Christian Wardlaw | April 1, 2020
Where size, performance, and value intersect, you’ll find the stylish new 2021 Kia Seltos. Bigger inside than most small SUVs, available with a choice between two satisfying powertrains, priced below $30,000 with nearly every available option, and equipped with Kia’s legendary warranty, the 2021 Seltos demands your consideration.
Kia takes an unusual approach to the base price of $23,110 (including $1,120 for destination charges). You choose LX trim with less equipment but with standard all-wheel drive (AWD), or you choose S trim with more equipment but with front-wheel drive (AWD is optional). All other Seltos models have standard AWD: EX ($26,410), S Turbo ($26,610), and SX Turbo ($29,010).
For this review, J.D. Power primarily evaluated a Seltos SX Turbo equipped with two-tone paint and floor mats. The price came to $29,485, including the destination charge. We also took a short drive in a Seltos S with optional all-wheel drive and floor mats, priced at $24,740 including destination.
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Kia Seltos, it is helpful to understand who buys small SUVs, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
Most small SUV owners are women (58%). Owners of this type of vehicle report a median age of 56 years and enjoy a median annual household income of $78,727. A total of 61% of small SUV owners identify as either Practical or Price buyers, while 49% say that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company.
According to J.D. Power data, 97% of small SUV owners agree that a first consideration in choosing a new vehicle is reliability, 91% agree that they avoid vehicles that they think will have high maintenance costs, and 90% agree that a first consideration in choosing a new vehicle is quality of workmanship.
At the same time, 51% of small SUV owners disagree that a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place, 50% disagree that their friends and family think of them as someone who knows a great deal about autos, and 41% disagree that they’re willing to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly.
Owners say their favorite things about small SUVs are (in descending order) the exterior styling, driving dynamics, interior design, visibility and safety, and seats. Owners indicate their least favorite things about small SUVs are (in descending order) the infotainment system, engine/transmission, climate control system, storage and space, and fuel economy.
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2021 Kia Seltos measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the J.D Power 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.
Kia has crafted an appealing SUV in the new 2021 Seltos. The front end is unusual and expressive, but not off-putting – a neat trick.
Naturally, the Seltos wears the latest interpretation of Kia’s tiger nose grille design. Most versions have projector beam headlights mounted between upper LED running lights and turn signals, and lower fog lights. With SX Turbo trim, LED headlights occupy the top location, with LED turn signals in the middle spot.
Kia says the new Seltos has a greater front approach angle than a Jeep Renegade or Subaru Crosstrek. This, however, isn’t necessarily for off-roading. The urban jungle offers plenty of obstacles in the form of curbs, parking blocks, and drainage channels. In theory, the new Seltos is less likely to rub its chin on them.
Overall, this is a tidy, balanced, and attractive design, and the optional two-tone paint looks great, giving the SUV extra personality.
Especially when driving the Seltos SX Turbo, the driver feels as though he or she got a deal on this Kia. Simply put, the interior looks and feels more substantial than it is.
Like other vehicles in the small SUV segment, there is plenty of plastic inside the cabin. Upscale tones and textures as well as quality switchgear keep it from looking and feeling cheap. But you’d better like black or light gray, because those are the only colors. Also, you cannot get leather in the 2021 Seltos. Instead, Kia’s Sofino leatherette trims the seats in the S and S Turbo, and covers them in the Seltos EX and SX Turbo.
The control layout is simple, with clearly marked buttons, useful knobs, and an easily accessible infotainment system located high on the dashboard.
Fortunately, every 2021 Seltos includes a driver’s seat height adjuster, making it easy to get comfortable behind the tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel. Upgrade to EX trim, and the driver’s seat provides 10-way power adjustment.
Unfortunately, regardless of what you’re spending, there is no height adjuster for the front passenger’s seat. It does, however, sit high enough off of the SUV’s floor that its absence isn’t a deal-breaker.
Heated front seats are available or standard on most versions of the Seltos, but you can’t get ventilated front seats. This omission could be a problem, especially for people who live in humid or desert climates, given leatherette’s tendency to trap sweat.
Two larger adults or three kids can fit into the rear seating positions. Hard plastic front seatback panels might be an issue for taller people, and even in its most upright position the seatback felt too reclined, which promotes uncomfortable slouching in passengers.
Note that if you want rear air conditioning vents, a rear USB port, and a rear smartphone storage space, you need EX or SX Turbo trim.
Air conditioning is standard on every 2021 Seltos, with manual controls in LX and S versions and single-zone automatic climate control in EX and SX Turbo variants. The climate control system looks terrific and is easy and simple to use.
During testing in San Antonio, Texas on a raw winter day (rain, wind, temps in the low 40s), the Seltos’s 3-stage heated front seats, heated side mirrors, and effective automatic defogging systems came in mighty handy, keeping the cabin comfy and cozy.
A familiar 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system is standard in all Seltos models except for the SX Turbo. That top-trim version of the SUV has an impressive 10.25-inch touchscreen with navigation and a Bose premium sound system.
