Like any wise car manufacturer these days, Kia and Volkswagen are busy trying to fill any gaps in their SUV line-ups. In the case of the Korean and German brands, they’re downsizing to enter the increasingly popular compact SUV arena.
For 13-odd years, the Tiguan has been the smallest VW SUV you could buy in Australia – but in 2020 there are now two models available below that: the T-Cross we have here, and the slightly larger T-Roc.
Based on official industry categorisation, the Stonic rather than the Seltos is the direct rival to the T-Cross – and indeed the ‘Small SUV’ Seltos is just shy of 4.4m long and based on the Cerato small car, whereas the ‘Light SUV’ T-Cross is 4.1m long and related to the Polo city car.
But pricing rather than size is more relevant to buyers, and there is plenty of overlap between the two compact SUV segments.
That’s particularly true in the case of the $27,990 T-Cross 85TSI Life, which is VW’s most affordable SUV, but also priced higher than most light SUVs.
That’s also illustrated by the Kia Seltos range, with the slightly bigger SUV actually starting lower – from $25,990.
Here, we’re pitching the T-Cross Life against the $28,990 Kia Seltos Sport that is one rung up the model ladder from the base S.
Pricing and features
There’s just $700 between the RRPs, and the gap drops to $500 on current (Sydney) drive-away pricing: the Seltos Sport offered at $30,490 compared with $29,990 for the T-Cross Life.
The equipment comparison does little to make the choice between these two SUVs any easier. Unless there are specific features you want.
In the Kia’s favour are bigger alloy wheels (17-inch diameter to the T-Cross’s 16s), integrated navigation, climate control (manual air-conditioning in the VW), digital radio, and a 10.25-inch infotainment display that’s more than 25 per cent bigger than the T-Cross’s 8.0-inch touchscreen.
Volkswagen counters with LED daytime running lights (halogen in the Kia), side mirrors with heating, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, front and rear parking sensors (rear-only Kia), and wireless smartphone charging.
Shared standard features include halogen headlights, leather-wrapped steering wheels, tyre pressure monitoring, fog lights, lane-keeping aid, fatigue monitoring, and autonomous emergency braking (AEB).
VW’s AEB detects vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists; Kia’s system spots bike riders only if you pay an extra $1000 for a Safety Pack (fitted to our test car). This also adds adaptive cruise control, larger rear disc brakes, electric park brake (instead of a handbrake), and a Subaru-mimicking alert system that tells you when the car ahead has moved off.
The T-Cross Life is offered with an optional Driver Assistance package for $1200. It also adds adaptive cruise, though it adds blind spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring, semi-automatic parking, passenger side mirror that tilts when reversing, and a proactive occupant protection system.
The pack is standard on the $30,990 T-Cross Style. Seltos buyers would need the $32,190 Sport Plus model to gain front parking sensors, blind spot and rear-traffic monitoring, as well as other items such as auto-dimming rear-view mirror and heated side mirrors.
Infotainment and technology
The Seltos Sport is a clear winner for infotainment screen real estate. Utilising the new 10.25-inch display gradually being rolled out in many Kia and Hyundai models, the size has more in common with the luxury segment than the mainstream. (The lower-grade Seltos S sticks with an 8.0-inch screen.)
The interface is easy to use and nicely presented, mimicking the latest-generation BMW iDrive with its multi-window home page. Pages load quickly and most key infotainment boxes are ticked. These include wired Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration and digital radio.
The VW also offers owners the choice of iOS- or Android-style interfaces, along with associated apps including map guidance, though integrated navigation should still be standard on the base T-Cross, as should digital radio.
An 8.0-inch screen can only look small compared with the Kia’s display, yet the dash design helps ensure the display doesn’t look undersized. The screen also looks upmarket with its dark-tinted facade and high-resolution graphics, while it matches the Kia’s system for logical operation.
If an extra $1900 is affordable, a Sound and Vision package is worth adding for its excellent 300-watt Beats audio and customisable digital driver display. It also brings factory map guidance.
