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2021 Kia Seltos Review: When’s a subcompact not a subcompact?

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Auto123 reviews the new 2021 Kia Seltos, and tries to help you navigate the ever-more complex market consisting of smaller SUVs.

As customer demand for SUVs continues to grow – and grow and grow - we shouldn’t be too surprised at automakers’ inventiveness in finding places for new segments were there weren’t any before. Didn’t think there was any daylight between the subcompact and compact SUV categories? Think again. In the past few years we’ve witnessed the birth of the in-betweenies, the Mazda CX-30s and the Nissan Qashqais and the like (Hyundai, meanwhile, saw an open spot below its current subcompact model, the Kona, and produced the Venue). All of them, from the teeny Venue to the roomy Qashqai, are “subcompacts”.

See also: Comparison: 2020 Hyundai Kona vs 2021 Kia Seltos

But I digress. Fact is, whether consumers knew it or not, they were primed to welcome a vehicle format that provides more bring-crap-home practicality than a tiny CX-3, for example, but delivers more coziness and fuel economy and is better suited to urban living than a CX-5. In the case of Kia, the Korean automaker saw an opportunity in the tight opening between the Niro (small) and Sportage (compact-sized). And it brought forth, for the 2021 model-year, the Seltos.

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2021 Kia Seltos, profile
Photo: D.Boshouwers
2021 Kia Seltos, profile

A subcompact that’s a little bit more
The new 2021 Kia Seltos is also billed as a subcompact, but then so is the Niro (and the Soul, for that matter). So what’s the difference? Well, for starters, the Niro is a hybrid model (also available as a PHEV and a full-on EV), so it’s priced a little higher. As for the Soul, well its odd looks are not for everyone, so let’s say those not looking to get adventurous with their wheels will like the more-traditional good looks of the Seltos. It’s also a useful exercise to compare the dimensions/capacities of each:

Soul ($23,105) – Niro ($28,755 for the hybrid) – Seltos ($22,995)

Wheelbase – 2,600 mm – 2,700 mm – 2,630 mm
Length – 4,195 mm – 4,355 mm – 4,370 mm
Width – 1,800 mm – 1,805 mm – 1,800 mm
Height – 1,600 mm – 1,535 or 1,545 mm – 1,630 mm
Front leg room – 1,044 mm – 1,059 mm – 1,051 mm
Rear leg room – 985 mm – 950 mm – 965 mm
Cargo space – 530 l – 549 l – 752 l
Cargo space (seats down) – 1,758 l – 1,543 l – 1,778 l

From this, we see that the Seltos is slightly longer than the others and a bit higher than the Niro, so there’s more room for heads and an airier feel to the cabin. Legroom is roughly similar – the Soul provides the least room for gams up front, and the most in back.

2021 Kia Seltos, three-quarters rear
Photo: D.Boshouwers
2021 Kia Seltos, three-quarters rear

But the big difference is all the way in the back, where the stuff goes in. The Seltos allows you to go for the gusto when you visit Costco, while the Niro means you’ll need to stick to your list. No impulse buying.

Impressively, the Seltos can actually accommodate more cargo with its rear seats down than the larger Sportage SUV. The flooring has two levels for more versatility, and since the rear bench is 60/40 split fold-down, you can still fit in a third occupant when you want to transport longer objects.

Really, this will - or should - be a major selling point for the model as it makes its way into the market.

2021 Kia Seltos, front
Photo: D.Boshouwers
2021 Kia Seltos, front

The looks
While the new Seltos definitely has its proportions in the right place and is pleasant to look at from front, side and back, I’d qualify it as pretty rather than beautiful. The closest thing it has to a daring touch is the wide-grinning diamond front grille, while the lights both in front and back are suitably slanted to fit the times. Overall, it’s a neat little package that won’t offend sensibilities while managing to avoid being dull.

The cabin
The reward for not making the exterior shell overly sleek is a roomy, practical interior environment. I used the Seltos for a four-day road trip, and the crossover proved plenty spacious enough to please all four occupants. The seats are comfortable enough, though they won’t coddle occupants into imagining they’re sitting in a luxury car. We did find the rear ones harsher after a few hours on the road than the front ones. Rear passengers had no complaints about legroom, however.

