2021 Kia Seltos

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There’s not much  . . . diversity in the compact crossover segment. Badges yes. Differences, not so much.

Which is why it’s happy news about the 2021 Kia Seltos.

Superficially, it’s similar to other small crossovers like the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3. But have a look under the skin.

Or rather, under the hood.

That’s where you’ll find something very different.

And elsewhere, too.

What It Is

The Seltos is a new Kia model, slotting in between the Soul and Sportage in size and capability. Unlike the front-drive-only Soul, the Seltos is available with all-wheel-drive.

But it’s not as large as the Sportage  – and it costs a lot less.

It also offers more – in the way of engine choices – than other small crossovers like the HR-V and CX-3.

You can get the Seltos with either a non-turbocharged four cylinder engine or a more powerful turbocharged engine.

The HR-V and CX-3 and others in the class come only with not-turbo’d fours (and not much power).

Less room, too.

Prices start at $21.990 for the base LX trim which comes standard with all-wheel-drive (it’s generally optional in other crossovers in the class) and a 2.0 liter engine without a turbo.

If you prefer front-wheel-drive, but prefer not to pay more – or get less – there’s the S trim, which is kitted out with sport touches that include fog lights and available two-tone paint. AWD is available – as an option – and bundled with heated front seats.

If you want power to go with that, there’s the S Turbo – which has all the S stuff and a 1.6 liter turbocharged engine that’s paired with a sportier-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

Other Selti with the non-turbo 2.0 engine get a continuously variable (CVT) automatic.

A top-of-the-line SX Turbo gets . . . everything.

The more powerful engine, AWD, the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission plus a sunroof, premium Bose audio rig and a 10.25 inch LCD touchscreen.

It stickers for $27,890.

What’s New

The Seltos – it roughly translates from the Korean language as “brave and assertive” – is a new addition to Kia’s model lineup, bridging the gap between the spunky (but no AWD option) Soul and the larger (and pricier) Sportage.

What’s Good

Something different . . . under the hood.

Standard AWD.

Option to stick with FWD, if you prefer – without paying more (or getting less).

What’s Not So Good

No manual transmission available – just like all the rest.

Turbo’d version comes only with AWD.

Higher price to start than HR-V and CX-3.

Under The Hood

The standard engine in the Seltos is a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine that makes 146 horsepower . It’s very par for the course vs. the 1.8 liter, 141 horsepower engine that’s standard in the HR-V and the 2.0 liter 148 horsepower engine that’s standard in the CX-3.

What’s not par-for-the-course is the choice to upgrade to a 1.6 liter turbocharged engine that makes 175 horsepower – substantially more power than is available in either the Honda or the Mazda, neither of which offer an optional engine.

Another choice is the option to go FWD or AWD – without having to choose the optional turbo’d engine. The standard 2.0 liter engine is available with either.

Unusually, AWD is standard.

And so, in a way, is front-wheel-drive. There’s no extra charge for either. You have your choice of different packages that go with the one – or the other.

Both costing the same.

But both cost about $1,000 more than the base trim/FWD versions of the HR-V ($20,820) and the Mazda CX-3 ($$20,640), which give you the option of saving the money by skipping AWD.

You also get a choice of transmissions.

If you buy the 2.0 liter engine, you’ll get a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission to go with it. The 1.6 liter engine is paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch/automated manual transmission. This version of the Seltos comes only with AWD.

But it comes with the quickest time-slip in the class, probably in part because it’s AWD – and so it hooks up better.

This one’ll do 0-60 in just over 7 seconds. That’s  is 2-3 seconds quicker than one-engine-only rivals like the HR-V and CX-3.

More good news is that gas mileage with this much-speedier engine is practically the same as with the less speedy standard engine: 25 city/30 highway vs. 27 city/31 highway for the Seltos with the 2.0 liter engine.

It’s also about the same as the HR-V’s 27 city, 31 highway and the Mazda’s 27 city/32 highway.