And at least it’s an option for buyers. If you want a branded (Bose) audio system in your Seltos, you are forced to buy the flagship GT-Line that costs from $42,990 drive-away.
Hard interior plastics are in abundance with our circa-$28,000 baby SUVs, and the T-Cross even misses out on the soft upper dash of its ultra-close relative, the Polo.
Not that the Seltos can look too smug, as its headlining (as in the Cerato Sport) looks very cheap.
It’s not all grim news, though.
Kia has at least applied a textured plastic for the upper door cards, centre console and upper dash that imitates a soft plastic, there’s some gloss-black trim surrounding the infotainment display, and the digital climate-control panel almost matches the width of that 10.25-inch screen for some neat vertical symmetry.
Convex/concave door speakers add a touch of style, too (borrowed heavily from Hyundai’s Santa Fe).
Volkswagen has mastered the art of making hard plastics look relatively well presented, such as the T-Cross’s patterned main dash section with matching door inserts. Some materials are simply of a higher quality in the T-Cross – such as the headlining.
Smart-looking cloth seats and classy analogue instrument dials certainly don’t do the T-Cross’s ambience any harm, either, while the one-touch windows are rare for the class. (Only the Kia’s driver door window has single-press up/down operation.)
Australian buyers miss out on funkier interior colour choices available in some other markets.
Small console bins and centre console cupholders are commonalities, though the T-Cross bests the Seltos for front-cabin practicality with its super-sized door pockets and wireless charging tray that can keep the centre stack tidier.
While the Seltos’s lower centre stack lacks a charging tray, its dual levels are still handy for allowing a phone to be placed on top, with other items, such as a wallet or keys, kept below.
The T-Cross maintains its door-pocket advantage in the rear cabin – making the difference between a kid’s trendy drink bottle fitting or not. The Seltos also skimps on seatback pouches, further reducing options for parents/kids to store various items, while it can’t match the VW’s dual USB ports in the back.
Neither vehicle provides a centre armrest or console vents.
Even fairly tall adults will appreciate the space in the back of these two compact SUVs. Although the Seltos has the longer distance between axles with its 67mm wheelbase advantage, it doesn’t bring any significant leg room advantage – a credit to the T-Cross’s packaging. There’s also good head room and rear-door access.
And credit to both manufacturers for providing very comfortable rear seat benches. Another one-up for the T-Cross, though: its rear bench slides fore/aft, allowing owners to balance knee space and boot space depending on needs.
With the bench in its foremost position, the T-Cross has the biggest luggage capacity here: 455L. That reduces to 385L with the bench in its rearmost position, giving the Seltos the ‘default boot space’ win at 433L.
Both are useful sizes even for a small family going on a weekend trip away, with the Seltos especially impressive – not far off a CX-5 for boot practicality. The lack of a cargo shelf to hide belongings is disappointing, though.
The T-Cross has one other trick up its sleeve, with dual floor-height settings (though the lower position isn’t possible if you have the optional Beats audio, as its subwoofer component is installed under the boot floor).
The Seltos features a rare full-size spare wheel, while the T-Cross opts for the temporary space-saver that’s more common these days.
Rear seatbacks split 60-40 in both models and both end up with flat floors – with the exception of a small step in the case of the Kia.
Kia and Volkswagen go very different ways when it comes to powering their little SUVs.
The Seltos’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder is familiar from the Cerato small car and Sportage SUV, if offering slightly less power and torque: 110kW and 180Nm.
The T-Cross’s engine – from the Polo – is a three-cylinder that’s half the size at 1.0 litres, though it compensates with a turbocharger. There’s less power (85kW) but there’s more torque (200Nm).
Both vehicles send all their power to the front wheels via different styles of automatic transmission. The Seltos utilises a first-for-Kia continuously variable transmission (CVT), whereas the T-Cross uses a seven-speed dual-clutch auto.
The Kia’s engine is comparatively basic, and doesn’t even feature modern-day direct fuel injection. To help improve efficiency, it instead features the Atkinson Cycle combustion process.
