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First Drive: 2021 Kia Seltos is an Interesting Proposition

An in-betweener arrives to fight in the latest fad segment

Billy RehbockWriterManufacturerPhotographer

SAN ANTONIO, Texas—The 2021 Kia Seltos is intended to fill out the Korean carmaker's lineup with a new crossover the company says is "right-sized." In Kia Speak, that means it fits between the Soul and Sportage in the SUV lineup.

What it really means is that automakers continue to look for what they call "white space," or niche vehicle segments with few to no competitors. The compact crossover group used to be small, but as manufacturers attempted to capitalize on that, the segment has become quite crowded. Kia's new offering will fight vehicles like the Nissan Rogue Sport, Mazda CX-30, and Subaru Crosstrek for in-betweener supremacy.

We traveled to San Antonio to get a first taste of Kia's latest offering. On paper, it doesn't quite match our usual "#noboringcars" credentials. The Seltos makes do with just 146 horsepower from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, or 175 hp from a turbocharged 1.6-liter liter four-cylinder. As a point of comparison, it's smaller sibling, the Kia Soul, produces 147 hp or 201 hp, depending on whether it's equipped with the naturally aspirated or turbocharged engine.

Kia told us the Seltos was actually intended as a Soul derivative but evolved into its own car with a more distinct identity. Its grille has the signature Kia "tiger nose," and the front fascia has a bit of an overbite to allow for a bit more clearance. The body lines give it a somewhat bulky appearance, as though it was inspired by the Jeep Compass. The lighting fitments are ultra-modern and give its exterior a semi-luxury car aesthetic. The cars present on the launch event were equipped with LEDs, standard on all Seltos offerings except the entry-level model.

Customers have a fairly large degree of customization available as they configure their vehicles, and Kia made sure to prioritize all-wheel drive at all price points. Six trims are available at launch; the base LX trim is only available with AWD, while the more customizable S trim is available with a choice of drivetrains and driven wheels. Finally, the 2.0-liter EX trim is positioned as a fixed bargain with AWD, while the SX trim represents the fully loaded configuration.

We had the opportunity to sample a car equipped with the turbocharged 1.6-liter engine at the top-spec SX level. Kia intends the Seltos to follow the Telluride's success; in fact, Kia's public relations manager, James Bell, told our group of media that his coworkers refer to the three-row hauler as the "Selluride" which is as cringey as it is true. Kia intends the Seltos to mimic its stablemate's formula of being muscular in appearance and loaded up with features.

Our test car impressed right way with excellent sound insulation, of all things, which made the cabin a pleasant environment on the road. The crossover had traces of the Kona's tall hatchback charisma but rode with just enough compliance to significantly lessen the impact of craggy road surfaces in the center of San Antonio. We encountered winding backroads with huge elevation changes that did not phase the Seltos when driven briskly, evidence of ex-BMW M boss Albert Bierman's influence. This is where the SX trimmed car's steering feel was at its most impressive. The actual steering wheel offers just the right amount of resistance and provides very accurate feedback. When we later drove a car powered by the 2.0-liter engine and trimmed at the EX AWD level, we weren't quite as impressed by the steering, which felt looser and less engaging.

Kia paired a continuously variable transmission with its naturally aspirated engine. Off the line, this powertrain is smoother than the combination of the 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox and turbocharged 1.6-liter engine. While the lower-power option isn't slow necessarily, it does run out of grunt noticeably sooner on the freeway, particular when it comes time to overtaking another car. The more powerful choice is the right one for us, even though the peppier powertrain isn't as smooth at low speeds, and shifts seem to be a little slower than you would expect from a dual-clutch transmission.

The Seltos is positioned as an all-arounder that does a pretty good job at almost everything thrown at it, as long as it isn't being pushed to the limit. Kia baked in a little bit of off-road ability; its 28-degree approach angle is steeper than the Jeep Renegade's and Subaru Crosstrek's, which we appreciated as we navigated the steeper ruts on our test route's trail-driving loop.

During this portion of our drive, we made use of the locking center differential. With the power split evenly between the front and rear wheels, we had abundant traction when we scrambled through muddy portions of the course. Kia also equipped the Seltos with descent control, which we didn't find a need to use.

Kia claims that the Seltos' "well-appointed interior laden with smart technology to enhance the on-road experience harkens to Telluride levels of refinement." We kept that claim in mind during the test;  though the Seltos has remarkable refinement for its class, it doesn't do an impression of a Korean Cadillac in the same way as its bigger sibling.

A big reason for that: The interior doesn't feel as thoroughly premium as the Telluride's, or even as premium as the competing Mazda CX-30. Kia did, however, do a great job of making the touch points feel great. The door liners, armrests, and switchgear all feel like they are made from quality materials, whereas the roof liner, A-pillars, dash, and door panel trim feels coarse and cheap. By no means is this a deal breaker, but it explains why the Seltos doesn't feel as special, for what it is, as the Telluride does.

The Seltos starts at just $23,110 after destination charges for S or LX trims. The top-level SX model rings up at $29,010 before options, which is well-below today's average vehicle purchase price of about $37,000. For the money, buyers will get a car that's comfortable, capable, and laden with useful technology. The Seltos isn't quite as stylish as the Soul or as capacious as the Sportage, but its savvy packaging and road manners make it hard to overlook. Just don't forget about hatchbacks and wagons.

Kia expects the S and EX trims to be the volume sellers. Its public relations team claims the EX has the highest dollar-to-value proposition in the lineup. The S AWD trim adds 18-inch wheels and has blind-spot and rear cross-traffic assist.

The 2021 Kia Seltos, built in South Korea along with the Soul and Sportage, is available at dealers right now; GT-Line and X-Line trims are available in other markets. We got to check out a rugged-looking X-Line concept which Kia strongly teased could come into production. A road-oriented model with an Albert Bierman touch could also be possible.

2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $29,010 (base)
ENGINE 1.6L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/175 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 195 lb-ft @ 1,500-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 25/30 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 172 x 70.9 x 64.2 in
WHEELBASE 103.5 in
WEIGHT 3,317 lb
0-60 MPH N/A
TOP SPEED N/A
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