Kia Seltos 2019 s (fwd), Kia Seltos 2020 s (fwd)

2020 Kia Seltos review: International launch

A first drive in Kia's new small SUV

Rating: 8.1
$25,990 $39,990 Mrlp
  • Fuel Economy
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Kia was late to the small SUV party in Australia, but the Seltos has been painstakingly prepared to make up lost time. It has the makings of a class leader.
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Kia Australia finally has the sub-Sportage SUV it's been crying out for, a competitor to hot sellers such as the Mitsubishi ASX, Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V and Nissan Qashqai.

The 2020 Kia Seltos (derived from ‘Celtos/Celtus’, son of Hercules/Heracles, in case you were wondering) will introduce a boxier new design language, class-topping infotainment, and more interior space than most rivals when it arrives in Australian dealers around October this year.

Let's also not forget its global significance, outside of Europe in particular where Kia has a different car called Stonic. Kia expects global sales of compact SUVs like this to expand from 6.5 million vehicles in 2018 to more than 8.2 million by the end of 2022.

The Seltos's new design stands apart from its stablemates, for better and worse. It's square-edged with short overhangs, and a wide grille design with tactile diamond-pattern framing and nifty LED daytime running lights spanning almost the entire width. The light show includes ‘3D’ indicators and fog lights that resemble ice cubes.

To some eyes in the office, mine included, it looks a little busy and fussy. However I found it much more resolved and aesthetic in the metal, and the right colour. It comes in eight hues and with the option of a black or white contrasting roof.

This is good since market research shows the target demographic for small SUVs demand bold offerings.

At 4370mm nose-to-tail, the Kia Seltos is larger than most rivals (about 200mm longer than the Hyundai Kona) and on par with the Qashqai. It’s also only 115mm shorter than said Sportage, and a meagre 40mm shorter between the wheels.

How Kia differentiates its pair of SUVs will be interesting, though its Australian management suggests the average Seltos buyer will be about a decade younger, and comprise a higher proportion of women.

The interior is step up for the company, particularly in terms of tech. The top-of-the-range model we drove this week in Korea had a 10.25-inch centre touchscreen with a new user interface that shows three sub-menus at once, a flip-up head-up display showing navigation, and a 7.0-inch TFT colour trip computer.

This array is superior to any Kia currently on sale, and the usability and processing times based on our quick spin were first-rate. We suspect many people may cross-shop the Honda or Nissan with the Seltos and opt for the latter based on the cabin tech alone.

Our fancy test car also came with LED cabin lighting with changeable colours, which can also pulse along with the beat of your music, a Bose audio system with eight wavey-cover speakers, and the ability to run Apple CarPlay/Android Auto from one phone and simultaneously support a second phone’s Bluetooth phone/audio streaming.

Also on offer, at least in Korea, are various two-tone trims along the seats and dash. One grey car had maroon leather seats and dash padding offsetting the otherwise hard black plastics, which really lifted the ambience.

There are numerous hidey-holes, including large door bins and a decent centre console, though when it comes to front seat practicality the Honda still takes the cake.

The Kia's reclining back seats are more akin to bigger SUVs, however. They comfortably accommodated two adults, three at a pinch, and unlike most competitors you get rear air vents and a USB charging port.

The Seltos also has a huge boot with two levels, and up to 498 litres (VDA standard) of storage if you don’t get a full-size spare wheel. In Australia most versions will get a full spare though, and we are waiting to see what impact that has.

Kia Australia is hammering out its pricing and specs, but we strongly expect the range to kick off at a sharp-ish $26,000 drive-away, and top out at about $39,000 drive-away. That's bang-on.

There will be four equipment grades offered, the volume-selling (35 per cent) S grade, then the Sport, the Sport+ and the flagship GT-Line, which is photographed here.

The base S will come relatively well equipped, with 16-inch alloy wheels, auto headlights, reversing camera, autonomous emergency braking (AEB) up to 60km/h, lane-keeping assist, cruise control, and an 8.0-inch screen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

The Sport (a further 30 per cent of sales, projected) will add the 10.25-inch screen, a leather-like steering wheel and gear shifter, 17-inch alloy wheels, climate control and the full-size spare wheel.

Both of these versions will be available with an options package comprising an expanded ‘AEB Fusion II’ system that detects cyclists, radar-guided active cruise control and an electric park brake with Auto Hold function.

Both will be powered by a 2.0-litre petrol engine running the fuel-efficient Atkinson cycle, matched up to a new fuel-saving CVT automatic (no manual will be offered anywhere) and front-wheel drive. It makes 110kW of power and 180Nm of torque (at 4500rpm) giving you a theoretical 0-100km/h time of 9.6 seconds.

This version was not available for testing, though the outputs aren’t particularly sub-par for a vehicle designed for urban commuting. We imagine it’ll be far from inspiring in this guise, but fine for the majority of buyers. We're particularly curious about the CVT, Kia's only one at present. Watch this space...

Next up the chain, the Sport+ will add an electronic parking brake, faux leather/cloth seats, heated seats and steering wheel, auto-folding side mirrors, proximity key and privacy glass. It also adds driver-assistance systems such as active cruise control, AEB Fusion II, parking sensors at the front, and a blind-spot monitor.

Finally, the GT-Line flagship will add 18-inch alloys, LED headlights, faux leather seats with ventilation, mood lighting, a Qi wireless phone charger, head-up display and 7.0-inch digital instrument readout, rain-sensing wipers and a sunroof (not available on two-tone cars).

Both of these versions will be offered with a much punchier engine, a familiar Kia/Hyundai 1.6-litre turbo-petrol unit making 130kW and 265Nm (from 1500rpm), mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and on-demand variable AWD. Kia claims this engine cuts the 0-100km/h dash to 8.0 seconds.

The engine shared with the Kona and bigger Hyundai Tucson (yet oddly not the Sportage) gives the Seltos outlier performance in the class. It’s a sprightly offering with ample low-down pulling power, and a cool diagram in the instruments showing you the distribution of torque between the axles. There’s also a locking centre differential.

Some markets will get a 1.6 diesel, but not Australia. There’s just no major demand.

We cannot talk much about the driving dynamics since the Korean versions we drove are not representative of what Australia will get. Kia’s Sydney-based engineers tested and calibrated the suspension (usually the springs, dampers, roll bars and bushes) to better suit Australian roads, and buyer expectations.

It’s worth noting that only the AWD turbo models get independent multi-link rear suspension, with the 2.0-litre FWD models using a torsion beam setup at the rear.

What I can say is the Korean-market cars are less softly sprung than they typically once were, with a more tied-down and agile road feel, better damper control, light yet direct steering and decent NVH suppression.

Our test car also had a highway-focused semi-autonomous driving system with steering and braking assistance, and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication enabled by Korea’s road signage and map data.

Another big selling point for the Seltos will be Kia’s warranty, which is a market leading seven-year and unlimited kilometre program with roadside assist as long as you use dealer servicing.

This combined with nationwide drive-away pricing at launch will give it an immediate kickstart. Kia’s local arm wants up to 750 sales a month, with higher targets once factory supply from the Korean plant improves.

We won’t give you our definitive verdict on the Seltos until the Q4 Australian launch, but based on indicative pricing, the outstanding interior technologies, back seat and boot space closer to bigger and pricier competitors, a punchy engine option, local suspension tuning and funky design, it has all the makings of a class leader.

Needless to say, it feels like it will be worth the short wait, and about the only things holding it back based on what we experienced in Korea will be the unknown name and potential supply shortfalls. Indeed, it might even be tough to recommend a Sportage over this smaller sibling.