Kia Australia has been waiting a long time for a compact SUV. It's been without a competitor in one of Australia's hottest segments, watching crossover-hungry buyers snap up the Hyundai Kona, Nissan Qashqai, Mazda CX-3 and Mitsubishi ASX.
Now, the Seltos is here. And although it's the new kid on the block, Kia has a potential class leader on its hands.
In the 2020 Kia Seltos Sport+ AWD guise you see here, it retails for $36,490 drive-away. That gets you a long list of inclusions on paper, and one of the punchiest powertrains in the class.
It also gets you a car that's physically much bigger than you might expect. At 4315mm long, 1800mm wide and 1620mm tall, it's almost the same size as the Sportage. With a claimed 433L of boot space, the Seltos is only 33L shy of its bigger brother with the rear seats in place. It's also 72L bigger than the all-wheel-drive Hyundai Kona back there.
With the 60/40 rear seats folded, the load area expands to offer 1393L – up on the Kona's claim, but 205L down on the Nissan Qashqai.
There's an abundance of space inside, too. The driver and passenger sit on high-set, comfortable seats with plenty of adjustment, and rear seat passengers are treated to a generously padded bench.
Head room is excellent, and six-footers can sit behind six-footers without too much stress. We wouldn't be surprised to see plenty of Uber drivers adopting lower-end Seltos models, given it combines a spacious rear cabin with a low sticker price.
You get proper bottle pockets in all four doors, a map pocket behind the passenger seat, and a spacious glovebox up front. Under the dashboard there's room for a modern smartphone (but no wireless charging, reserved instead for the flagship GT-Line) in the two-tiered storage space.
The highlight of the cabin, however, is the 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system. To start with, it's absolutely massive – on a par with the displays in the latest Europeans – and offers clear, simple graphics.
The full-screen map is excellent, and being able to see your navigation, media, and driving data on the same home screen without it looking cramped is something few manufacturers can boast. Apple CarPlay looks brilliant on such a large, high-resolution screen, too. Well done Kia.
Less good are the materials, which range from nice (cloth seat trim, leather-look steering wheel), through acceptable (padded central armrest and door elbow rests), to shiny and cheap (dashboard, instrument cluster, transmission tunnel). You also miss out on rear air vents in the Sport+.
It's less of an issue in lower-spec cars, but there isn't much to thrill touchy-feely types for your $36,490. That's why the GT-Line exists, of course, with its leather seats, shiny trim pieces, illuminated door speakers and fancy-sounding badge.
At least the Sport+ comes with all the safety equipment you could possibly want. Autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, adaptive cruise control, driver-attention warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and parking sensors front/rear are all standard.
Under the bonnet is a slightly detuned version of the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine offered in the Cerato GT sedan and hatchback, making 130kW and 265Nm. It's hooked up to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive.
Claimed fuel use is 7.6L/100km on the combined cycle, while we saw 9.7L/100km across a mix of city and highway driving, with a skew towards time in town. A pure highway run yielded mid-6.0L/100km numbers.
The engine is one of the highlights of life in the Seltos. With its generous torque figure, it feels punchy in a way few other compact crossovers (barring the Kona 1.6T with which it shares the engine, of course) can match.
Don't be fooled, the Seltos with a 1.6-litre turbo isn't a hot hatch on stilts, but it feels far more grown up than most of the anaemic atmospheric engines offered in most compact and mid-sized crossovers.
Response is good from low in the rev range, the mid-range is strong, and there's a bit of joy to be found in revving it all the way out to redline. It's just nice to drive a compact crossover that doesn't need to be thrashed to deliver something approaching acceptable performance.
If there's a weak point in the car's powertrain, it's the transmission. We've written about the slightly hesitant Kia dual-clutch transmission before, and our previous complaints ring true here.
You don't get steering wheel paddles on the Sport+, but control freaks can take control with the gearstick. The seven-speeder is quick to shift on the move, but it can get confused by light throttle inputs at low speeds.
The transmission's electric brain tries to mimic a smooth-moving torque converter off the line, and it generally does a good job. But the grey area between first and second gear can flummox it – sometimes you get a flare of revs as the car tries to work out where it needs to be, others it slams too aggressively into gear.
It can also be a bit indecisive between gears on the highway, occasionally getting caught between gears on kick down. It's behaviour that gets easier to 'drive around' with familiarity, but Kia still has some work to do before it can match the best dual-clutch transmissions out there.
Interestingly, Kia hasn't chosen to offer the Seltos with a conventional torque converter; the less powerful naturally aspirated engine is mated with a CVT.
The family resemblance carries beyond the close-but-not-quite gearbox. Kia and Hyundai have put their faith in local suspension tuning to set their cars apart from the crowd, and the Seltos rides with the same sure-footed confidence as the Sportage and Cerato.
It maintains its composure over the pothole-ridden streets of Melbourne, with a more comfort-focused suspension tune than the Cerato GT with which it shares an engine. What's more, our launch review revealed the Seltos will hold its own on gravel – a characteristic that'll no doubt endear the car to rural buyers.
A tall seating position, easy-to-spot corners, and inoffensive low-speed steering mean the Seltos is a doddle to thread through the city – the high-resolution rear-view camera and parking sensors don't hurt, either. It's spacious inside, but this is still a relatively compact car.
The entire Seltos range gets a MacPherson strut front suspension, but only all-wheel-drive models are treated to a multi-link set-up at the rear. Based on our experience at launch, the multi-link set-up is the better bet if ride quality is your top priority.
The other benefit of the more sophisticated rear suspension comes in the corners, where the Seltos carries a dash of the sporty DNA that makes the Cerato GT such a performance bargain.
It isn't a high-riding hot hatch, but there's a neutral feeling to the chassis and a weight to the steering that would help the Seltos to show a number of its rivals a clean set of heels on an interesting road.
Because it's a Kia, the Seltos is furnished with a seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty. Although many of its mainstream rivals have moved to five years of warranty, Kia is alone in offering seven years of coverage.
The Seltos 1.6T will cost $3265 to service (average of $466 per year) over the first seven years under Kia's capped-price service program, compared to $2818 for the non-turbo line-up.
The AWD 1.6T also requires maintenance every 10,000km or 12 months, rather than 15,000km for the non-turbo model.
There's very little wrong with the Seltos Sport+ AWD. It drives like a class leader (watch for our coming comparisons to test that notion), has a properly spacious and practical interior, offers an industry-leading warranty, and is pretty handsome to behold.
As far as I can tell, there are two problems. The first is the price of this particular model. Having all-wheel drive is nice, but the (slightly) more powerful version of the same engine and transmission can be had in the Cerato GT sedan/hatch for around $5000 less.
Plus, the top-spec Cerato gets niceties like gearshift paddles and leather trim. The corollary of that? Not everyone wants a sedan or hatch, and the Seltos does feel more substantial inside.
If you can reconcile the SUV tax and need the extra punch offered by the 1.6-litre engine, the only other issue is the name.
Designed to evoke the Greek name for Heracles's son, Celtus, the badge has been massaged into Seltos so it doesn't ruin the s-themed thing Kia has going on with the Soul, Sportage, Sorento and Telluride...