NZ exclusive test: is the new Kia Seltos an SUV game-changer?
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2019 Kia Seltos LX
• Refined powertrain
• Excellent CVT
• Good spec for the money
• Firm ride
• No keyless entry/start
• Low rent plastics in LX
Sitting in the supermarket parking lot or suburban driveway, the Kia Seltos appears to be a largely inevitable, conventional, ordinary compact crossover. But, make no mistake — this is one of the most bold vehicles of 2019.
There's nothing inherently wild about it of course. The styling is contemporary, possibly a little fussy in places. The list of available features is predictably long. But, the more that you observe the Seltos, the more you get the impression that it's a vehicle that Kia are desperate to smash out of the park.
The $25,990 starting price is aggressive to say the least; clearly concocted to try and undercut all the major mainstream players. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about the aging Ford EcoSport or (heavily discounted) Holden Trax, the recently updated Honda HR-V and Mitsubishi ASX, or the funky Toyota CH-R and Hyundai Kona … this is cheaper than the lot. In some cases, by a big margin. Combined with the onslaught of Seltos marketing, and it's understandable why the Seltos represents the brand's most successful new vehicle launch in its Kiwi history. Kia's words, not mine.
To say that this is a high stakes release for Kia is a grand understatement.
The inevitable question when looking over an entry-level model is to ask what toys it misses out on. It’s a question I was particularly concerned about with this Seltos LX, given the $10,000 gap to the next model up the food chain — let alone the vast $21,000 spread between the models that bookend the range.
The main differences between the LX and $35,990 LX Plus are the latter’s additional radar cruise control, tinted rear windows, front parking sensors, blind spot monitoring, and a larger 10.25in touchscreen with satnav. Curiously one of the most notable features absent from the LX — keyless entry and push-button start — is only introduced in the mid-level $37,990 EX.
Standard, the LX gets cruise control, rear parking sensors, reverse camera with dynamic guide lines, and a excellent well laid out 8in touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The safety conscious will be pleased to learn it has most of the safety tech of the higher trims, too, including; autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane keep assist, and driver attention alert.
It's just enough for the cheapest Seltos to feel not-so-cheap, although the lack of keyless entry and the modest hard plastics might be a grumble for some.
Other spec-sheet foibles include old-school halogen headlights and knobbly 205/60 rubber on the LX and LX Plus. There’s also the fact that all models get the same engine and transmission except for the flagship all-wheel drive $46,990 Seltos Limited Turbo, which upgrades to a 1.6-litre turbocharged four cylinder making 130kW/265Nm.
That said, there's little wrong with the 2-litre Atkinson Cycle engine featured in all the other models — including our tester. The MPI unit doesn't set the world alight with 110kW at 6200rpm and 180Nm at 4000rpm.
In the field we found its performance to be reasonably middling. Kia advised that because of the low kilometres on the brand new tester, fuel consumption would be higher than expected. But, we still dragged a sound 6.6L/100km out of it during a (motorway heavy) round trip from Auckand to Tuakau and back.
What elevates the engine is its partner in crime; Kia's latest CVT. Traditionally these kinds of transmissions draw scathing ire from motoring scribblers, however the technology is definitely approaching a crossroads where a well sorted CVT is almost definitively preferable over a bad or antiquated torque-converted automatic. And few CVTs are smoother, sharper, and smarter than Kia's latest Intelligent Variable Transmission unit.
Each simulated step feels almost exactly like that of an automatic, it's smooth in most instances but quick to kick down when you require sudden power and happy to hang on for higher revs. It's an unlikely hero that makes the Seltos, even in this most basic form, a lovely drive.
Handling, by and large, falls into the same line. Steering is precise but also pleasantly light to use. Body control feels in check, although it's unlikely to get tested by most buying in this segment (rental car drivers are a different kettle of fish). Visibility, particularly rearwards, is well above par, too.
Our main reservation was with the ride quality. Despite riding on 16in wheels, the Seltos LX felt a little busy and choppy over inclement roads — a bit like its Sporty Spice Stinger GT sibling. After some digging we found that the tyres had been pumped up to 40psi; much higher than recommended. Even after normalising the pressures though, the Seltos retained a firm edge.
But people don't necessarily buy a sub-$30k SUV for the way it finesses corners or rides bumps (they would all be in hatchbacks in they did). No, the main reason people buy vehicles like the Seltos is for the added practicality. And they get it in spades here.
The Honda HR-V has long been considered a benchmark in this group for space. But the Seltos LX trumps it in all the important metrics. It has 31L more cargo area in the boot with the seats up (468L total), and an utterly monstrous 1428L of space with the seats down; 396L more than the HR-V.
Note that the LX has slightly more boot space than most higher trims because it uses a space-saver spare tyre instead of a full-size spare. Still, even the 433L/1393L in the rest of the range is impressive — all but matching the big brother Kia Sportage's 466L/1455L.
The boot doesn't compromise rear passenger space either. In fact, it's one of the more comfortable second rows in class. The comfy cloth seats have more recline in the rear than most, and head room, toe room, and knee room all feel good enough to scare numerous larger SUVs. The elevated, slightly cramped fifth seat is the only blemish.
We knew that the Seltos would be compelling in its field, but didn't quite predict its most accessibly priced model to be such a comprehensive all rounder. Sweet to drive and smartly packaged with a boot cavernous enough to form a gateway to Narnia, it's hard to argue that the Seltos is anything other than a new segment benchmark.
Time to see if anyone can keep up.