Consumers cannot get enough of the small-to-midsize crossover market. Accordingly, nearly every manufacturer provides an offering in the segment. Longing for a piece of the pie, Kia recently launched the Seltos, with all-wheel-drive and plastic cladding aplenty. Kia’s website touts “Big design, technology, and versatility.” Are they right? My wife and I would find out: Google Maps informed us that the first leg of our trip, and our Seltos test, would take four hours and thirty-six minutes. Not exactly the hour-and-forty-five we planned for. Yet there was a positive way to spin this: An opportunity to see new sights. An opportunity to road trip, a genuine love of mine. And an opportunity to gather serious seat time in the new Kia Seltos SX Turbo, a curiously interesting car in a curiously hot market. The adventure would take us from the airport to the not-so-close beach and back. How would Kia’s compact crossover fare? We landed in Orlando and hit the road.
This road test carried the emotional weight of our first real travel since last year’s initial Covid lockdown. My planning hadn’t helped the situation. The Kia’s quirky looks did, though. It appears bigger than it is, and the black roof evokes a sporty vibe. Likewise, the wheels and lighting treatment are up-class and up-segment. Notably absent was Kia’s new logo.
On the road
Eager to reach Marco Island after a short, engine-failure-free United flight, we hit the proverbial ground running. Bags tossed in the back, mirrors set, phone plugged into the Seltos’ convenient center console port. Good first impressions: Comfortable seats and quality materials on the touchpoints. CarPlay is present, enabling me to quickly mirror my phone for directions versus fighting to connect Bluetooth. (Both my wife and myself, both of whom are fairly tech-savvy, had difficulty wirelessly streaming audio.)
Music flowing through the Bose stereo, Google Maps pointed us to the nearest freeway. I was apprehensive; Small crossovers aren’t known for their high-speed, long-distance prowess. To my surprise, the Seltos fares wonderfully. Composed, smooth, and efficient. Quiet, too, as even the low-speed tire noise fizzles away. And the A/C, crucial for evaluation in the Florida heat, froze us even when set at 74. Once comfortably settled in I fiddled with the tech. Kia Drive Wise left me wanting more. The system’s lane keep assist constantly bounces the car from one side of the lane to the other, evoking the feeling of bumper bowling. One more iteration and it should be where it needs to be. Luckily the radar cruise control works well as does the slew of screens and gauges present.
Hands and feet back in control, severe traffic ahead brought us to an exit ramp and then to a two-lane country road. Suddenly we were on local inland byways, driving through plantations and orange tree country. Gorgeous, rolling farms lined our peripherals. The hazy, setting sun created a peacefully serene aura, a stunning beauty the likes of which I had never seen before. It felt like the south in a way that was new to my eyes. Life in our surroundings looked slow, a life of yesteryear. It was a nice reminder that this country is bigger than the little bubble in which we were living. And in places outside that bubble, like a flat piece of lowlands property lined with Spanish moss, it’s absolutely beautiful. Our trek wasn’t short, but it was certainly pretty.
Punchy and nimble
Two hundred miles disappeared with ease, along with the setting sun. The Seltos ate up the drive despite the dashboard’s “Consider taking a break” warning pinging every fifteen minutes for the second half of the drive. Clearly, it didn’t understand I had done so at the two-hour mark. Finally, on Marco Island local streets as the day slipped into dusk, I toggled through the Seltos’ drive modes. “Smart” made the transmission shift comically early, well before the turbo’s powerband. Acceleration in this mode is lackadaisical and cars pull out from behind to pass. Sport mode brings a decided change in character. The throttle becomes extremely sensitive and the DCT transmission snaps off shifts quicker than a vehicle of this purpose has any right to. The Seltos SX Turbo is by no means fast, but it’s punchy and more than powerful enough to scoot around town or blast up to highway speeds with aplomb. As expected, comfort mode serves as a good middle ground of driveability and economy.
One surprise was seeing over 12,500 miles on the Seltos’ odometer. Journalists notoriously drive press cars harder than do normal users (See: Subaru WRX 0-60 testing). Between rigorous data gathering and the general lack of mechanical sympathy, press cars live rough lives. As such, I was delighted by the Kia’s utter lack of rattles. Likewise, the interior was still in fantastic condition. The brakes, however, were already at the end of their life. This ties in my biggest gripe with the Seltos: It felt like I regularly had to use 50% more brake pressure than needed. And sometimes braking took a concerningly long distance. There was no pattern. It left me wondering if maybe the brake feedback wasn’t good, or if it was electronically programmed a certain way. I’ll give the car the benefit of the doubt and blame another outlet’s threshold testing. Chalk it up to worn pads.
