An inside job of epic proportions
THE GOOD
  • Spacious inside
  • Well featured
  • 1.6L turbo engine
THE BAD
  • Flimsy head-up display
  • Transmission’s bad behaviour
  • No paddle shifters
2021 Kia Seltos Review and Video

The 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo might well be the biggest auto industry heist in recent memory.

It’s either that or someone over at sister brand Hyundai was feeling mighty generous when they agreed to proffer the underpinnings from the outstanding Kona for use in a Kia-branded subcompact crossover. It’s far from the first time these two have shared platforms and parts; just look at their midsize sedans, the Sonata and Optima, now called the K5 in Canada, or the Palisade and Telluride three-row SUVs that took their burgeoning segment by storm. And the list goes on.

What’s different this time around, however, is Hyundai’s willingness to let Kia take all the good stuff from one of its marquee products and package it in a way that addresses the Kona’s few shortcomings.

Practicality: 10/10

Make no mistake, the Kona is a fantastic little crossover, and all the reasons it was named autoTRADER.ca’s best subcompact sport utility for 2020 still apply. It’s far from perfect, though, with compromised utility and usefulness due to its slight stature. Of course, that’s not exactly surprising given the Kona’s status as one of the segment’s smaller entries, but it’s dogged the subcompact CUV since its launch nonetheless.

Enter the Seltos. There’s no need to park the pair side by side to see the clear advantages it offers, with boxy and upright dimensions that are perfect for cramming all kinds of people and stuff inside. The cabin is spacious given the overall footprint – don’t forget, it’s still a subcompact crossover – and features a roomy second row that can easily be occupied by two adults. Since it stands so tall, headroom is enough to accommodate your author’s 6-foot-3 frame even with the SX Turbo trim’s standard sunroof, while the rest of the interior measures are equally as generous.

Cargo capacity, meanwhile, is second to none, with its 752 L behind the back seats leading the segment both on paper and in practice. The Seltos also employs a height-adjustable floor panel that can be raised to create a flat load surface when the rear seats are folded. With 1,778 L to work with in that configuration, there’s more than a small sedan’s trunk worth of extra space compared to the Kona. The newest model in the Kia lineup also boasts 185 mm of ground clearance – 15 mm more than its Hyundai compatriot – to give it the proper stance of a pseudo adventure vehicle.

User Friendliness: 9/10

With a tall roofline and large doors, accessing the space inside is reminiscent of its Soul sister in the Kia lineup. Rather than dropping down into a crossover that’s low and car-like, it takes little more than a simple lateral move to slide aboard the Seltos. The power-adjustable driver’s seat can also be raised or lowered to ensure those of varying stature can find their perfect position behind the wheel, while the large windows all around provide excellent views of what’s happening outside (the passenger seat features the same height-adjustment functionality).

Keeping up with Kia – and Hyundai – tradition, the Seltos is chock-full of big, boldly labelled buttons that are easily reached from either front seat. The massive 10.25-inch touchscreen display that spans the centre section of the dash is as crisp as it is responsive, while the infotainment interface is among the best in the business. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are along for the ride, too, and both smartphone mirroring systems can span the entire screen, or a third of it can be reserved for a secondary function like navigation, climate settings, or fuel consumption.

Features: 9/10

As the top trim in the Seltos lineup, the SX Turbo comes decked out with everything the brand has to offer. It’s an impressive list of equipment, with some stuff that isn’t even available in pricier premium vehicles (yet another Kia tradition that’s carried forward). For example, the front seats are both heated and ventilated, making this one of the few crossovers of its kind to include both. What’s more, the steering wheel is heated, and so too are the rear outboard chairs. If there was a knock on the seats it would be that they’re wrapped in synthetic leather upholstery instead of the real stuff, but otherwise they’re second to none.

