2021 Kia Seltos S Turbo stirs mixed emotions

The 2021 Kia Seltos comes with the kind of mixed feelings common to most small crossover SUVs. It gets the job done without standing out in any particular way. The Seltos is fine. No more, no less. 

The Seltos is a well-equipped value, and its hatchback versatility is paired to a tall ride height preferred by most car shoppers. Kia’s attempt to stand out amid all the other small crossovers with a sportier powertrain option in the Seltos falls short due to a sluggish 7-speed automatic transmission on top trims, however. 

It earned a TCC Rating of 5.8 out of 10, buoyed by a mostly impressive feature set across the five trim levels. 

It’s more mainstream than the boxy Soul and the hatchback Niro, and it slots below the larger Sportage. But after a week driving around town and on the highway in the S Turbo model, there may be better options, including the less expensive Seltos with the basic engine. 

Miss: Sluggish transmission

The upgraded powertrain of the 2021 Kia Seltos S reminded me of a young teenager. It could be impressive with its bursts of power, but it could also use a kick in the rear when changing gears. For $2,000 more than the similarly equipped S model, the S Turbo comes with a more potent 175-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo-4 with a dual-clutch transmission that lets the driver switch between automatic and a kind of manual transmission without a clutch pedal. The driver has more control and can have more fun, but a dual-clutch in this application is about quicker shifts and better fuel economy. But the non-turbo models with a 146-hp 2.0-liter inline-4 mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) are more efficient at 29 mpg combined. That engine is pokier and strains more under a heavy foot, but is more than capable for the everyday driving typical in a small crossover. The upcharge to the S Turbo is for the punchier engine and the dual-clutch transmission. Under normal throttle, the first few shifts hesitate, like a teenager being told to stop gaming and do something else. Under heavier throttle, the shifting is quicker and appropriate. It might not be enough to be a deal-breaker, but if you aren’t the type of driver to ever hit the pedal to the floor, the CVT is cheaper, smoother, and more efficient.

2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo

2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos


Hit: Decent value

The base model Seltos LX with all-wheel drive or S with front-wheel drive starts just above $23,000 and comes with an 8.0-inch touchscreen with smartphone compatibility, power features and an excellent 5-year/60,000-mile comprehensive warranty with roadside assistance. The LX would be recommended if it came with standard automatic emergency braking. It doesn’t. The S is the only Seltos without standard all-wheel drive. The best balance between features and dollars is the $26,410 Seltos EX and its power heated seats, 18-inch wheels, panoramic sunroof, leather steering wheel, wireless charging, keyless start, and blind spot-monitors with rear cross-traffic alerts. That’s about $1,500 less than a similarly equipped 2021 Chevy Trailblazer Activ, and it’s cheaper than the 2020 Hyundai Kona, though the Kona starts off as a better deal with better equipment. 

Miss: No keyless start

I’ve gotten used to keyless starts. I am not ashamed. Like broadband internet connections and smartphones as do-it-all devices, there’s no turning back to AOL, slider phones, or keyed starts. Fishing the key out of pockets is a minor irritant, but an irritant every time you drive becomes something more. Other small crossovers at this price point have a push-button start. The Seltos S Turbo should as well. 

Hit: Right size

The Seltos doesn’t sacrifice much in its more compact compartments than the Kia Sportage compact crossover. It’s narrower, not as tall, and 4.5 inches shorter in length, but the Seltos is nearly identical in interior space. Rear leg room is a roomy 38 inches (38.2 in Sportage), and the cargo volume behind the second row is 30.7 cubic feet in the Sportage compared to 26.6 cubes in the Seltos. Fold the seats down and the Seltos has at least two cubic feet more than the Sportage, mostly on account of the more squared off roofline of the Seltos. 

The Seltos is one of the larger small crossovers, which could make it attractive against both small and compact crossovers. But that 7-speed should go to boarding school for refinement.


2021 Kia Seltos S Turbo

Base price: $26,610, including $1,120 destination

Price as tested: $26,740

Drivetrain: 175-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4 with 7-speed dual-clutch automatic and all-wheel drive

EPA fuel economy: 25 mpg city, 30 highway, 27 combined

The hits: Decent value, relatively interior

The misses: Sluggish 7-speed automatic transmission, missing key features on certain trim levels.

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