltos is one of the best and the interior room is good.
The strongest challenger is the new Mazda CX-30, an excellent driving car with great handling, an upscale cockpit, and a quieter ride on the highway. The older, smaller Mazda CX-3 is still a good car, but aging.
The Subaru Crosstrek is highly regarded and has a good reputation for reliability and being able to go lightly off-road, just not over boulders. Also look at the Nissan Rogue Sport, Ford EcoSport, Nissan Kicks, Hyundai Venue, and Honda HR-V.
If you like the Kia family, both the smaller Kia Soul and larger Kia Sportage are first-rate. (The Kia Niro SUV, an inch shorter than the Seltos, is sold as a hybrid/plug-in hybrid.)
As for the Seltos, you should probably avoid the entry model because it lacks driver safety assists. Note that Toyota’s cheapest C-HR LE ($22K) has extensive driver assists, even adaptive cruise control, and the only missing safety assist, blind-spot detection, is on the C-HR XLE ($24K). We’re not recommending the C-HR over the Seltos because it’s got less room, poor visibility, soft acceleration, and lacks all-wheel-drive. But if Toyota can put all that safety tech on every trim line of an entry vehicle, so can Kia.
The S Turbo and EX represent the bang-for-the-buck sweet spot, while the SX is very well equipped for long-distance highway driving, even if it doesn’t ride as smoothly as, say, the larger Sportage. If you’re shopping small SUVs, you need to drive the Seltos. Between Kia and corporate siblings Hyundai and Genesis, they have launched almost 10 vehicles since the start of 2019, and all have been good, excellent, or, in the case of the Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade, and Hyundai Sonata, best-in-class.
- 2018 Nissan Kicks Car Review: Affordable Subcompact SUV for 4 Adults
- 2018 Hyundai Kona Review: Standout New Subcompact SUV
- 2020 Mazda CX-30 Review: The Best Sporty Subcompact SUV