“So who is this for?” my dad asked as I got out of the 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo in my parents’ driveway. Normally, I have some clear thoughts on the purpose behind whatever car I’m driving, and they come to mind pretty easily. Staring at the Starbright Yellow paint job, I admitted I didn’t quite know who Kia was targeting with the Seltos, but that I liked it.
Kia has been on a roll lately. Recent years have seen bold designs that are interesting and unique, yet still constrained and tidy enough to likely age well. The 2021 Seltos SX Turbo is no exception. Both in-person and online, the reactions I received to the Seltos’ styling were nearly universally positive. But Kia claims the Seltos’ appeal is more than skin-deep.
What Is It?
The 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo is the top-line trim of the Seltos, Kia’s newest crossover that was launched a few months ago. Though sister company Hyundai also recently introduced a subcompact crossover, the Hyundai Venue, the two vehicles are not related. The Venue is sized similarly to Kia’s Soul, whereas the Kia Seltos is bigger and more powerful, slotting between the call-it-a-hatchback-already Soul and compact Sportage in the Kia crossover family.
Lower-trim Seltos models are powered by a 2.0 liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder making 147 horsepower, mated to a continuously variable transmission. Kia sent me the Seltos SX Turbo, however, which has a sportier bent to the drivetrain. Taking a page from Mazda’s CX-5 playbook, Kia leads with torque when discussing the SX Turbo. Buyers will find a 1.6 liter turbo-four making 195 lb-ft of torque and 175 horsepower. Peak horsepower comes somewhat high at 6,000 RPM, but peak torque is made at just 1,500 revs.
The Seltos SX Turbo pushes power through a 7-speed dual clutch transmission (DCT) and all-wheel drive. Eighteen inch wheels are standard (with sporty red center caps – seriously, it’s a good look) as is “Sofino” faux-leather seat trim.
My test Seltos was painted Starbright Yellow with optional two-tone black roof. The yellow paint was fantastic and had a nice metallic shimmer in the sun. Kia offers a great orange and two blues, alongside typical (read: boring) shades of black and gray. Unfortunately, choosing a two-tone scheme prohibits adding a sunroof to the Seltos.
The most basic Kia Seltos starts at $21,990 and my loaded-except-sunroof Seltos SX Turbo carried a MSRP just shy of $30,000.
Driving the 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo
On paper, the Seltos SX Turbo sounds fairly compelling. A torquey, boosted four cylinder with a dual-clutch transmission and “torque vectoring” all wheel drive is a generally good combination. In practice, it works well enough but could be a touch better. The little 1.6 turbo feels snappy off the line and hustles the Seltos to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, aided by reasonably quick shifts from the DCT gearbox. The Seltos in SX Turbo guise weighs about 3,300 pounds.
I generally enjoyed the Seltos’ drivetrain, though the DCT was responsive enough that I found myself longing for paddle shifters instead of a simple up/down gate on the console-mounted shifter. At highway speeds, pulling out to pass was an adventure depending where the speed and gearing caught the engine. One pass felt strained, another felt confident as the DCT upshifted and brought the engine into its lower, fatter torque band.
The Seltos handled well for a tall hatchback on stilts, aided by the torque vectoring of the all wheel drive. Torque vectoring works to reduce understeer in tighter, faster turns. Suspension damping was generally good, though with four adults on board, we felt the rear compression far too soft.
Kia shares an infotainment system with Hyundai, and as in Hyundais we’ve reviewed, it is excellent in the Seltos. The SX Turbo trim includes a Bose sound system that is pretty good but not outstanding in terms of clarity. At night, the speakers are lit by white LEDs that pulse with the bass line of your music.
Our biggest complaint was the Seltos’ air conditioning. While strong, it took quite a while to cool the cabin after the car had been sitting. Remote start only activated the automatic climate control if it had been left on when the engine was shut down.
Off-Road in the 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo
Most buyers will never take their Seltos off-road at all. Some may occasionally run through a wet field at a winery or concert. While visiting my parents, I took advantage of the new construction neighborhoods nearby to see how the little Seltos’ lockable all wheel drive would handle.
Pressing the “Lock” button engages the center differential, splitting power 50/50 between front and rear axles. Normally, the Seltos is front-biased with the rear wheels engaging as necessary. There is no special off-road drive mode available beyond pressing “Lock,” so I put the Seltos in Drive and set off.
The Seltos’ offers 7.3″ of ground clearance and 28° approach and departure angles. This is not stellar but is entirely adequate given the Seltos is meant for on-road driving above all else. Regardless, I didn’t worry about scraping the nose of the Seltos as I scrambled around various dirt piles. The AWD worked well to get me moving from some deliberately-tricky stops.
As I rounded one corner in the not-yet-finished dirt “neighborhood,” I wished so badly that I could take a fast lap of the dirt roads, rallycross style. The Seltos isn’t meant to rock-crawl, but it felt like it’d be fun in a rally-type environment.
Enthusiasts and crossovers generally don’t mix, for a lot of reasons. We’d rather have manual-transmission hatchbacks and powerful station wagons, which are increasingly hard to come by. In their absence, small crossovers that try to be a little funky and cheerful stand out in a (very) crowded space. The 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo is certainly a standout. It’s a great size; small yet comfortable for four, with good-enough power (30 more horses would be even better) and a competent drivetrain. Its options list is plentiful and the pricing is reasonable. It’s a lot of car for less than thirty grand.