2021 Kia Seltos, interior
Photo: D.Boshouwers
2021 Kia Seltos, interior

The base and EX trims come with an 8-inch screen display, while the EX Premium and SX Turbo upgrade to a 10.25 multimedia screen; in either case, that screen perches atop the central console in a way that still makes it appear tacked on as an afterthought. This is a shame to see in a brand-new model designed from the ground up with the knowledge a large screen was going to feature there. A better integration would have further enhanced an interior environment that’s pretty solid overall thanks to a simplicity of design and uncluttered dashboard.

You’ll also find a sufficient number of storage bins and slots for various cups, phones, purses and such sprinkled throughout.

Powertrains
The new Seltos gets a base 2.0L 4-cylinder engine delivering 146 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque, working with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) (which Kia calls Intelligent instead of Continuously. Which is their right). An option for those wanting more is the 1.6L turbo engine included with the SX Turbo trim ($32,595); a big advantage of this unit is it comes with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission instead of the IVT.

2021 Kia Seltos, rear
Photo: D.Boshouwers
2021 Kia Seltos, rear

Versions
In between the two bookends that are the base model (either FWD or AWD) and the SX Turbo, there sits the Seltos EX version, priced at $27,595 and equipped with AWD and the base engine; there’s also the EX Premium ($30,595), which adds a larger screen and more tech features (wireless charger, more drive assist functions, etc.), along with a power-adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support, ventilated front seats and heated back seats.

I was given an EX for my week-long test, and it came with the Neptune Blue paint finish (an extra $250).

On the road
While I can’t say the IVT of the new Seltos totally eliminates the unpleasantness of that type of transmission, it does better than expected. Handling is also fairly impressive, the crossover taking curves without too much roll and delivering a tight feel overall. Acceleration is acceptable but nothing to beat your chest about, but then that’s not the point of a small, affordable family crossover like this. There’s a drive mode button to play with, but as usual in models like this it accomplishes little except to make the engine screech more insistently as it holds gears longer; most drivers will soon forget all about it, I expect.

Part of our road trip involved navigating the streets of Quebec City, some of which are quite narrow, and frankly that terrain represented the ideal playground for the small crossover to show what it does best. The Seltos turns tightly and visibility is very good thanks to the upright stance and relatively large fenestration (it’s not the Soul, of course, but it’s better than many others I’ve driven in this respect).

2021 Kia Seltos, three-quarters front
Photo: D.Boshouwers
2021 Kia Seltos, three-quarters front

Official fuel consumption ratings for the 2021 Seltos are 8.8L/100 km (city), 7.6L/100 km (highway) and 8.2L/100 km (combined). Lo and behold, I actually managed to beat those numbers in my highway-heavy week of driving (with 3 passengers aboard, remember), and averaged an excellent 7.4L/100 km. Music to the ears of value-loving motorists…

The Kia Seltos is a solid new addition to the in-betweenie crossover segment, avoiding any major missteps as it seeks to win over value-conscious motorists who need a small-family mover that’s great in the city and good on the highway. And you can load a fair ton of stuff in the back (at least with the seats down).

The longer term will tell us more about the vehicle’s performance in terms of reliability, and though I didn’t have occasion to test the SX Turbo version, I expect its dual-clutch transmission and increased output make it a more-dynamic performer on the road. Still, the base Seltos acquits itself well given the mandate it’s given.

2021 Kia Seltos, headlight, front grille
Photo: D.Boshouwers
2021 Kia Seltos, headlight, front grille

We like

Fuel economy
Solid design
Spacious front row
Generous cargo space (second-row seats down)
Reasonably priced for the offer

We like less

IVT can’t overcome its limits
Floating screen not well integrated
A bit heavy on plastic elements inside
Middling acceleration from the timid base engine

The competition

Buick Encore GX
Chevrolet Trailblazer
Honda HR-V
Hyundai Kona
Mazda CX-30
Nissan Qashqai
Subaru Crosstrek
Toyota C-HR

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Photos:D.Boshouwers
2021 Kia Seltos EX pictures