Then there’s that infotainment display that projects connected smartphones in a widescreen format – a feature not even found in the far more expensive Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class with the same display size. There’s also a wireless phone charger, which makes the omission of wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections something of a letdown (ditto the inclusion of just a single USB port in the front of the cabin and one more in the back). Aside from that, there’s an upgraded audio system, satellite radio, a seven-inch information screen in the instrument panel, and a head-up display.

Those looking to save a couple grand will find most of those same features in the Seltos EX Premium, with the exception of the premium stereo and head-up display (the latter is somewhat disappointing in its execution anyhow, projecting drive-related information onto a flimsy plastic panel rather than the windshield). Outside, the SX Turbo gets 18-inch alloy wheels and rain-sensing wipers in addition to the sunroof and LED lighting all around that are also equipped on EX Premium models.

Power: 10/10

Upgrading to the Seltos SX Turbo also means borrowing one of the Hyundai Kona’s best assets: its turbocharged motor. This is the same engine that powers the GT versions of the Kia Forte sedan and Forte5 hatchback, as well as the Hyundai Elantra Sport sedan and Elantra GT N Line – further examples of the two brands sharing mechanical parts. And much like those compact cars, it’s ideally suited for the size of this little crossover.

Despite its modest displacement, the 1.6L four-cylinder is among the most stout in the segment, with 175 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque to work with. The transmission it’s paired to is plagued by a few minor problems, but the engine is simply perfect for the Seltos. While a little peaky off the top, it packs the right amount of power for highway runs, while a minimal amount of turbo lag lets it make quick work of merge lanes.

Driving Feel: 8/10

The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that channels power to all four wheels can at times suffer from issues that are best described as irritating rather than outright disconcerting. Releasing the brake pedal and rolling forward without any accelerator input can result in a sensation similar to an engine sputtering before it stalls. Of course, it never actually stalls, and it’s a well-documented complaint with this type of transmission, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

The seven-speed can also be clunky on occasion when switching between gears, particularly when skipping from second to third at moderate throttle load. Switching from drive to reverse gears – and back again – can also leave the vehicle stationary for a split-second longer than expected as the clutch packs spin freely before grabbing hold and moving the little crossover. It’s here that the experience behind the wheel gets the closest to unnerving, but it sorts itself out just as panic starts to set in.

In reality, those minor foibles do little to disrupt a drive that can be downright dynamic at times. While not a common characteristic for a crossover, the taut chassis on which the Seltos rides makes it incredibly agile, and steering responsiveness is up there with the segment’s best. It’s sports-car-sharp without the weight to match, providing an outstanding sense of control from the driver’s seat.

Safety: 9/10

Sharp handling is most often associated with driving enjoyment, but its merits when it comes to safety shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Just think about it: should the moment arise that evasive action is required, would you rather be gripping a wheel that feels directly connected to what’s happening on the road below or something sterile and marshmallow-soft? Knowing which way the wheels are pointed is hugely beneficial in such scenarios, and the Seltos delivers.

Should that not be enough, the SX Turbo trim comes decked out with all sorts of advanced systems aimed at assisting the driver. Beyond a government-mandated rearview camera and six airbags, the loaded Seltos is fitted with blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, forward and reverse automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control. While the majority of the safety systems work well and with minimal intervention, the forward collision warning is on the sensitive side, while the lane-centring function built into the lane-keep control was shut off during testing due to its desire to override driver inputs.

Styling: 9/10

The exterior colour of the tester seen here could be considered a safety system unto itself, this particular shade of yellow doing well to be seen (though it didn’t seem to have much impact on the driver who turned left directly in front of the Seltos on the morning it was returned). Either way, it adds some welcome character to what’s an understated design overall – though it’s certainly not unattractive. Satin silver accents adorn the outside, from the front and rear bumper garnish to the door handles and roof rails, contrasting nicely with the acidic shade of yellow.

Sadly, the cabin remains subdued regardless of which paint colour the Seltos wears outside (there’s a pair of blues and a vibrant orange in addition to the always popular black, white, and grey). It’s still a stylish space that wears silver accents to match those found outside, but a splash of colour would be welcome here. That’s one page from the Kona playbook that Kia chose not to implement, as its Hyundai cousin gets colourful vent surrounds, seat piping, and other accents to match what’s happening outside, depending on paint choice.

