The Kia Seltos is a surprisingly sporty all-around performer that will make owners proud.
When Kia launched the improved 2020 Soul, the biggest disappointment was the lack of All Wheel Drive. It’s something buyers had been asking for for many years, and it seemed like, yet again, they hadn’t been listened to. I remember that Kia took us up into the mountains for the 2020 Soul national press introduction last year. While we were all stopped for lunch, it started snowing, and we had to drive the Souls back down the mountain in those less-than-ideal conditions. Catching the eye of one of the Kia reps, I said, “If only you had given us All Wheel Drive!”
Well, it turns out they were listening after all, because for 2021Kia has blessed the US market with the Seltos, a subcompact crossover that’s about the same size as a Soul, but features a lifted body, boxy and aggressive SUV-like styling, and standard AWD on almost all Seltos models, with the notable exception of some 2.0L S models.
The market positioning of the Soul and the Seltos makes a lot more sense to me now that we have both of them available in the US market. The type of buyer who looks for a unique and stylish city runabout probably cares less about AWD and would prefer the cool look of the lower sitting FWD Soul, while someone who lives further away from the city and is looking for something that can handle inclement weather in the winter months would be more attracted by the rugged Seltos with its AWD system.
To learn more about how well the Seltos succeeds at its mission, I spent a week with a mid-range Seltos, the S Turbo AWD. This particular trim level was quite interesting to me, as it speaks to some recent creativity in product planning at Kia Motors America where, rather than a simple linear progression from the cheapest and most basic trim level to the most expensive and fully loaded trim, you have various trim levels that focus on particular buyer groups.
For example, the Seltos S Turbo AWD that I tested was priced at a very reasonable $26,740. That price includes the MSRP of the car at $25,490, an extra $130 for carpeted floor mats, and $1,120 delivery charge. Compare that to the Seltos EX which comes in at $26,540 if you include the same floor mats and the same delivery fee, and you’ll see that the price is pretty much identical, but these are two very different trims.
While the S Turbo AWD comes with the more powerful 1.6L turbocharged four cylinder engine with 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft torque but comes with a more basic feature set on the interior, the EX has the more relaxed 2.0L naturally aspirated motor with 146 horsepower and 132 lb-ft torque but gains a host of luxury features inside the cabin. And of course, if you don’t want to compromise, you can pay a few thousand dollars more for the SX Turbo (around $30,000 fully loaded) to get both the higher output powertrain and the more luxurious interior.
My first impression being handed the keys to the Kia Seltos was that it’s a very smart-looking, handsome crossover. From the outside, it has an aggressive and sophisticated look, especially due to the front end’s high-set and wide tiger-nose grille and headlights which are so well integrated into the grille. The lower grille which looks like a skidplate goes a long way to setting the rugged tone of the vehicle, and it brings attention to the impressive approach angle the front bumper grants the car.
The front lighting of the Seltos also lends itself to the more rugged look compared to other subcompact crossovers. The headlight units are one piece, but are divided visually by textured satin chrome trim into an upper section and a lower section. In cheaper trims of the Seltos, the turn signals and daytime running lights are housed in the upper section, and the projector beam halogen headlights take up the lower section, with small round foglights near the bottom of the bumper.
However, in the top-of-the-line SX Turbo, Kia places the full LED headlights in the top section and a unique patterned LED turn signal in the lower section. In place of the single beam foglights of lesser models, the SX Turbo also comes with tri-beam LED foglights in an upscale satin chrome housing.
The Kia Seltos sports hood creases reminiscent of the Telluride, and from the driver’s seat, I definitely felt that same feeling looking at the hood line in front of me. The wraparound greenhouse effect on the Seltos window line from the windshield to the side windows helps to make it visually bigger than its small footprint would otherwise convey. Another visual cue that I found appealing is the satin chrome window trim which appears at first to only adorn the bottom of each side window, but when you look closer connects visually with the satin chrome roof rails.