Also good news is that the Kia’s turbo engine is set up for regular unleaded, even though it’s boosted. It’s pretty usual for such engines to be premium unleaded engines – which adds about 20 cents or so to the cost of every gallon of gas.

The Seltos’ premium engine burns the cheap stuff – without costing you horsepower.

On the downside, there’s no manual transmission option.

And the reason for that isn’t MPGs so much as CAFE – the federal government’s mandatory MPG minimums. Cars with manuals tend to not score as well on government fuel-economy tests whereas automatics can be programmed to do well on them.

Since cars that don’t do as well on government fuel economy tests get fined the car companies tend to make fewer of them. In some classes, none of them.

The Seltos isn’t alone. All the crossovers in its class are automatic-only.

But at least Kia gives you a choice of automatics.

On The Road

This Kia has giddyap. At least, it’s available with it. Which gives it a leg up over its rivals, which not only don’t come with it but don’t even offer it.

This is good for Kia and sad for the rest. Why should a practical car have to be boring?

Some reviewers have found fault with the turbo model’s seven speed dual-clutch transmission. They say it works well when you’re giddyapping – a specialty of the dual-clutch box, which is specifically designed to shift much more quickly than a conventional automatic – but not so well when you aren’t giddyapping.

I have no idea why they say this.

Well, maybe. It could have something to do with their fear of clutches.

There is some rollback – meaning, if you’re stopped on an uphill and take your foot off the brake, the car will roll backward a little – a lot like a manual-equipped car will if the clutch is in and the shifter’s in neutral.

But this manual feel adds to the verve of this little Kia.

And so long as you push down on the gas when you take your foot off the brake, the Kia only rolls back a bit.

There’s also a slight – salutary – engine braking effect at low speeds. It’s like a manual car in first or second – before you upshift into third. This is actually helpful in traffic – vs.the inertia drift  in a car with a conventional automatic that makes you rely on the actual brakes to avoid rolling into the car ahead of you.

And if you are giddyapping, you’ll appreciate the fact that Kia bolted a performance transmission to its performance engine. As opposed to an economy CVT transmission (Honda) or even a conventional automatic (CX-3).

It is a measure of how good things are that you can get a transmission like this in a $25k-ish car. Dual-clutch automatics were the exclusive prerogative of elite high-performance cars as recently as ten or so years ago. They are designed to perform like a manual, but with the convenience of an automatic.

It’s a shame , though, that Kia won’t let you have the performance engine and transmission in a front-wheel-drive configuration.

A tire-smokin’ jubilee that would be.

One thing you can do in any Seltos – the base or the turbo model and FWD or AWD –  that you can’t in any of its rivals is a parking brake 180. Because it still has a pull-up emergency brake lever. Not a push-button parking brake. The latter is on – or off. It can’t be applied in gradual, driver-controlled manner, as is possible with the driver-controlled pull-up lever.

Fun aside, this is an important consideration in terms of safety and simplicity. The pull-up brake can be used to bring a vehicle that suffers a failure of the main brake system to a controlled stop. Without locking up the rear wheels – and possibly putting the vehicle into an uncontrolled skid.

It’s also a cable-actuated mechanism without electronics that will, eventually fail. The cable might fail someday, too. But cables are cheap and easy to replace. Electronic things often aren’t.

Some reviewers say the turbo’d Kia’s ride is overly firm. But this is such a subjective characterization it ought to be given the value it’s worth – which is nil. Ride is in the tailbone of the experiencer. What feels over-firm to one may feel too soft for another. The only way you’ll know how it feels to you is to drive it.

One thing is objective. The turbo Seltos comes with larger (18-inch) wheels and shorter-sidewall performance tires, which give it sharper steering feel and less lean when you’re giddyapping.

If you prefer a softer setting – and less giddyapping – the non-turbo trims have 17-inch wheels with tires that have taller sidewalls and so more give.

The drive home point being that Kia gives you the option, not one-size-fits all.

At The Curb

The Seltos has some other things its rivals don’t.

