By Malcom Gunn
The early-2020 arrival of the Kia Seltos begs the question: Just how many utility-style vehicles can one automaker include in its lineup? The answer, it seems, is as many as it wants, provided there’s demand.
The Seltos name, in case you’re wondering, is derived from Celtos, son of Hercules in Greek Mythology.
The vehicle squeezes between the smaller Soul (four inches shorter) and the larger and more mainstream Sportage (about seven inches longer).
Although it shares the Hyundai Kona platform (Kia is a division of Hyundai), the two models go their own ways in terms of styling. The rugged-looking Seltos has considerably more carrying capacity, too, whether the rear seat is upright or folded flat. The Seltos also shows more than a hint of commonality with the full-size Kia Telluride, including the “tiger nose” grille that fronts the rounded front bumper and hood.
The sense of ruggedness carries over to the generous 7.2-inch ground clearance as well as the front and rear skid plates, ensuring that the Seltos can take on rougher terrain than many of its competitors.
The interior and dashboard are pretty much straightforward, but a thick steering wheel and equally substantial gear shifter are not normally associated with smaller utility vehicles. The standard 8.0-inch touch-screen and the available 10.25-inch unit protrude above the fresh-air vents, which some drivers might find restricts their forward vision.
In back, the split-folding rear seat also reclines. Behind it, the cargo floor can be lowered somewhat to accommodate taller objects.
Powertrain choices are the same as those found in the Kona: A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 146 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque; and an optional 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that puts out 175 horsepower and 195 pound-feet.
For both, selectable Normal, Eco and Sport — which really does feel sporty — settings alter the engine, transmission and steering performance.
A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is linked to the 2.0, while the turbo 1.6 gets a seven-speed automatic.
Fuel economy for the front-wheel-drive 2.0 is rated at 29 mpg in the city, 34 on the highway and 31 combined.
On-demand all-wheel-drive is optional for the base Seltos S 2.0, but is standard for the LX, S 1.6 T, EX and SX trims. The system comes with a center-locking differential that, when engaged, splits the torque equally between the front and rear wheels, providing more traction for traveling off road.
Torque vectoring, another AWD inclusion, applies light braking force to the inside wheels when turning, which Kia says increases vehicle control.
AWD-equipped models also get independent rear suspensions, while the front-wheel-drive S comes with a less sophisticated torsion-beam rear axle.
At a starting price of $23,100 including destination charges, the base FWD S 2.0 is equipped with mostly the basics, but it lacks the full suite of active-safety technologies, such as pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist and forward-collision avoidance. All come with the optional Kia Drive Wise package that also includes a reminder to check for passengers in back before exiting the vehicle. Then there’s Safe Exit Assist that alerts anyone opening the doors of approaching traffic from the rear.
There are additional comfort and convenience features — depending on the trim level — such as a navigation system, power sunroof, premium seat coverings and a wireless charging pad. A Bose audio package has a mood-lighting feature with six different colors that change with the sound from the system’s six speakers. Somewhat distracting and a bit out of time with the music, it’s similar to the system available in the Kia Soul.
The addition of the niche-filling Seltos gives Kia a total of six tall utility models (seven, if you count the Sedona minivan) from the small Niro to the full-size Telluride. If you can’t find your desired size, content and affordable price-point in this bunch, you likely never will.
What you should know: 2021 Kia Seltos
Type: Four-door, front- /all-wheel-drive compact utility vehicle
Engine (h.p.): 2.0-liter DOHC I-4 (146); 1.6-liter DOHC I-4, turbocharged (175)
Transmission: Continuously variable (2.0); seven-speed automated manual (1.6 turbo)
Market position: Kia is attempting to straddle the line between urban transporter and off-road warrior by blending design and content elements of each vehicle type. It’s a strategy that other automakers are adopting as buyers gravitate to more rugged-looking tall wagons.
Points: Telluride-influenced vehicle is nicely proportioned. • Built to do much more than to conquer bad roads and poor weather. • Base engine will easily suffice, but the optional turbo four-cylinder is where the fun begins. • Base FWD model misses out on the available active-safety tech.
• A distinctive attitude and purpose should almost guarantee success.
Driver assist: Blind-spot warning with cross-traffic backup alert (opt.); active cruise control (opt.); front and rear emergency braking (opt.); inattentive driver alert (opt.); lane-departure warning (opt.); pedestrian detection (opt.)
MPG (city/hwy) 29/34 (FWD); Base price (incl. destination) $23,100.
The Seltos is about seven inches shorter than the Sportage, so there are compromises in overall cargo capacity behind the rear seat. PHOTO: KIA
The optional 175-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder gets a seven-speed automatic transmission while the base non-turbo four-cylinder comes with a continuously variable unit. PHOTO: KIA
The Seltos’s interior is highly detailed but not overdone. OK, the optional Bose audio package with flashing lights might be overdoing it a bit. PHOTO: KIA
While competitors might only offer front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive for the higher trims, for the Seltos, front-wheel-drive is available only with the base trim. PHOTO: KIA
B Y C O M P A R I S O N
Base price: $25,400
Compact utility vehicle can be had in an off-road-ready Trailhawk model.
Base price: $23,000
New-for-2020 model is all about good looks plus a strong 186-h.p. I-4 engine.
Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross
Base price: $24,000
Basically a restyled Outlander Sport but has its own 1.5-liter turbo engine.