• 2021 Kia Seltos - Driven

The Kia Seltos - a car that avoids the flaws commonly found in the subcompact crossover market

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The subcompact crossover class has so much potential. Best-selling “compact” models like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, and Chevrolet Equinox have gotten fantastically spacious, refined — and expensive. A modern CR-V or RAV4 is just as big, fancy, and costly as midsize models used to be. For lots of people, they’re still a great deal: for as little as $25,000, you get ample space for four or even five adults and their stuff, all the latest advanced safety features, a fully featured touchscreen infotainment system, and great gas mileage. But lots of people don’t need or even want something this big, or at least aren’t eager to pay for it. So most automakers now offer a subcompact model that’s smaller and less expensive than their compact.

What’s puzzling, though, is how flawed most of these subcompact crossovers have proven to be. Many of them are polarizing styling statements, sometimes with looks that compromise their utility even more than their scaled-down dimensions do. A surprising number of them offer no all-wheel-drive. Some suffer from execution flaws like underpowered yet inefficient engines, compromised interior layouts, or clumsy driving dynamics. Each model that gets a lot right has also had at least one serious flaw — whether it’s the fun-to-drive but cramped Hyundai Kona and Mazda CX-3 and CX-30; the spacious but slow, noisy Honda HR-V; the pleasant but overpriced Nissan Rogue Sport; the off-road-ready, on-road-jerky Jeep Renegade and Subaru Crosstrek; or a host of other would-be contenders. That’s to say nothing of the ones that, well, don’t get a lot right. Why, oh why, couldn’t someone just take everything that people love about a compact crossover and simply make it a little smaller and less expensive?

At long last, that call has been answered. The all-new 2021 Kia Seltos is a mechanical cousin to the Hyundai Kona, but it’s taller and longer. And that’s just what was needed to address the Kona’s lower, more car-like seating position and its tight rear seating. This makes the Seltos the first truly well-rounded subcompact crossover, delivering all-around competence with no disastrous downsides. It’s handsome, functional, fun to drive, fuel-efficient, and affordable. While no car is perfect — certain buyers will gravitate toward the specific advantages of some Seltos competitors — this is the only subcompact crossover that has something for just about everyone.


2021 Kia Seltos - Driven Exterior
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So many subcompact crossovers look like the slightly taller hatchbacks that they are. These are not very tall, their roofs curve down toward the rear of the vehicle, and they have gentle front-end designs.

The 2021 Kia Seltos looks more like an SUV — not aggressively so like a Jeep Renegade, but it’s confidently upright and boxy and won’t be mistaken for a car. And it’s neither dull nor overly decorated with design flourishes, a perfect balance.
2021 Kia Seltos - Driven Exterior
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Up at the front, the Seltos has slim headlights that are stacked above smaller, chunkier units; they stretch from the lightly chromed grille to wrap around the front fender, providing a European flavor. The beltline jumps up only after the rear passenger door, and chrome window trim extends beyond it to the generously sized rear windshield. Unique touches include roof rails that stick out beyond their mounting points, thin LED bands across the top of the grille, and reverse indicators embedded in rear chrome trim. Rugged-looking plastic adorns the lower parts of the bumpers and doors. All models are dressed up with alloy wheels of at least 17 inches (our tested mid-level S Turbo wears 18-inchers), and all but the base LX trim level have foglights.

The Seltos is a whopping 8 inches longer than the Hyundai Kona and 2.6 inches taller, though not any wider. It clearly looks more upright than its cousin, and it’s one of the largest models in the subcompact class — closer, in fact, to Kia’s own Sportage than to the Kona’s length and height.

2021 Kia Seltos - Driven Interior
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This makes room for the Seltos to offer a more elevated, SUV-like seating position than most subcompacts.

You also get a higher rear seat with more leg and foot space than the Kona and most other competitors, making the Seltos a functional family car. Cargo space improves to 26.6 cubic feet behind the rear seat from the Kona’s 19.2 cubic feet, while the rear seat folds easily to create 62.8 cubic feet compared to the Kona’s 45.8 cubic feet.

That’s not much behind some compacts, though models like the CR-V and Rogue continue to have a commanding advantage. The Seltos’ adjustable-height cargo floor can be lowered to maximize space behind the rear seat or raised to be flush with the folded seatbacks.

The Seltos’ dashboard is solidly built, user-friendly, and unobjectionably designed. As on many modern cars, Kia lowered the dashboard and perched the infotainment screen on the top. The big 8-inch screen on most Seltos models including our test car has drab colors but a user-friendly interface, and it’s flanked by simple buttons and knobs. The top SX trim has a huge 10.25-inch screen.

2021 Kia Seltos - Driven Interior
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Bizarrely, you need an uplevel Seltos model to get more than one USB port, and even then it’s just one port for the front seat and one for the rear. Most cabin materials aren’t opulent, but the trim pieces fit together well and seem sturdy. And all but the base LX have dressy upholstery — a mix of cloth and leatherette on the S and S Turbo, and full leatherette on the EX and SX. Origami-like creasing on the door panels speakers is one of the few whimsical touches inside the Seltos, with the rest of the cabin being more straightforward and businesslike.