No matter which Seltos you get, you’ll enjoy an intuitive user interface as well as Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. The SX Turbo’s widescreen setup also includes satellite radio, Your Voice (UVO) connected services, and an upgraded voice recognition system. In the pre-production test vehicles, the voice recognition proved hit-and-miss in terms of its ability to help the driver find correct command pathways and to understand commands when given.
Kia said it spent lots of time fine-tuning the optional Bose sound system for this youthful vehicle, and the end result is impressive. It also includes sound-connected mood lighting like the Kia Soul, and the speaker panels have an upscale, three-dimensional texture and pattern.
The Seltos provides good storage, though the center console bin is on the small side. In particular, the wireless smartphone charger in the EX and SX Turbo is separate from the tray located forward of the shifter, which helps to preserve useful space.
Cargo volume is impressive for the small SUV segment, and the load floor drops several inches in order to create even more of it. Behind the seats, the Seltos supplies up to 26.6 cubic feet of space. With the seats folded, the Seltos holds up to 62.8 cu.-ft. of cargo. That latter figure is on par with some of the smaller models in the compact SUV segment.
Thanks to the standard height adjustable driver’s seat, you can sit up high in the Seltos if you want to, and that provides good visibility all around. The standard reversing camera helps, too.
Choose the S front-drive trim level, and Kia swaps the LX trim’s standard AWD system for forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, a driver monitoring system, and a full suite of lane keeping assist systems. Upgrades include blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic warning (S Turbo, EX, SX Turbo), while the SX Turbo features pedestrian and cyclist detection, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, and Kia’s Highway Driving Assist technology.
Using the SX Turbo’s tech while leaving San Antonio during the morning rush hour, I found that it works with remarkable precision and sophistication for any vehicle, much less one in this price class. It is exceptionally well done at this price point.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting the Seltos’s standard Rear Occupant Alert system, which is designed to prevent distracted parents from accidentally leaving a child in the SUV. Given how perfect this Kia is for small families on a budget, this is an important safety feature.
While I spent most of my driving time in the Seltos SX Turbo, I did get a chance to take a short drive in the Seltos S with AWD and the standard 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. It makes 146 horsepower and 132 lb.-ft. of torque and uses a sophisticated continuously variable transmission (CVT) that sounds and feels more like a traditional automatic.
On a short, urban loop in San Antonio, this version of the Seltos felt spry, offering enough pep for low-speed driving and for accelerating onto the freeway with authority. Better yet, the transmission rarely intrudes with characteristic CVT droning, but it can happen for brief periods of time.
My preference, however, was the Seltos’s turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder and second-generation 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT). With 175 hp and 195 lb.-ft. of torque available from 1,500 rpm to 4,500 rpm, the turbocharged Seltos is downright zippy, offering plenty of performance in this pint-sized package. Also, note that Kia’s upgraded DCT works with remarkable smoothness.
Both engines offer Normal, Smart, and Sport driving modes. Smart mode is supposed to automatically adjust powertrain response depending on how you’re driving, providing improved efficiency and better performance. With the turbocharged engine, a Sport transmission mode quickens shifts.
The AWD versions include a Lock mode to evenly split power between the front and rear wheels for improved traction in snow or when off-roading. But with no more than 7.2 inches of ground clearance, you’ll want to keep the Seltos mainly on the pavement.
According to Kia, the EPA rating for the Seltos’s 2.0-liter 4-cylinder paired with AWD is 27 mpg in the city. During my urban excursion in the S AWD, it averaged 24.7 mpg.
The turbocharged engine is rated to get 27 mpg in combined driving. My cumulative total, including some city driving, some off-roading with Lock mode engaged, and plenty of highway driving, came to 25.3 mpg.
Both engines include automatic engine stop/start to improve efficiency, and I left this system engaged during all of my driving. It works with impressive smoothness, but if you don’t like it you can shut it off.
Additionally, most of my driving was performed in the Smart driving mode, switching into Sport mode only for the twisty two-lane roads on the driving route.
In Sport mode, the Seltos SX Turbo provides a lively drive, accompanied by athletic handling, easily modulated brakes, and consistent and appropriate steering effort levels. While the Seltos does not emphasize the sport portion of the sport-utility vehicle recipe, it certainly isn’t vague, sloppy, or dull to drive. No doubt, credit goes in part to the standard brake-based Torque Vectoring Corner Control system.
One feature worth noting is the Leading Vehicle Departure Alert system. A sign of modern times, it notifies you that traffic ahead is moving so it’s time to stop paying attention to your smartphone and start paying attention to your driving. Don’t be surprised if other automakers copy this helpful piece of tech.
The 2021 Kia Seltos is a competitive small SUV. Bigger inside than similarly priced vehicles and dripping in value compared to the smaller members of the compact SUV class, it's nimble and enjoyable to drive (especially in turbocharged format) and roomy enough to accommodate a family of four. Add Kia’s industry-leading warranty program, the impressive quality of the controls and switchgear, and the depth and breadth of its technology, and new 2021 Seltos strikes me as a real bargain – like any Kia is.
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