2021 Kia Seltos - First Drive

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The 2021 Kia Seltos is the new subcompact crossover from the folks in Korea who brought us the excellent Telluride, winner of Kelley Blue Book's Best New Model of 2020. KBB's Micah Muzio finds out if this baby ute is just as good as the big boy.

First, here’s a swift reminder of what the Seltos is. It competes with the Nissan Kicks, Hyundai Kona, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-30, and the upcoming Chevrolet Trailblazer, among others, in the rapidly expanding, thrill-packed subcompact SUV segment. Size-wise you could also put the Seltos up against tweeners like the Jeep Compass and Nissan Rogue Sport but when similarly-equipped the Seltos costs thousands less than each.

This particular Seltos has the optional 1.6-liter engine. Let’s see what she’s got. Ooh.
1.6-liter appears elsewhere in Kia’s vehicle lineup and its robust torque figure makes us happy. (175 hp/195 lb-ft).
I also like that the 1.6-turbo engine is matched with a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. Dual clutches can feel jerky at slow speeds but for speedy gear changes and satisfyingly direct power delivery they’re a good choice. Especially if the alternative is a CVT.

Speaking of, the standard engine is a 2-liter 4-cylinder (146 hp/132 lb-ft) matched to a continuously variable transmission that Kia calls an intelligent variable transmission.
Semantics aside, CVTs have a bad reputation among car reviewers for their groaning, elastic power delivery. However, Kia did an admirable job making the CVT in their Forte compact sedan more than tolerable. That gives me hope for the Seltos’s CVT, which I’m not driving, so I’ll just stop talking about it.

And while we’re on the subject of stopping, how are the brakes?
They feel good.

Now here’s something interesting. Except for the S trim, every Seltos includes standard all-wheel drive. I had to verify that fact with Kia’s PR team a few times but it’s true. So, between nearly ubiquitous all-wheel drive and 7.3-inches of ground clearance the Seltos comes closer than most sub-compacts to delivering true off-road abilities. On that note, the all-wheel drive system features a lock function to evenly split torque between the front and rear wheels. Springing for all-wheel drive also swaps out the rear torsion beam axle for a more sophisticated independent rear suspension.

In motion this all-wheel drive Seltos rides with finesse. It absorbs bumps like YouTuber’s absorb abuse from the comment section. With dignity and confidence.
When cornering the Seltos steers with precision. I wouldn’t categorize it as sporty but it is eager and predictable.

Beyond driving behavior I’ve got some rapid observations about the Seltos. Here goes…
I dig the sliding front console cover.
The cabin is roomy in front. And material quality is nicer than it needs to be.
The rear seat backs recline.
Rear vents are optional. I prefer to limit how long my 4-year old has to sweat or freeze in the car, so I’m gonna suggest we just make those standard moving forward.
At 26.6 cu-ft cargo space is generous and there’s a 2-level floor.
Kia offers contrasting roof paint. I like a contrasting roof. Do you like a contrasting roof?
There are 3 drive modes. Normal, Sport, Eco. Normal is all you need.
The standard 8-inch and opt 10.25-inch touchscreen includes Apple CarPlay and Android auto, so I don’t have to complain about it.
Lane keeping assist, automatic emergency braking, and blind spot warning, but they cost extra.
Lastly, fuel economy peaks at a very reasonable 31 combined MPG with the 2-liter front-wheel drive S trim. But, as mentioned, all other Seltos’s include all-wheel drive (2.0 AWD 27 MPG Combined) (1.6 Turbo AWD 25 MPG Combined), diminishing efficiency slightly. So, if you care more about fuel economy than all-weather traction, one of Kia’s front-drive subcompact competitors might be a better fit.

If everything you’ve seen so far looks promising you can buy a Seltos of your own starting in March of 2020 (On-Screen text: LX AWD & S FWD: $23,110 including destination). If you want to save some cash the Kia Soul is a little smaller and a litter cheaper, while the Sportage is a larger and pricier, properly compact alternative in Kia’s galaxy of SUV stars.

What we have is a sensible interior, reasonable base price, compelling features, and a winning on-road attitude. Kia’s contribution to the subcompact SUV world looks to be a strong one.