2021 Kia Seltos - Driven Interior
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The Seltos delivers a pleasant, moderately sporty driving flavor. While it doesn’t feel as dialed-in and hunkered-down as the lower, smaller Hyundai Kona, it’s no snoozer like the Nissan Rogue Sport or a number of other competitors. The Kia’s steering is lighter than the Hyundai’s but still agreeably responsive, and the Seltos takes corners with aplomb. The ride on our test car’s 18-inch wheels was a little busy on the highway and a little stiff over bumps, and road noise could intrude into the cabin, but it wasn’t too objectionable.

Powertrains are generally shared with the Kona, though there are some differences.

2021 Kia Seltos Picture Gallery
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There are two engines to choose from: 2.0-liter or 1.6-liter Turbo four-cylinder
The base engine is a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder that makes 146 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque, about average for the segment.

The engine offers decent pep but some engine racket, especially given that it’s paired to a CVT automatic transmission. That’s our first difference from the Hyundai Kona, which uses a conventional six-speed automatic.

The 2.0 CVT combination is shared with the Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra compact sedans, and it helps the base Seltos get one mpg better than the comparable Kona even though the Hyundai is smaller. The EPA estimates 29 mpg in the city, 34 mpg on the highway, and 31 mpg overall — among the best figures in the subcompact crossover class — for the Seltos with the 2.0-liter engine and front-wheel-drive. AWD cuts those figures to 27 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, and 29 mpg overall.

2021 Kia Seltos - Driven Exterior
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Our test car had the available 1.6-liter turbocharged engine and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, a combination shared with the Kona. However, in the other main difference between the Seltos and Kona, the Kia offers this powertrain only with all-wheel-drive while the Hyundai also offers a front-wheel-drive turbocharged Kona.

2021 Kia Seltos specifications
Type 2.0L Multi-Port Injection (MPI) Atkinson engine 1.6L Turbo Gasoline Direct Injection (GDI)
Displacement (cc) 1,999 cc 1,591 cc
Bore x stroke (mm) 81 mm x 97 mm 77 mm x 85.44 mm
Compression ratio 12.5:1 10.0:1
Horsepower 146 hp @ 6,200 rpm 175 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 132 lb.-ft. @ 4,500 rpm 195 lb.-ft. @ 1,500-4,500 rpm
With 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque, this is one of the mightiest engines you’ll find in a subcompact crossover, and it’s strong and smooth. Select Sport mode and this little SUV surges gleefully off the line; for more settled-down behavior, Normal and Smart modes work fine.
2021 Kia Seltos - Driven Exterior
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The turbo engine is quieter than the 2.0-liter, which is good because it has to work at nearly 2,500 rpm at 70 mph. The EPA rates the turbo Seltos at 25 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the highway, and 27 mpg overall; we beat even the highway estimate, averaging 31 mpg in mixed driving with more open roads than stop-and-go. Note that 27 mpg would be merely average even for an all-wheel-drive compact crossover, but many subcompacts — even those with a lot less power than the turbo Seltos — are less economical than you might expect. Unlike our experience in some recent Hyundai/Kia models with a dual-clutch transmission, our Seltos always shifted smoothly, as did a Kona we tested last year. No conventional manual is available with either engine.


2021 Kia Seltos - Driven Exterior
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The 2021 Kia Seltos has two trim levels that start at $21,990 (plus a $1,120 destination charge): the LX, which includes all-wheel-drive as standard equipment, and the S, which has more features but charges an extra $1,500 for all-wheel-drive.

The LX includes the 8-inch infotainment screen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration, just one USB port, 17-inch alloy wheels, and a six-speaker sound system. The S brings a suite of driver-assistance features: a forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian-detection capability, a lane-departure warning with lane-keeping and lane-centering automatic steering assistance, automatic high beams, and a driver attention warning. It also adds leatherette seat bolsters, leather trim on the steering wheel and shift knob, heated exterior mirrors, and foglights. All-wheel-drive is bundled with heated front seats, too.

2021 Kia Seltos - Driven Interior
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The S Turbo model starts at $25,490 with standard all-wheel-drive, a $2,000 jump from the 2.0-liter S with all-wheel-drive. In addition to a zippier, quieter engine, that money buys 18-inch wheels, blind-spot monitoring, a rear cross-traffic alert, and rear automatic emergency braking. If you’d rather have luxury than performance, you can get the EX with the base 2.0-liter engine for $25,290. It has all-wheel-drive, full leatherette upholstery, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, keyless entry with push-button starting, a sunroof, automatic climate control, a wireless smartphone charger, and — at last — a second USB port.

