The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and in this case, I’m referring to the 2021 Kia Seltos. You may know that ‘Seltos’ derives from ‘Celtos,’ the son of Greek god Hercules who was fatefully conceived amid a blackmailing affair with princess Celtine. Kia’s hierarchy is a little less melodramatic, with Hercules in this case referring to the magnificent Telluride, a three-row SUV that I absolutely love. The Telluride was good enough to run away with the 2020 World Car of the Year award, no small achievement. Is the son of Hercules good enough to merit its own praise?
Legend has it that Hercules kindheartedly left his mighty bow to Celtine. The order was to pass the bow to their future child, but only if it were a boy; should he prove strong enough to string the bow, he would be powerful enough to become king. Back down in the Kia showroom, meanwhile, Seltos inherited the rugged styling of the Telluride, though that’s not so say Hercules’s son will necessarily be as strong and capable as his old man.
The reality, perhaps unsurprisingly, is yes it is. Kia has been churning out some impressive models of late, the latest being the K5 sedan. I have yet to drive the K5, but I’m expecting it to be good – or probably better or ‘sportier’ – than Hyundai’s Sonata. Until then, I’ve been spending some time behind the wheel of Kia’s newest compact crossover.
Riding on the same underpinnings as the Hyundai Kona, the Seltos is thankfully deprived of the Kona’s peculiar façade. Instead, the Seltos has a more rugged, semi-boxy countenance. It’s a welcome respite from the oddball shapes of competitors like the Toyota CH-R, Honda HR-V, and, yes, the Kona too. I suspect the more conventional SUV cues will have broader mass-market appeal.
Stacked headlights flank Kia’s tiger grille, while the floating roof design adds some interest around the C-pillar. The assertive fascia is coupled with a longer wheelbase, shorter overhangs in the front and rear, and around 7.2-inches of ground clearance.
Meanwhile, the front and rear bumper are designed to improve the vehicle’s approach and departure angles when forging over rough terrain. Whereas other compact SUVs like the Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V are clearly meant for on-road driving first, the Kia Seltos begs you to reconsider. Just how capable it’ll actually be if you listen to that plea will depend in no small part on the engine.
The 2021 Kia Telluride is available in five trim models: LX, S, S Turbo, EX, and SX. The Seltos LX, S, and EX have a 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine, producing 146 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. For me, that’s plenty of get-up-and-go torque, and a reasonable power to weight ratio for the intended audience. If you want more, the Seltos S Turbo and SX pack a turbocharged 1.6-liter with direct-injection, good for 175 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque.
Power is fed to the front wheels courtesy of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that Kia refers to as an Intelligent Variable Transmission (IVT). Front-wheel drive is standard, while Kia’s torque-vectoring AWD is optional across the range.
I’ve driven both engines in the Hyundai Kona, and my money is on the turbocharged version. My test vehicle was the top-of-the-line Seltos SX AWD, with base prices starting at $27,890. It’s well-equipped with LED headlights and fog lights, a 7-inch digital color instrument cluster, a massive 10.25-inch infotainment display with UVO link and navigation, 18-inch alloy wheels, and automatic climate control.
The optional white/black roof paint and carpeted floor mats rang up $475 more. Combined with $1,120 destination, my 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD has an MSRP of under $30k, or $29,485 to be exact.
The Seltos feels light and nimble on its feet. The steering, like most modern cars, feels slightly overboosted at higher speeds.
Meanwhile, the interior offers plenty of room in the front, while the second-row seats can recline to offer maximum space and comfort. And despite being a small SUV, the Seltos offers 26.6 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seats up. Folding down the rear seats allows for up to 62.8 cubic feet of space to carry larger and longer items.
The Seltos is a roomy and practical small crossover, but the ride quality is not what I was expecting. The stiff and somewhat fidgety ride quality is something to bear in mind, though it was never bad enough to upset the overall driving experience. Also worth noting are the tire and wind noise at higher speeds. In this regard, the Seltos is primarily aimed at a younger audience – or those young enough to live with these compromises.
If advanced safety features are a must for you, they’re not offered in the base and lower-trims, so factor that into your buying decision. Even though my test vehicle came fully-loaded with Kia’s DriveWise driver-assist technology – which includes forward collision avoidance, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist, and high beam assist, among other features – you’ll need to select the S trim to receive lane departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and automatic high beams.
Overall, the 2021 Kia Seltos is good enough to merit Hercules’ approval. Starting at $21,990, the base Seltos is on par – and, if I dare say, offers more bang for your buck – than an equivalent Mazda CX-30, Subaru Crosstrek, and even the Hyundai Kona. It’s a competitive segment, but at the end of the day the Seltos manages to give the impression of getting a lot more car for just a little more money.