First drive: 2021 Kia Seltos rides in style

March 11, 2020

Each pint-size ‘ute from nearly every automaker on the planet now promises something different. For many buyers of those small crossovers, all that matters is whether they arrive in style. 

The 2021 Kia Seltos piles on style like fresh Wranglers, crisp button-up shirts, hard-wearing felt Stetsons and shined up East Texas belt buckles. 

We recently drove the Seltos in the hill country outside San Antonio, where swamp oak and cedar elm share Texas dirt with shiny, new temples erected for high-school football. Our 5.8 TCC Rating reflects the Seltos’ style and relative value among small crossovers with its low starting price of $23,110, including destination. 

Not everything is bigger in Texas, except for the ribeyes. Those are definitely bigger. 

Here’s what we discovered in the smallest Kia crossover on sale. 

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

Heart with Soul

The boxy and practical Soul has always endeared itself to us thanks to its usable space and funky style that never felt kitsch. The Soul’s biggest demerit for snow-staters has been its lack of all-wheel drive, which Kia hasn’t offered. 

The 2021 Seltos largely fills that gap left by the Soul. It’s incrementally larger than the Soul between its wheels but stretches nearly seven more inches from bumper to bumper. That gives the Seltos not only 26.6 cubic feet of cargo room (compared to the Soul’s 24.2 cubic feet) but also nearly one more inch of rear-seat leg room than the hatchback. 

Practically speaking, that means two adults can sit in the Seltos’ rear seats without horsetrading with front-seat riders. Our 6-foot-3 editor could comfortably sit behind a driver of similar size, and the Seltos’ stylish roofline doesn’t eat into available headspace. 

There’s enough shoulder room for two Texas-raised linebackers to sit in the back, but not enough for three. The middle position in the Seltos is similar to just about every other small crossover: cramped, and that space is better taken by an armrest anyway. 

Unlike many competitors, the Seltos’ rear seats recline a few inches for better long-haul comfort, and its second row folds nearly flat to open up 62.8 cubic feet of storage space. 

The Seltos’ cargo opening at the rear is a little smaller and a little taller than first appearances, even if the space with the second row folded is larger than the size-up Sportage. 

Like the Soul, the Seltos is built to a budget and it shows in places. The top-trim Seltos SX Turbo’s synthetic leather upholstery wouldn’t fool a single Texas rancher, dead or alive, but most of the frequently touched places are soft and compliant. Hard plastics appear in places that are waist-level or lower, except for a shiny black surface at the bottom spoke of the steering wheel that can glare into the driver’s eyes. The vanity light isn’t automatically illuminated when the sunshade is lowered and the mirror is opened, either. 

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

Keeps pace with the herd

Like the 2020 Soul, the 2021 Seltos is powered by one of two inline-4 engines. The base engine is a 2.0-liter inline-4 that makes 146 horsepower and teamed to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). It’s the one we’d pick to live with every day, but only in S AWD or EX configuration. That engine is available in front-wheel-drive Seltos S models at the base price—$23,110, including destination—although we wouldn’t recommend it. That version still skips active safety features that are standard on higher trim levels and the Seltos S with front-wheel drive uses a rear twist beam suspension that can impact ride comfort. 

The optional engine on Seltos S Turbo and SX Turbo models is a 1.6-liter turbo-4 that makes 175 hp and is teamed to a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. It’s the perkier of the two, but the 7-speed’s hesitation at slow speeds and to kick down gears on the highway makes it more of a chore to drive. We also averaged about 27.3 mpg combined in the turbo-4 Seltos, which is behind competitors and lower than the 29 mpg combined rating of the base engine with a CVT and AWD. 

Compared to the Soul, the Seltos is softer and leans more into corners, but it tracks down the middle on highway drives with light steering that makes it easily maneuverable around parking lots or in city driving. 

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

The Seltos is just as quiet as the East Texas pastures that it passes by on the highway, too. Only faint wind noise from the mirrors is discernible at speeds faster than 55 mph, and even then, it’s still relatively quiet. 

Kia packs an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility into every Seltos, which makes turning up the stereo an easy fix if it gets too loud inside. (The top Seltos SX gets a wide 10.3-inch version and premium audio instead of the 8.0-inch touchscreen.)

Set against the wide-open everything of Texas, the Seltos brims with style and verve that most crossovers lack. It’s too early to say how well some of it will wear over time but like the Soul, the practicality and open space of the Seltos means that its outside fashion is far from being all hat and no cattle. 

Kia provided airfare and lodging so that we could bring you this first drive.

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