Subcompact 2021 Kia Seltos SUV is a value package with premium appeal

Sold in five trim levels, Seltos starting prices range from $23,000-$29,000. (Photos courtesy of Kia America)



We can’t always get what we want but sometimes being able to get what we need fulfills a lot of essential wants. And in the throes of a pandemic, the new Kia Seltos subcompact SUV is a heaping helping of comfort food with a full serving of meat-and-potatoes function, safety technologies, durability, value and just enough style for pride of ownership.

The 2021 Seltos is a new vehicle in the Kia lineup that slots between the boxyish Soul and the compact-class Sportage SUV. It shares an architecture with the Hyundai Kona, which has been well received in a growing subcompact segment that includes the Chevrolet Trax, Ford EcoSport, Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-30, Nissan Rogue Sport and Subaru Crosstrek.

Front seats of the Seltos

The broad-beam cabin has ergonomically placed switches and controls.

Like many of the competitors, Seltos is a so-called world car. It was launched last year in South Korea, followed by India, the Philippines and Indonesia with its North American debut early this year as a 2021 model.

With a name derived from “Celtos,” the son of Hercules in Greek mythology, Kia says that the Seltos is aimed directly at millennials and “youthful, tech-savvy buyers” looking for a vehicle that stands out from the crowd. But that sounds much like the marketing used for the Soul, which had been a disruptor for its youthful styling and attitude — and it is the last of its kind from when boxy was cool, outlasting the dearly departed Honda Element and Nissan Cube.

Kia Seltos front seats in white leather

Front headroom is a tall at 40 inches without the sunroof.

Kia Seltos Pricing

While the Kia Seltos’ pricing — $23,000-$29,000 — will appeal to younger buyers the bigger influencer for a wider range of buyers will be its optional all-wheel drive, squared-off cabin space, access to advanced driver-assist technologies and for many — more palatable styling.

Seltos is sold in five trim levels — LX, EX, S 2.0L, S 1.6T and SX. There are two choices of four-cylinder powertrains and optional AWD with torque vectoring (for traction and steering stability) and a locking differential for sure-footed off-road situations.

Current pricing incentives include special financing of 0.9 percent APR for 48 months for qualified customers. And there is a $199 monthly lease for 36 months for the Seltos LX and S, with $2,699 due at signing for qualified lessees. Check Kia Offers for updates.

The top-line SX model get a 10.2-inch touch screen display.

The top-line SX model gets a 10.2-inch touch screen display.

Kia Seltos Powertrains

Entry Seltos models are powered by a 146-horsepower, non-turbocharged 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle (for fuel economy) and an “Intelligent” continuously variable automatic transmission. Front-wheel-drive fuel economy ratings are 29/34/31 mpg city/highway/combined and 27/34/29 with AWD, with the recommended 87 octane fuel.

The sportier trim levels get the more tech-infused and turbocharged 175-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. It has mileage estimates of 25/30/27 mpg city/highway/combined.

Both powertrains have driving modes of Normal, Smart (Eco) and Sport. Selections are made by a small dial on the shift console or just nudge the shift lever to the left for grab-and-go Sport mode.

The Seltos turbocharged and direct injection 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine.

The turbocharged and direct injection 1.6-liter four-cylinder is no laggard with its 195 foot-pounds of torque from 1,500-4,500 rpm. (Mark Maynard photo)

Kia Seltos Features

Today’s Seltos tester is the upper-middle-class S Turbo AWD with a starting price of $26,610, including the $1,120 freight charge from Gwangju, South Korea. With one option for carpeted floor mats ($130), the tester’s sticker price was $26,740.

The many conveniences mean a lot in a lower-priced vehicle and the Seltos has an accommodating list of standard equipment. Among the features for all models are remote locking, rearview camera, 17-inch alloy wheels and four-wheel disc brakes, power side mirrors, six-way manually adjusted driver’s seat, steering wheel audio and cruise controls, 60/40 folding seatback and dual-level cargo floor, air conditioning, six-speaker audio system with Bluetooth phone and audio connections, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto for navigation, phone and other apps.

The Kia Seltos interior has a premium presence in the plastics, fabrics and trim elements.

The interior has a premium presence in the plastics, fabrics and trim elements.

Seltos Safety Features

Safety features in all Seltos models include six air bags, downhill brake assist, hill-start assist, stability, and traction controls.