For one, more cargo room than the previously class-leading Honda HR-V. For two, much more back seat and cargo room than the sportier-looking Mazda CX-3. This is sad for Mazda since one can forgive functional limitations in a car that delivers other things, such as fun. But when the looks don’t back up the goods… .

The Seltos has both.

With its back seats upright, the Seltos can swallow 26.6 cubic feet’s worth of stuff – more stuff than the HR-V’s 23.2 cubic feet and much more than the CX-3’s 17.8 cubic feet. And with both back seats folded flat, the Kia’s load space opens up to a class-best 62.8 cubic feet, noticeably more than the HR-V’s 55.9 cubic feet max and much more than the Mazda’s 42.7 cubic feet.

The Kia is also just slightly longer overall than its immediate rivals – 172 inches vs. 170.4 inches for the HR-V and 168.3 inches overall for the Mazda – which makes it just possible to carry home eight-foot-long fence posts in the Kia, with the rear liftgate closed. This means you can stop at the grocery store on the way home and lock the Seltos while you’re inside the store – rather than leave the tailgate open and hope no one goes inside your vehicle while you’re shopping.

Another nice thing – and unusual thing – about this 2021 model Kia is that it still comes with a physical ignition key, if you prefer.

Insert and turn. Remember them? Like the pull-up emergency brake, this is a simpler, less trouble (and cost) prone way to start your engine. Metal keys and ignition locks do wear out, of course. But it generally takes decades for that to happen and when it does, it costs less to replace these mechanical things than electronic things.

Running an insert-and-turn-it physical key through the washing machine (because you forgot to take it out of your pants pocket) won’t hurt it, either. The same can’t be said of electronic fobs – some of which cost hundreds of dollars to “cut” a new one.

In a similar vein, the climate controls are controlled via rotary knobs rather than screens – and taps and swipes.

Though fairly conventionally styled, the Seltos shows some leg in the angular cut of its front door glass, which looks very much like the Soul’s front side glass – and also in the rolling terrain shape of the speaker covers, the textured exterior trim belts, two -tone paint palettes and the slip of stainless-steel-looking contrast divider on the side panels.

But its real beauty is that it’s not just another crossover.

Speaking of which. Check out the Trail Attack concept cars; it’s a possible prequel for 2022.

The Rest

One of the few things you get less of is power ports for your devices – plural used because most of us now carry at least one and if you carry passengers, there’ll be several. But the base Seltos only has one USB port. However, it does come standard with 12V power points (plural) so you can power up your radar detector – an important consideration when what you’re driving has giddyap.

EX trims have multiple USB ports – including for the backseat passengers. All trims come standard with both AppleCarPlay and Android Auto – so you can stream without plugging in.

Two driver pre-emption features (whoops, “assists”) are standard, too. These are Lane Departure Warning and Lane Keep Assist, which uses electric motors to nudge the steering wheel if the car thinks you’re not steering it in the right direction.

Kia includes them probably to appease the Karens. Both these “assists” can be easily turned off – which will please those who aren’t Karens.

The Bottom Line

Why settle for just oatmeal when you can have hot oatmeal – with some cinnamon on top, even?

. . .

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  1. Both CVTs and dual-clutch automatics main reason for being is fuel economy. Both are less reliable than standard automatics. I’m not interested in either.

    Best automatic I’ve encountered is the 8-speed in a BMW X3 M40i. Mazda stands out for keeping standard automatics in their vehicles.

  2. Hmmm Eric, now you have given us a cross-shop against the 2020 Tiguan too. I was not considering Kia at all, but this review does point out some food for thought. Just the real ignition switch alone will save hundreds of bux down the road compared to a full-up push button start, once the immobilizer craps out. And, VW is well known for the proprietary nature of its immobilizer programming, requiring licenses and thousands of bux for an independent shop. Food for thought indeed!

    • Hi Crusty,


      Plus, the Kia starts out several thousand dollars higher. I like the Tiggy a lot – but I like this Kia a lot, too. Its definitely worth a cross-shop.


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