Not that there are any rough patches on the wealthy roads of the sunny Gulf coast, but the Seltos’ ride quality impressed us. It’s not luxury supple, yet the Seltos’ suspension is well dampened and proves truly comfortable on highway and side streets alike. Similarly, I was shocked by the Seltos’ steering. It’s largely devoid of feel, but the ratio is rather quick. A small turn of the wheel translates to the front end changing direction rapidly. The handling that follows is standard crossover level fare. Joyfully though, the Seltos feels light on its feet. Fun isn’t the right word; it’s “playful” at best. Just right for its intent.
The return trip
Two days later we returned to the Seltos, again hoping to cover distance quickly. Crossing the causeway I spotted a sandy path and couldn’t resist pulling off. What looked soft and rutted from afar was in reality a boat launch access road. Loose sand in spots, but more of a rally stage surface than real off-roading. Even so, it begged me to test the Seltos’ all-wheel-drive. My eye caught the button for the center-locking differential but as absolute overkill, I skipped it, hit Sport mode instead, and punched the gas. The little Kia bounded along on the sandy stretch, happy and confident alongside the hazards on either side. How would it have fared had the “locker” been needed? The reality is, this road (or a semi-maintained track to a hiking trailhead) is likely the most difficult terrain any Seltos buyer will tackle. Vehicles in this class don’t need to be Off the Road Again certified for hardcore 4×4 use, but the Seltos pretends to be such and flawlessly inspires confidence.
Vehicles in the hotter-than-hot small and midsize crossover, “SUV-wannabe” class need to do a myriad of things well: Stand out in a crowd, deliver strong gas mileage, boast AWD, brag the most modern tech, tick a reasonable MSRP, and handily pack in both people and gear. It’s a class for first-time, aspirational buyers as well as those stepping up from an entry-level car or hand-me-down. They seek something that drives like a car and gets car-like fuel economy but touts the impression of off-pavement capability. Here, the Seltos is very easy to recommend. Buyers will like the hidden wireless charging pad the same way they like knowing they have AWD. What does the Seltos lack? Excitement, enthusiasm, panache. The Seltos is good at its intended tasks but devoid of any semblance of passion. For a vehicle in this intended market, it’s nary a fault. Yet in this case, it feels slightly incongruous with its styling and marketing.
At the end of our trip, I parked the Seltos, unloaded our bags, and looked at it. Twenty, even ten, years ago, a vehicle like this would have been inconceivable. And something this good from Kia? It’s cliché to discuss how far the company has come, but it is truly remarkable. The level of content here and the vehicle’s overall competence are astounding. The Seltos SX Turbo makes a strong case for itself. It scoffed at a 200+ mile drive and is the right size for many (read: most) buyers. Kia has also teased an X-Line, Trail Attack, and Urban spread of concepts. The car could easily fill many more niches and would do so quite well. In such a cramped and ever-growing market, it’s not uncommon to see offerings come and go. The Seltos feels like it has staying power, especially landing in time to ride the wildly successful Telluride’s coattails.
The Kia Seltos is for the buyer who wants a bit of everything. It’s not perfect, but the Seltos truly is genuinely good. So much transit time between destinations could have quickly put a damper on our vacation or at least on our relaxation. The little Kia didn’t exactly enhance the trek per se, but it certainly didn’t hurt. It handled it all with ease and would have happily kept on adventuring. Which is exactly what buyers will want the Seltos to do. Checkmate, Kia.
What is it and how much does it cost?
2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo
Options: Starbright Yellow / Black Roof Paint ($345), Carpeted Floor Mats ($130)
MSRP w/Options and Freight/Handling: $29,485
What’s the intended purpose?
Provide an all-wheel-drive, tech-heavy, value-driven offering in the compact crossover market
Where does it succeed?
Tech aplenty; comfortable even over long distances; good seating position and ride quality; strong MPG; Sufficient power and good transmission
Where does it fail?
Lane keep assist needs work; over-active safety features need another refresh; Bluetooth streaming is too difficult to set up
The Kia Seltos SX Turbo is a compelling offering in a hotter-than-hot market and touts a lot of inclimate weather capability in a practical and efficient size. A lot of car for the money.