Moving up to the Seltos S trim adds Kia’s Drive Wise driver-assist technologies of forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian detection, lane-following assist, lane-keep assist, driver-attention warning and high-beam assist.

The S 1.6 Turbo model layers on other safety features, including blind-spot collision warning, blind-spot collision-avoidance assist rear, rear cross-traffic collision warning and rear cross-traffic collision avoidance assist.

Driver-Assist Features

It is not yet common for a $25,000 car to have advanced driver-assist technologies, but Kia connects the technologies in the higher trim levels.

Only the Seltos SX model includes all the Level II semi-autonomous driving features, such as highway-driving assist, smart cruise control with stop and go and fusion forward collision assist with cyclist detection.

The not-quite semi-autonomous drive experience in the tester is well calibrated to center the Seltos in the lane while making fluid course corrections. The system sensors did not seem to be overly sensitive to varying daylight conditions and shadows, which have caused frequent cancellations in some systems I’ve tested.

Kia’s system gives the driver the immediate benefit of more watchful eyes on the road without continual beeps, bonks, and random alerts. But when the driver is about to do something stupid, the system will sound the wake-up alert.

Always keep both hands on the wheel when using a driver-assist system, even though Kia’s system seemed to be forgiving of one-handed driving.

The Kia Seltos back seat

The rear seatback has a two-position recline.

Seltos Performance

The turbocharged and direct-injection 1.6-liter four-cylinder is no laggard with its 195 foot-pounds of torque from 1,500-4,500 rpm. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission works well enough to maintain the power flow, mostly because of the low 3,317-pound curb weight.

In heavier vehicles, this type of powertrain is somewhat slow to respond as the turbocharger builds boost and the automated-manual transmission takes time to engage and disengage gears. It can be a loopy transaction at slower speeds when it takes a bigger push on the accelerator to get a quick power response.

But less weight means quicker uptake of forward momentum in the Seltos. Sport mode takes away much of the delay and the engine’s automatic stop-start at idle function can be switched off, such as when creeping in downtown traffic.

The base 2.0-liter engine might be powerful enough for the majority of drivers, but I have not tested it with the continuously variable transmission.

Seltos Ride and Handling

Engineering a small SUV for sporty-driving attributes typically causes a stiffer ride that isn’t easy to tame, but the suspension in the Seltos AWD felt remarkably well balanced.

Front-drive models use a torsion-beam rear suspension, which is less heavy and less expensive than a multi-link with lower mounting points that improve cargo space, but the ride quality is not always smooth.

The AWD models are uprated with an independent rear setup (multi-link) for more flexibility and wheel travel when driving off-road. The balance of spring rates and shock absorbers is a commendable accomplishment of comfort with stable enthusiasm when the spirit moves — or evasive maneuvers demand.

Between the relatively long wheelbase (103.5 inches) and the independent rear end, the ride quality is steady on the highway (not choppy) and without big head-toss when transitioning speed bumps or turning into driveways. And for a small upright SUV, the cabin is not jittery from road harshness or wind noise — and all this with a subcompact turning circle of 34.8 feet.

My week of testing returned a peak average fuel economy of 28.5 mpg with much highway driving, but readings of 19-23 mpg were common around town.

Braking for the 1.6 Turbo is beefier than expected with 12-inch ventilated front discs and solid 11.2-inch rear rotors. But there was no shortcut to braking for the 2.0-liter models, which have discs of 11 inches front and 10.3 inches rear.

Alloy wheels red center caps are standard (17- or 18-inches) on Seltos

17- or 18-inch alloy wheels are standard. (Mark Maynard photo)

Interior Function

The Kia Seltos is bigger on the inside than expected for a subcompact, created by a squared-off openness and upright glass. Front headroom is a tall at 40 inches without the sunroof and front shoulder room of 55.5 inches is just 1.6 inches less than in the slightly larger Sportage.

The raised ride height (with 7.2 inches of off-road ground clearance) allows comfortable hip-point entry and exit, with no head-ducking from swoopy body lines. The seats, too, have less intrusive side and bottom bolstering, which avoids that indelicate wedgie. The center armrest has a deep box and a sliding top for improved elbow support.

Sightlines are open at the side mirrors, over the hood and out the rearview through the deep tailgate glass. The sun visors are deep and provide good coverage but do not extend.