I’m also a big fan of the floating rear of the roof rails which not only looks unique and is a cool detail, but also looks practical because you can hook things around the very end of the roof rail which isn’t really an option on any other crossover. That side chrome trim also provides a clean break between the roof and the rest of the car, and allows Kia to offer the Seltos with a divergent roof color. This looks best in the Starbright Yellow color with the black roof, and the Dark Ocean Blue with the white roof.
Speaking of colors, the Mars Orange of my tester was a striking paintjob that stood out on the road and had an impressive depthto it, especially in bright sunlight. However, many people I showed the car to saw it more as a red than an orange color, and when I picked up Chick Fil A in the car, they noted me down as “Red SUV.” Just something to think about if you are looking at the Mars Orange color.
The two-tone painted 18” wheels with red center cap trim help to differentiate the Turbo Kia Seltos models from the naturally aspirated trim levels, and these are probably the best iteration of this style of wheels. Kia has been installing these on cars with the 1.6L turbo lately, such as the Forte GT and Soul GT-Line, and while I wasn’t sold on the similarly styled wheels on the Forte GT, I thought they looked attractive and appropriate on the Seltos. However, the red trim on the center caps doesn’t really match anything else on the car, so if it was me, I’d probably paint them black.
At the back of the car, the LED pattern of the brake lights feels upscale and is also mirrored at the top of the taillights with another LED strip. In between, the turn signals are anincandescent red, while the standard reverse lights are integrated into the satin chrome center trim which also sports the Kia logo. Kia has also included deep creases on the hatch about halfway between the rear window and the rear bumper which curve downwards into large reflectors. It seems that this style decision was made to make the car look wider, as from the back the car is quite tall and narrow, since the roof is nearly flat and high up on the car.
By far the low point of the Seltos is the rear bumper. While it has some gray trim that looks a little like a skidplate, it doesn’t do its job as well as the front lower grille, and the exhaust trim on the black plastic bumper is very obviously fake. In fact, I’m not really a fan of how much black plastic cladding exists on the Seltos, especially as the shape of the cladding on the door panelsreally brings attention to how much of it you have to put up with. But, someone decided that’s what SUVs should have, so this boxy crossover has it too.
Stepping inside the Seltos S Turbo AWD, the first thing I noticed was how few amenities that I’m used to in test cars were here. The manually-controlled front seats were mostly cloth with some leatherette material on the extreme edges of them, and I had to actually stick the key in the ignition rather than pushing a button. That key was in the stylish new detonator style that Kia’s been spreading throughout its lineup, with remote power door locks, but I had to switchblade it out and turn the key in the steering column to get the engine started.
I then turned to the 8” touchscreen audio system, which is a similar style to other new Kias I’ve driven and features a highresolution screen, but it is so basic in this application that I started wondering why I needed such a large screen to listen to FM radio through the 6-speaker base audio system (which was a little unimpressive as well). Of course, it does have wired Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Bluetooth streaming and phone calls, but that’s pretty much a given in any car today. There’s no navigation, SiriusXM, or advanced setup options.
The S Turbo also has a basic manual single-zone air conditioning, although it admittedly is finished nicely with a gloss black section that mimics a climate control screen. There are no rear climate vents in this trim level. And while there is a phone tray that’s convenient, it doesn’t come with a wireless charger. There’s a standard cruise control and some basic active safety features and blind spot monitoring, but no smart cruise control or advanced safety systems. You also won’t get luxuries like a sunroof or LED interior lighting, and while the driver’s window is auto-down, there is no auto-up, and all other power windows require a constant touch to open or close.
Additionally, most of the plastics are hard touch, other than some soft touch and textured materials on the armrests. Thecenter armrest adjusts fore and aft, which is a nice feature that allows various body types a little more comfort. I do like how the speaker grilles in the Kia Seltos have a rocky texture to them, similar to the Hyundai Santa Fe. The S Turbo also features a center dash-mounted speaker grille for style, but in this trimlevel there is no actual speaker under there.
