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Kia knows SUVs—just look at the company’s latest Soul subcompact or the all-new mid-size Telluride—and it’s adding the rugged-looking Seltos to its lineup for 2021. Based on the same platform as the excellent Hyundai Kona, the Seltos offers sharp handling similar to that SUV but pairs it with a taller ride height, a roomier cabin, and even more technology. Two engines are offered—a 2.0-liter four-cylinder and a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder—as is either front- or all-wheel drive. A host of driver-assistance features are optional, including an adaptive cruise control system with lane-centering assist and automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection. Infotainment, too, is cutting edge with a large 10.3-inch touchscreen gracing well-equipped examples. From what we can tell so far, Kia has yet another fantastic SUV on its hands.
Kia Seltos models: 2021 Seltos LX, 2021 Seltos S, 2021 Seltos EX, 2021 Seltos S Turbo, 2021 Seltos SX Turbo
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Now comes the Seltos, which slots between the smaller and quirkier Soul — recently redesigned as well — and the Sportage. As is increasingly the case with Kia, the Seltos shares its underpinnings with Hyundai, in this case the Hyundai Kona. That said, the Seltos is larger, with a greater cargo capacity and a slightly higher starting price. Utility aside, the Kia is far better looking than its Hyundai cousin, which is stylistically challenged by an over-caffeinated design and cheap gray plastic cladding reminiscent of a Pontiac Aztek. Instead, the Kia’s black wheel arch cladding is more subdued, blending with front and rear skid plates and chrome trim that lend the Seltos’ appearance a sophisticated sporty off-road classicism, capped by an optional two-tone roof.
The inside story is similarly impressive.
Offered in LX, S, EX and SX trim levels, the asymmetrical dashboard orients its controls towards the driver, although they’re still easily accessible for the front seat passenger. A large, horizontal, hi-res, full-color touchscreen is easy to read, reach and operate. A row of redundant physical buttons underlines the screen, making shortcuts a breeze. The climate control is located beneath that in a row of simple elegant controls. At the base of the center stack is Qi wireless charging, a USB port and space for knick-knacks.
Piano black plastics and a gracefully simple design offset the abundance of hard-grained plastics. Still, it’s a nicely trimmed cabin for the price, and the center stack in particular looks as if it was plucked from a German car rather than a Korean one.
The front seats strike a good balance between comfort and support. The test car’s seat heaters have three settings, and warm up quickly and effectively. The power front driver’s seat electrically adjusts for height, seatback angle and forward/rearward travel, making it easy to find a good driving position. There’s also a manually adjustable tilt/telescopic steering wheel. The front passenger’s seat adjusts fore and aft, and for seatback angle, but not for height. Regardless, they prove to be roomy, as do the surprisingly spacious back seats. A generous cargo area with adjustable height floor allows for substantial cargo flexibility.
The base Seltos engine is a 2.0-liter Atkinson Cycle four-cylinder engine that produces 146 horsepower through a continuously variable transmission. A more powerful 1.6-liter turbocharged four is also offered, and generates 175 horsepower with a seven-speed dual clutch transmission. The EPA rates the 2.0-liter engine at 27 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, with the turbo engine faring slightly worse, but still impressive, at 25 mpg city, 30 highway.
The test vehicle was a top-of-the-line SX Turbo, with the turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and seven-speed dual clutch transmission used in several other Kia models. There’s a hint of turbo lag at initial throttle input, but power comes on quickly in a smooth surge, and throttle response is lively at speed. Coupled with quick steering that has great on-center feel, the Seltos is an easy trucklet to drive smoothly. Emergency braking is impressive.
Despite being an inexpensive crossover, the Seltos shines when the road turns rough, unpaved or curvy. Through the twisting roads of Texas Hill Country, bump absorption was impressive, with no side-to-side rocking or road shock. Even crowned two-lane roads and uneven road surfaces don’t upset the Seltos’ composure. Abrupt maneuvers fail to bring out tire squeal, and the Seltos always proves controllable, with higher cornering limits than you might expect in a mainstream CUV. It’s quite remarkable for this price class, and is a class above in demeanor.
It’s also fun to drive, thanks to an all-wheel drive system that uses torque vectoring to maintain the vehicle’s intended path through corners. There’s also a locking center differential for when the road turns slick, in addition to three selectable driving modes that regulate throttle response, transmission shifts and steering feel.
That said, the lack of steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters is disappointing. Flicking the transmission lever is a lot less thrilling, not to mention less safe since you must remove your right hand from the wheel.
While Kia didn’t provide any 2.0-liter models to test, if the Hyundai Kona is any indication, it will be less entertaining to drive, but still impressive.
The cabin is quiet at speed, although there is some road noise over rough surfaces, but it’s not objectionable. That makes it easier to hear the Bose audio system, and while sound quality is OK, it calls to mind the old truism about the brand — no highs, no lows, must be Bose.