The top SX trim level puts everything together, luxury and performance, at $27,890. You have to add back the sunroof for another $700, but it otherwise combines the S Turbo’s powertrain with the EX’s luxury features. SX-exclusive features include the 10.25-inch touchscreen, LED headlights, an eight-speaker Bose sound system, and adaptive cruise control. That’s a strong deal for under $30,000, and any Seltos trim is well-equipped for the money when you consider its spaciousness and enjoyable driving manners.

2021 Kia Seltos prices
Seltos S 2.0L MPI - IVT (FWD) $21,990.00
Seltos LX 2.0L MPI - IVT (AWD) $21,990.00
Seltos S 2.0L MPI - IVT (AWD) $23,490.00
Seltos EX 2.0L MPI - IVT (AWD) $25,290.00
Seltos S 1.6T 1.6L T-GDI - 7DCT (AWD) $25,490.00
Seltos SX 1.6L T-GDI - 7DCT (AWD) $27,890.00


2020 Hyundai Kona

2021 Kia Seltos - Driven
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Sharing many components and its value focus with the Seltos, the Hyundai Kona is a natural competitor. The Kona is the one to choose if sportier handling matters more to you than a roomy interior or high seating position, and if you aren’t wedded to all-wheel-drive, Hyundai has more configurations to choose from (the only front-wheel-drive Seltos trim level is the mid-level S with no turbo). But the Seltos has a lot more room without giving up too much fun.

Read our full review on the 2020 Hyundai Kona

2020 Nissan Rogue Sport

The 2020 Nissan Rogue Sport Is Semi-Autonomous But Still Only With An N/A Engine
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The Nissan Rogue Sport comes the closest to the Seltos’ approach of “compact crossover, just a bit smaller.” It’s not low or funky-looking; it’s designed to be a mainstream choice, not a quirky one. In fact, under the Qashqai name, it’s one of the best-selling vehicles in Europe. But the Rogue Sport trails the Seltos for affordability and desirability alike. It starts at $23,240 with a full suite of advanced safety features but without the Kia’s all-wheel-drive or alloy wheels, and it surges to nearly $34,000 with all the options. Despite those prices, no Rogue Sport is very quick, quiet, or agile. The Seltos is roomier, more fuel-efficient, and much more fun to drive.

Read our full review on the 2020 Nissan Rogue Sport

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer Exterior
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The Chevrolet Trailblazer name returns (now with a lowercase b), but instead of a midsize body-on-frame SUV like it was from 2002 to 2009, it’s now a pint-sized subcompact crossover. It’s sized and styled similarly to the Seltos, and it has an even lower base price: a tempting $19,000. But its price soars more quickly than the Kia’s once you move beyond the base front-wheel-drive model. The Chevy also has less power and less interior space (it’s a similar story with the Trailblazer’s upscale cousin, the Buick Encore GX, which is even more expensive).

Read our full review on the 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer

2020 Kia Sportage

2020 Kia Sportage Revealed Without Many Meaningful Updates For a Good Reason
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With the new Seltos coming in so close to the existing Kia Sportage in size, we expect the Sportage’s next generation to grow; it’s right now about half a size smaller than a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4. But if you want a little bit more space and luxury than the Seltos, you’ll appreciate the Sportage’s quieter ride and wider seats. The price shouldn’t even be wildly different, as we generally see steeper discounts on the Sportage. You’ll give up the Seltos’ agility and fuel-efficiency, though.

Read our full review on the 2020 Kia Sportage

2020 Kia Soul

2020 Kia Soul
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The way to get a solid subcompact crossover for even less money than the Seltos is to get an even smaller Kia. That’s the Soul, whose space, comfort, and refinement mopped the floor with the competing Hyundai Venue and Nissan Kicks in the “sub-subcompact” segment. The Seltos is roomier, the Soul doesn’t offer all-wheel-drive, and while it does offer the turbo engine, the turbocharged Soul is one of the Hyundai/Kia models we mentioned where the dual-clutch automatic is distractingly clunky. But as long as you don’t need all-wheel-drive, you might be pleasantly surprised by how much the Soul can offer for as little as $17,490.

Read our full review on the [2020 Kia Soul->art172248


2021 Kia Seltos - Driven Exterior
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The leading compact crossovers give you so much for the money. They pack huge passenger and cargo capacities into relatively tidy, affordable, fuel-efficient footprints. They’re comfortable and easy to drive. It’s easy to see why they represent the dominant market segment today. But they don’t fit every budget, and some prospective buyers will find their size and luxury to be overkill.

For them, the 2021 Kia Seltos is the answer. It doesn’t have quite the spaciousness and polish of the leading compacts, but it consistently comes close for less money. And unlike many of its competitors, its design screams neither “I’m different” nor “I’m cheap.”

Whatever you’re looking for a small SUV-like vehicle, there’s a good chance the Seltos is a good fit. We’re glad to finally have a subcompact crossover to confidently say that about.

Brady Holt
About the author

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