In today’s market where crossovers are king, every niche and market crevasse is being explored. Though no longer surprising that Kia now has three similarly-sized crossovers, do they all serve a unique purpose? This all-new 2021 Kia Seltos is pitched as a spacious and rugged crossover that slots between the urban-funky Soul and the upscale and sporty Sportage. Its adventurous looks, however, is where the excitement ends, and the Seltos simply gets by on the merits of its practicality and good value.
Ready for On-road Adventures
Properly equipped to tackle your nearest dirt road, the Seltos is designed with black lower cladding to help visually raise the crossover’s ride height and physically protect the painted panels from any rocks picked up along the way. Mechanically, the all-wheel-drive system can be preemptively engaged to lock the front to rear power split before wheel slip occurs. When left in automatic mode, the system does an excellent job at quickly routing power where needed and automatically disconnecting the rear wheels for improved efficiency.
But beyond that, the Seltos’ soft suspension quickly runs out of travel over dips and its lack of underside protection means getting too adventurous (like in the commercials) can lead to expensive extractions and damage. Around town at low speeds, the Seltos feels agile and exhibits very little body roll yet its overly sensitive brake pedal means one clumsy touch of the pedal will be followed with apologies and an attempt to deflect blame onto whoever approved this overly sensitive pedal. At higher speeds, the Seltos feels like a larger SUV – heavy but stable in a straight line. The steering is ideal for cruising as it filters out what is happening underneath but its lack of feel didn’t do me any favors during a windy snowstorm in the mountains.
Despite being a small crossover on the outside, efficient packaging affords a relatively large interior with plenty of passenger and cargo space for four adults with backpacks. Even the driver’s feet are free from any floor or firewall intrusion and it’s easy to stretch your legs on a long drive. Rear passengers (two, not three) can easily get comfortable with plenty of headroom, legroom, HVAC vents, and a reclining seatback; however, intrusive road noise hinders conversation.
Inspired design, On the Outside
The exterior is full of intriguing and bold design details such as LED strips along the upper portion of the grille that extend the daytime running light pattern, triple “beam” foglights, swooping turn signal strips, stylized LED headlights and taillights, brushed aluminum window trim, black A-pillars, and a contrasting roof color. The interior, however, lacks creativity, any stand-out design features, or examples of detailed craftsmanship. The knobs and buttons operate with precision and the panels are assembled with consistent gaps but overall, the lack of creativity leaves it feeling disconnected from its exterior.
Thankfully, This Powertrain is Optional.
The Seltos is standard with a ho-hum 146 horsepower engine and a continuously variable transmission while the optional powertrain sends a robust 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of turbocharged power through a promising dual-clutch transmission. In the real world, the pricier powertrain’s lack of refinement significantly outweighs the performance benefits.
The engine fires up and idles with a noticeable vibration felt through the cabin although once in gear, the revs lower and the engine is smooth. Creeping forward or reversing up a slight incline demonstrates the design-inherent compromise of the DCT. Compared to a traditional automatic, which uses a torque converter to smoothly apply power to the transmission, the DCT manages clutch engagement and, in the Seltos, the result is inconsistent acceleration from a stop. Low-speed throttle input is met with either the engine revving with little progress or an unexpected lurch as the transmission’s speed matches up with the engine. Once underway, the transmission shifts crisply, albeit slowly, but the woes are still very present. The software is far too aggressive at keeping the engine revs low for maximum efficiency. While first gear is very short, which helps with off-the-line acceleration and minimizes clutch wear, second and third gears are far too tall which takes the engine off its game.
Accelerating smoothly from a stop becomes a skill and it goes something like this: quickly press the throttle pedal about ⅓ of the way to get off the line smartly and help the clutch engage smoothly but don’t overdo it as a wallop of turbocharged power awaits. Then, immediately after the gear change, quickly increase the throttle position to avoid the early upshift into third because now the engine needs time (and rev’s) to get into its powerband. As third gear lands, the engine should still within the meaty portion of its rev range, and the Seltos easily gets up to cruising speed.
If one were to simply hold a steady throttle position, they’d be met with waves of power that stirs some acceleration before going flat as the Seltos upshifts from one gear to the next. The shifting points can be adjusted with the transmission lever in the Sport mode, which keeps the revs higher, and in Manual mode, where the gear-shift lever is used to request gear changes as paddle shifters (available on the Soul) are not offered in the Seltos.
This particular top-tier SX Turbo trim includes premium the full roster of available features such as adaptive cruise control, a 10.25-inch touchscreen with navigation, a Bose premium audio system, and a seven-inch digital display in the gauge cluster. While these features make the Seltos more enjoyable over its base version, those types of features also pump up the price tag to nearly $30,000. At that point, the Seltos begins to invite comparisons to other models with sorted powertrains and suspension dampening. To truly appreciate the Seltos, the value aspect has to be front and center. The mid-level EX trim includes many of the most desirable safety and comfort features for about $2,500 less.
A (Very) Narrow Playing Field
With an intriguing exterior, roomy cabin, and a low starting price, the all-new Seltos gains a lot of initial attention but it struggles to keep the conversation going. Its interior design is bland, the on-off powertrain is frustrating, and its handling lacks refinement. The all-new Seltos doesn’t raise the bar in any particular field but its compilation of key features is enough for it to stand out among its competition.