After my initial shock about how few amenities exist in the Kia Seltos S Turbo at the exact same price point as the fully loaded Forte GT2 I had just given back, I started driving the Seltos.
And wow, did my opinion change fast. This thing is a blast to drive! It’s extremely responsive, and the rotary drive mode selector is so satisfying to use to switch into Sport mode when you want to make the most out of the excellently tuned engine. I’ve heard some grumbling about the reliability of the 7-speed dual clutch transmission in this car, but in terms of how it performs on the road, I was pleasantly surprised. Despite it sitting higher on the road than a Soul GT-Line and being tuned more for torque than for power compared to the 201 horsepower Soul iteration of this engine (the Seltos gets 195 lb-ft at only 1,500 RPM), somehow they have made the Seltos seriously quick and lively for its price point and weight. Also, in spite of its higher center of gravity, it can take corners in stride without much body roll at all. The suspension tuning has been done so well. The combination of the power, handling, and visibility of the Seltos inspired my confidence and I had a lot of fun for the week I got to spend with the car.
The AWD also works well and provides additional confidence on dirt trails and bad weather. The AWD lock is easy to enable in the center console and can get you out of tough situations when needed, although of course this is not a true off-roader. I found it handled rough terrain well, but it won’t be able to hold its own against true SUVs. There’s also a downhill mode that should help to regulate all four wheels in otherwise dangerous downhill situations. You can see exactly how much power is going to each of the four wheels in a convenient but tiny screen in the gauge cluster.
In terms of fuel economy, the Kia Seltos S Turbo AWD impresses as well, with a 25mpg rating in the city and 30mpg rating on the highway, for a combined 27mpg average. In my week with the car, I was getting a little over 20mpg, but I was having too much fun pushing it hard, and not really finding any disappointing limits to the car’s performance.
I also found that the Seltos’s seats are quite comfortable despite being basic cloth seats. They’re soft yet supportive, and they do feature heated seats for cold mornings. Not quite as good as a first-generation Kia Sorento, which had amazing cloth seats, but very good for the segment. The rear-seat passenger space is larger than its footprint would suggest, and those rear seats can even recline for added comfort. Legroom is good for the class, but headroom is incredible, and cargo space is larger than you might think for this class. We used it to haul a 8’x10’ area rug and it fit in perfectly, perched on the center armrest and not even touching the rear cargo door.
Additionally, I came to really like the textured blue dashboard trim that comes in the S Turbo. It’s unique and attractive and always gives you something to look at and touch when you’re stopped in the car for an extended period. That blue texture is mirrored by blue stitching on the gearshift lever and the armrests of the Seltos. However, even though the online configurator says that the S Turbo also comes with blue stitching on the seats, my tester definitely had gray stitching for the seats. I wasn’t sure if that’s because it was a prototype model or whether they got it wrong on the website, but I wish they had been just a little more detail oriented with things like this.
For myself, I would want to spend a few thousand dollars more for the SX Turbo to make sure I matched this impressive powertrain with a few more luxury features like a 10.25” display with navigation, a larger gauge cluster display, automatic climate control, push-button start, full LED lighting, smart cruise control, Bose audio, interior ambient lighting, wireless phone charging, rear climate vents, full power leatherette seats, and a sunroof. But I am still glad the S Turbo exists because I know there are buyers out there that care more about the performance and could do without luxurious amenities to save a couple thousand dollars.
I was very impressed by the driving character and overall package of the Kia Seltos S Turbo AWD and it is absolutely worth every penny of its low sticker price. I wasn’t expecting much in a subcompact crossover, but I was delighted by the car. Unlike the Forte GT, there is no performance badgeto fool you into expecting it should be a sports car. However, the driving experience seemed on par with the Forte GT anyway,despite the Seltos being a larger car with less overall power. There is nothing like having your expectations exceeded.
I don’t necessarily see what others who call it a baby Telluride do, but as a rugged, capable, affordable, and fun alternative to the similarly sized Soul, I would have a hard time finding a competitor to recommend over the Seltos right now.