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The 2021 Kia Seltos.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

There’s a growing market right now for small crossover vehicles, and Kia wants to fill it with the new Seltos. It has all-wheel drive and an SUV look, but it’s not really an SUV. It’s a roomier, more practical vehicle than a coupe or sedan, but those skid plates are flimsy plastic, and it’s intended for only the urban jungle.

The Seltos is built on an extended version of the platform that’s underneath the bestselling Hyundai Kona, and it’s a little larger than that vehicle. In Kia’s lineup, it sits between the Soul and the Sportage. There are five different versions available, starting at $22,995 and rising to $32,595. They’re quite different, and each has its own appeal.

The most basic Seltos (the name comes from Hercules’s son in Greek mythology – who thinks up these things?) is sold with front-wheel drive, an adequate 2.0-litre engine, and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The engine is okay and good on gas, and most buyers will find it to be just fine. The CVT winds itself up to speed and is also good on gas, which is about the best that can be said of it.

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The Seltos slots into Kia's lineup between the Soul and the Sportage.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

All other trim levels of the Seltos, which kicks in next at $24,995, come standard in Canada with all-wheel drive, which includes a locking differential at speeds up to 60 kilometres an hour. The Kona is still the least expensive AWD vehicle in Canada, at a thousand dollars less, but it’s less spacious.

Only the top-end Seltos, the SX, comes with the turbocharged 1.6-litre engine and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. This is an engaging and satisfying car to drive; suffice to say, it’s the only car Kia made available to me here for zipping around the country roads of Texas hill country, although I did drive the down-a-grade EX Premium in the city, which is $2,000 less costly.

Kia expects fewer than 10 per cent of drivers to opt for the high-end edition, in keeping with the buying patterns of most other models, but trust me, if you enjoy driving, you want that more sprightly engine and better transmission.

Tech specs

  • Base price/as tested: $22,995/$32,595
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder: 146 hp, 132 lb-ft; 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder: 175 hp, 195 lb-ft
  • Transmission/Drive: CVT or seven-speed DCT/FWD or AWD
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 2.0-litre FWD: 8.2 city, 7.1 hwy.; 2.0-litre AWD: 8.8 city, 7.6 hwy; 1.6-litre AWD: 9.4 city, 8.7 hwy
  • Alternatives: Hyundai Kona, Mazda CX-30, Nissan Qashqai, Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR

Looks

The two-tone paint variants aren't available in Canada.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

There’s nothing wrong with the looks of the Seltos. It includes some nice touches such as shallow LED headlamps and taillights with gently ribbed surrounds, but these are optional extras for extra cost. It really doesn’t stand out, although it could easily be mistaken for a Volkswagen Tiguan. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not enough to write home about, so I won’t.

There are eight different colours in variations of grey, white, blue, yellow and orange, but in Canada, we cannot get the funky two-tone paint jobs of the cars we drove down here. These were all U.S.-market cars from California, and apparently, Californians don’t like sunroofs because it’s too hot; us Canadians love sunroofs, but they prohibit using a different colour of paint on the roof. Who’da thunk?

Interior

The Seltos's interior has high-quality materials throughout.

Courtesy of manufacturer

It’s very nice inside the Seltos, with plenty of space for four passengers and high-quality materials everywhere you can touch. The rear seats recline for even more space, and if you’re willing to pay extra, they can be heated too. The front seats are available with both heating and cooling, along with a heated steering wheel.

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The rear seat can fit a fifth passenger with comfortable headroom.

Courtesy of manufacturer

A fifth passenger will fit in the rear seat, and there’ll be comfortable headroom for everyone, although it’ll be a sideways squeeze. This looks to be one of the very few subcompact SUVs that will easily fit a child’s car seat in the back, but without one on hand, I can’t swear to this.

The instrument cluster includes easy-to-operate switches and dials for climate control.

Courtesy of manufacturer

The layout of the two upper-end trim levels I drove was attractive and intuitive, with a 10.25-inch central display touch screen (not available in the cheaper trims), easy-to-operate climate switches and clear analogue dials in the instrument cluster. There’s no dual-zone climate available for any price, but the “automatic” setting can be adjusted to three levels of fan speed. Now that’s a smart idea.

Performance

This all depends on whether you’re among the vast majority who buy the 2.0-litre with the CVT, in which case performance is meh. It’s not slow, but it’s fine for going to the store or running out of town to visit your mother. You’ll probably never even think about it, although brisk acceleration means waiting for the car to catch up to the spooling transmission. There’s a manual setting that provides eight simulated shift points to mimic a geared transmission, but even so, it’s not good or bad, it’s just meh.

The 1.6-litre turbo, however, is great. It’s peppy, and the seven-speed DCT is responsive. You’ll want to switch to Sport mode (away from Normal or Smart) to rev a little higher and steer a little tighter, and then you’ll zip around town all day, rarely wanting for more.

Fuel consumption will suffer, of course, but it still won’t be too greedy. Official ratings are for a combined average of 8.7 litres/100 km for the 1.6-litre, though I saw my own lead-footed average at 10.6. The 2.0-litre comes in at 8.2 combined for the AWD and 7.7 for the FWD.

Technology

Some trims feature a 10.25-inch central display touch screen.

Courtesy of manufacturer

These days, the available technology on even the least expensive vehicles is astonishing. The Seltos offers pretty much all the driver’s assists you want, sharing many of its smarts with the big Telluride SUV. It’s not quite so clever, though – if you’re parked and somebody’s approaching from the side, the Telluride locks the doors on that side to prevent stepping out into danger, but the Seltos just beeps a warning at you.

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Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, so you may not want to opt for the Navigation of the more expensive models. Kia’s UVO system is a subscription-based convenience package that offers a live person at all times to help with roadside assistance, as well as smartphone-based controls for functions such as finding the car and vehicle diagnostics.

Cargo

The Seltos has significantly more cargo space than its sibling, the Kona.

Courtesy of manufacturer

The Seltos offers more cargo space behind its folding rear seats than its direct competition, although these days, that cross-shopped competition blurs quickly. There’s 752 litres of luggage room back there, which is more than 200 litres more spacious than its Hyundai Kona sibling. It’s even 180 litres bigger than the new Mazda CX-30, but frankly, if you need more space, just buy a larger vehicle.

The verdict

The top trim of the Seltos is a terrific car, although you can buy a larger, less-equipped Sportage for similiar money. The less-powerful CVT versions of the Seltos are attractive, spacious, well equipped and okay to drive – their owners will probably never want for more, nor realize what they could have had. They’ll be happy with that, and Kia will probably sell to a billion of them.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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