The broad-beam cabin has functional space to ergonomically place gauges, switches and controls. The gauge cluster focuses attention with two white-on-black dials for speed and tachometer, separated by a 3.5-inch driver-info module with pages for fuel economy, tire pressure, user settings and a digital speedometer.

The 8-inch infotainment touch screen at the top center of the instrument panel is easily viewed without glare in daylight. And just below are two large dials for cabin temperature and vent position with a smaller dial between for fan speed. It is a good format for eyes-on-the-road adjustments. The six-speaker audio system isn’t terrific, but there is a Bose upgrade. The top-line SX gets a 10.25-inch-wide touch screen for navi, audio, and apps.

The shift console is a compact module of efficiency with a large e-bin for charging devices with one USB port and two 180-watt, 12-volt plugs. And it integrates a shelf to lay a phone or for the optional wireless charging. (The EX and SX have wireless charging and one more USB in the back seat.)

The seats are wide and supportive with thigh support for most adults. And the Sofino upholstery has a premium appearance of durable fabric neatly stitched with the manmade leatherette. The driver seat in the S is six-way manually adjusted but the four-way front passenger seat lacks height adjustment, but it’s not like riding in a hole.

An open cargo area of the Kia Seltos SUV

Cargo space is square with up to 5 ½ of length with the back seat folded.

Back Seat Space

The Seltos back seat benefits from the openness of the cabin. A low hump to the exhaust tunnel aids three-across seating. And the seatback has a two-position recline. The seatback folds 60/40 and has a fold-down armrest with cup holders, but amenities are spartan, with no ports, plugs or air vents.

Cargo Capacity

The Seltos has a working cargo area of 26.6 cubic feet behind the back seat stretched to 62.8 cu. ft. with the seat folded. The square space is about 33 inches deep behind the back seat, extending to almost 5½ feet when the seats are folded. Kia has a clever two-level cargo floor that when manually moved to the lower position adds 4 inches more depth for taller items up to about 33 inches.

Why Buy the Kia Seltos?

Some of the competitors in this subcompact SUV segment are transplants from other countries and not completely reconfigured or engineered for the U.S. and North America for long-term durability and reliability. The Kia Seltos does not feel foreign-born in how it drives or its premium presentation of materials and technologies.

As the son of Hercules, the Seltos earns a mighty-mite badge of determination.

A rear view of the Kia Seltos on a country road

For a small SUV, the cabin is not jittery from road harshness or wind noise.

2021 Kia Seltos S Turbo AWD Specifications

Body style: subcompact, 5-seat, 5-door small SUV crossover with AWD

Engine: 175-hp turbocharged and direct-injection 1.6-liter 4-cylinder with auto stop-start at idle; 195 lb.-ft. torque from 1,500-4,500 rpm

Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic with torque-vectoring all-wheel drive with locking center differential

Fuel economy: 25/30/27 city/hwy/combined; premium recommended


Fuel tank: 13.2 gallons

Cargo space: 26.6-62.8 cu. ft.

Front head/leg room: 40/41.4 inches

Rear head/leg room: 38.4/38 inches

Length/wheelbase: 172/103.5 inches

Curb weight: 3,317 pounds

Turning circle: 34.8 feet


Standard Seltos equipment includes: remote locking, 8-inch touch screen with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto app infotainment, rearview camera with guidance lines, USB multimedia port, heated front seats, Sofino leatherette and cloth seat trim, sliding front center armrest console, 60/40 folding back seat, power (heated) side mirrors with LED turn signals, LED running lights and taillights, 18-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, fog lights

Seltos S Turbo AWD features: 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine; 7-speed DCT; 18-inch alloy wheels; blind-spot collision warning, blind-spot collision-avoidance assist rear, rear cross-traffic collision warning, rear cross-traffic collision-avoidance assist

Standard driver-assist features: forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian detection, lane-following assist, lane-departure warning, driver-attention warning, high-beam assist

Safety features include: 6 air bags, downhill brake assist, hill-start assist, stability and traction controls


Base price: $26,610, including $1,120 freight charge; price as tested $26,740

Options on test vehicle: carpeted floor mats $135

Where assembled: Gwangju, South Korea

Warranty: 10-years/100,000-miles powertrain; 5-years/60,000-miles bumper to bumper with roadside assistance

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