2021 Kia Seltos First Drive Review: Thinking Outside The Box

First Drive / Comments

Picture the Seltos as a larger Soul that isn't shaped like a box.

Consumers in the US demand affordable crossovers and automakers are responding as quickly as possible. Kia has seen unparalleled success with its mid-sized Telluride, so much, in fact, the company can't build them fast enough and even refers to it internally as the "Selluride." Taking what it learned from the three-row mid-size segment, Kia is now tackling the subcompact market taking on the likes of the Ford EcoSport, Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-30, and Toyota CH-R to name just a few.

Kia technically competes in this space with the Soul, though it doesn't offer all-wheel-drive and the boxy styling is quite polarizing. The company's latest subcompact crossover, the 2021 Kia Seltos, arrives with optional all-wheel-drive, more conventional styling, and a larger footprint than its boxy sibling. Kia flew us to San Antonio, Texas to see if the Seltos can capture the magic of the Telluride in a pint-sized package.

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Exterior Design: Less Boxy

We love the Kia Soul but many people we recommend it to are put off by the boxy shape. Kia has recognized that while a box is a practical shape, not everyone wants their car to be shaped like a shipping container. The Seltos rolls in distinct styling, headed by Kia's signature tiger-nose grille with new diamond-like detailing. Higher trim models are accented by a handsome chrome beltline that melds into the D-pillar.

All of the examples Kia had for us to test were painted in the signature Starbright Yellow hue with a Black Cherry roof. Seven other single-colors are available while two-tone options include either a black or white roof. We admit the bold shade of yellow may not be to everyone's tastes but we say life's to short to have a boring color.

The Seltos slots above the Soul and below the Sportage in Kia's lineup. Its wheelbase is two inches longer than the Soul while the height and width are about the same. Even though it doesn't look much taller, the Seltos offers a 28-degree approach angle, which bests the Jeep Renegade and Subaru Crosstrek.

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Engine, Performance, & MPG: Missing A Little Soul

LX, S, and EX trims are powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine producing 146 horsepower and 136 foot-pounds of torque going out to what Kia calls an Intelligent Variable Transmission (another name for a CVT). We didn't have a chance to drive the Seltos with this engine/transmission combination but we enjoyed it when we drove the Kia Forte. A 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder comes optionally on the S trim and standard on the LX trim. It produces a livelier 175 hp and 195 lb-ft torque going out through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

The same drivetrain is also used in the Soul GT-Line and the Forte GT where it outputs 201 hp. With a bit less power on tap, the Seltos is less spry than the smaller Soul. Only the lower S trim is available with front-wheel-drive with a torsion beam suspension in the rear while all other trims get all-wheel-drive and a multi-link rear suspension.

Kia says the 175-hp tune was done for fuel economy purposes but a sportier GT-Line variant with the full 201-hp could come in the future. Fuel economy is rated at 29/34/31 city/highway/combined in its most efficient 2.0 FWD configuration. Opting for AWD drops those numbers to 27/31/29 mpg while the 1.6 AWD combination yields 25/30/27 mpg.

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Interior Design: Knocking On Luxury's Door

Inside, the top SX trim gets a class-leading 10.25-inch touchscreen displayed paired with a seven-inch LCD screen while lesser models make do with an eight-inch touchscreen and 3.5-inch LCD cluster display. The 10.25-inch screen is crystal clear and offers some of the best functionality available at any price level. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay comes standard and can now be split-screened with the native infotainment system while in use.

Most of the areas you touch in the Seltos are covered in soft materials though there are plenty of hard plastics high on the dash, as you'd expect from an affordable car. Storage space is more than ample with double-decker bins placed in front of the shifter with an optionally wireless charging pad up top. The Seltos is the first Kia to use a Bose stereo system, which sounded clear to our ears but lacked the punch of Kia's Harmon Kardon systems. While we missed the ventilated seats offered on the previous-generation Soul and the current Forte, the Seltos boasts a cool "Sounds of Nature" feature that plays soothing tones of calm sea waves, a rainy day, warm fireplace, and a few others.

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Trunk & Cargo Space: A Wise Use Of Space

Rear seat occupants receive similar legroom as the Soul but now have the ability to recline the seatbacks for a more comfortable sitting experience. The Seltos also benefits from rear vents, which should keep rear passengers cool in the hotter months. In the cargo area, the Seltos offers 26.6 cubic feet of cargo space (about two cubic feet more than the Soul) with the same adjustable floor than can be lowered for additional space or raised to lay flat when the seats are folded. With the rear seats down, the Seltos offers 62.8 cubic feet of space (slightly more than the Soul).

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2021 Kia Seltos Rear Passenger Seats CarBuzz

Driving Impressions: Soul-Ish

Hopping behind the wheel of the Seltos, we quickly re-discovered a lot of the joy we experience driving the Soul. The turbocharged engine is fairly quick to respond with a downshift from the DCT, though we noticed Sport Mode offered a much quicker throttle response. Kia also offers a Smart Mode, which can quickly change to Sport Mode when it detects aggressive driving, dialing back to Normal Mode when it detects sensible driving. With 175 hp on tap, it's easy to notice that the Seltos feels slightly less peppy than the smaller, more powerful Soul. We hope Kia rectifies this with a more powerful Seltos GT-Line but the trade-off for fuel economy will be worth it for most buyers.

Ride comfort in the Seltos is excellent though on unfamiliar roads, it was difficult to assess if it feels more comfortable than the Soul, which uses a rear torsion beam rather than a multi-link setup. Some rougher stretches of highway produced some howling from the tires but over most surfaces, the Seltos feels quiet and composed with very little engine and wind noise intruding into the cabin.

2021 Kia Seltos Front View Driving Kia
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2021 Kia Seltos Front View Driving Kia
2021 Kia Seltos Front View Driving Kia

Price & Trims: A Great Value

Pricing for the 2021 Seltos starts at under $22,000 and tops out at under $30,000 before options and destination. Two entry-level trims are offered at $21,900 - the base LX trim with AWD or a more well-optioned S trim with FWD. Stepping up to the S AWD with the 2.0-liter engine costs $23,490 while the S trim with the turbocharged engine starts at $25,490. The EX trim is the most loaded of the 2.0-liter trim levels at $25,290 while the top SX trim remains reasonably priced at $27,890. All Seltos trims incur a $1,120 destination charge.

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Verdict: Kia Has A Another Hit

Our only complaints with the Seltos are minor, nit-picky issues. We'd like to see Kia offer a more powerful version with the 201-hp state of tune and ventilated front seats would be a major bonus for warmer climates. But aside from these gripes, it looks like Kia will have yet another hit on its hands. The Seltos takes most of what we love about the Soul and opens it up to a broader audience that craves more conventional styling and AWD grip. Like its boxy sibling, we think the Seltos belongs at the top of its class and we even consider it a worthy alternative to luxury-branded subcompacts.

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