Comfort: 8/10

No amount of accent stitching would do anything to change the rather flat and firm seats, with leg cramping and fatigue setting in after only a couple hours of driving. Seat comfort has long been an issue for Kia, and nothing has changed with its newest entry. The brand has also long been known for stuffing its cabins full of cheap and hollow plastics, though that’s not the case inside the Seltos SX Turbo. High-contact points on the doors, dash, and console have been wrapped in soft-touch materials, while good sound insulation amps up the acoustics of the environment in all the right ways. While its 18-inch wheel and tire combo leads to some excess road noise over porous pavement, it’s a far cry from Kia models of old.

When cruising casually, the Seltos provides suitable ride quality, though it is a little on the rigid side. Rather than emanating from the suspension as it does in the Mazda CX-30, though, it’s platform stiffness that plagues the Seltos. That means most of the rough stuff is absorbed before it reaches the cabin, and what does make its way inside sounds far worse than it feels.

Fuel Economy: 9/10

Despite its rather upright dimensions, not much wind noise makes its way inside the cabin of the Seltos. Its stature does little to impact fuel consumption either, with official ratings and real-world test results landing well within range of the competition – including its mechanical twin, the Hyundai Kona. According to Kia, the turbocharged crossover should burn 9.4 L/100 km in the city and 7.9 L/100 km on the highway for combined consumption of 8.7 L/100 km. That’s only slightly worse than the smaller Kona, though results after testing the two almost exactly a year apart were strikingly similar. The final tally stood at 8.2 L/100 km over slightly less than 600 km of driving the Seltos almost evenly between the city and highway.

Value: 9/10

The SX Turbo may be the priciest model in the Seltos lineup, but it offers compelling value. Kia wants $32,595 before freight, fees, and taxes – $2,000 more than the EX Premium that sits directly below it. But it’s that extra dough that takes the Seltos and turns it into one of the segment’s best, with an outstanding powertrain and a features list to match.

It’s priced well compared to others in the class, too, with an equivalent Kona costing about $300 less but lacking key features like ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and the large touchscreen (all three features will be offered in the refreshed 2022 Kona). The Subaru Crosstrek is closer in size to the Seltos, but the loaded version of that crossover lacks even more amenities than the Kona while topping out at $34,495 before fees and taxes. And so the story goes throughout the segment, with Kia undercutting most competitors by enough to make the Seltos SX Turbo worthy of consideration based on value alone.

The Verdict

Hyundai and Kia sharing platforms and parts is nothing new, but what breaks from tradition is how different the Kona and Seltos are in execution. Besides the Ioniq and Niro, the fundamentals have remained the same each time the brands have relied on the same stuff for their vehicles – they’ve simply integrated their own signatures to set them apart. The Palisade and Telluride may look and feel different, but there’s not much separating them when it comes to the basics.

The same is true of most of the rest of their lineups – until you reach these subcompact crossovers. The Kona remains an outstanding entry that’s delightful to drive and fun to live with, but it’s not without its shortcomings. And that’s where the Kia Seltos SX Turbo swoops in, adding the room inside its counterpart lacks while retaining all that character. Add in its long list of features and reasonable price tag, and this top-of-the-line Seltos just might be the top of the class.

An inside job of epic proportions 11/6/2020 9:00:00 AM

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 1.6L   Model Tested 2020 Kia Seltos SX Turbo
Engine Cylinders Turbo I4   Base Price $32,595
Peak Horsepower 175 hp @ 6,000 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 195 lb-ft @ 1,500–4,500 rpm   Destination Fee $1,795
Fuel Economy 9.4 / 7.9 / 8.7 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $34,740
Cargo Space 752 / 1,778 L seats up/down  
Optional Equipment
$32,595 $250 – Starbright Yellow Paint, $250