It’s not an entirely effortless engine – it sometimes feels like the throttle pedal needs a fair bit of prompting with the right foot to maintain higher speeds, and not helped by maximum torque arriving late in the day at 4500rpm. Yet, the engine doesn’t feel as underpowered as it does in the larger, heavier Sportage, and overtakes can be performed comfortably.
And whereas CVTs can be like-them-or-hate-them gearboxes, the Kia’s falls in the ‘Like’ camp with its smoothness, the absence of annoying droning, and an ability to almost feel like a regular auto with artificially stepped ratios under hard acceleration.
The T-Cross’s 85TSI drivetrain has one main vice. The dual-clutch gearbox can be a bit slow to get the VW underway from standstill, so it’s not the best vehicle at accelerating quickly out of junctions when that gap in busy traffic has finally materialised.
There’s extra hesitation from the stop-start system, too, which takes a moment to fire the engine back to life after the driver lifts their foot off the brake pedal. We preferred to switch the system off.
Otherwise, the T-Cross’s engine-auto combination is one of the best in the mainstream compact SUV segment.
The three-cylinder emits a characterful and characteristic thrummy beat, and growls when you rev higher. It’s refined, responsive and – if you flick the gear lever back to put the auto into S(port) mode – it’s highly enjoyable, as the driver benefits from that high-for-its-segment 200Nm produced in the heart of the rev range (2000–3500rpm).
On the road
The Seltos and T-Cross both feel like proper SUVs when it comes to elevated seating positions. Respectively, it doesn’t feel like you’re driving either a Cerato or a Polo.
Ample glass height aids driver vision, with the Seltos providing the best all-round visibility thanks mainly to its more expansive rear window.
There’s little to choose between this duo for seat comfort – you can spend hours in the front seats and benefit from well-judged cushioning and sufficient bolstering.
The Seltos’s 17-inch wheels arguably look the more stylish, but the T-Cross’s smaller wheels are wrapped in chubbier rubber to help give it a ride-comfort advantage.
Whereas the Kia’s suspension feels on the firm side around town and could be more absorptive, the VW is pleasantly supple and compliant. (The ride is still good even if you opt for the T-Cross 85TSI Style with optional 18-inch wheels.)
The Seltos’s urban ride is still acceptable, though, and it improves with speed. It’s particularly good on freeways.
Above 60km/h, you just may want to switch off both vehicles’ lane-keep assist systems. Like too many others, they can be overly sensitive to lane markings and are annoying rather than helpful as they tug at the steering wheel, even when you’re not veering noticeably out of your lane.
It’s simpler to turn it off in the T-Cross, using steering wheel buttons; the Seltos requires the driver to fiddle around with the central touchscreen. They reset every time you switch off the engines, unfortunately.
The Kia includes a feature debuted by Subaru – an alert that tells you when the car ahead has started to move off, in case you have been distracted.
The Volkswagen’s adaptive cruise is the more effective, and helped by its more flexible engine and more responsive gearbox. The T-Cross is adept at maintaining the driver’s set speed quite precisely on undulating roads/freeways, whereas the Seltos can be slow to react after losing momentum on an incline or after slowing automatically when approaching a slower car ahead.
We also prefer the T-Cross’s steering overall, which is satisfyingly linear and with a light weight that works particularly well around town. The Kia’s steering isn’t as smooth, mainly owing to inconsistent weighting around the straight-ahead position. This can make the Seltos harder to place precisely in a lane, though the steering feels much better around town and on winding country roads.
The Seltos’s slightly firmer suspension works in its favour for tourist-drive roads, the Kia offering fine body control to put the driver at ease. There’s a bit more body roll exhibited by the T-Cross, though the VW is far from sloppy in its handling.
Brakes are easy to modulate in both vehicles around town or on the open road, with just a slightly firmer pedal feel in the VW.
Kia continues to lead the way with its seven-year factory warranty, giving Seltos owners an extra two years' peace of mind compared with those living with a T-Cross.
The Korean brand doesn’t provide the most affordable maintenance costs in the segment, though annual costs are slightly cheaper than Volkswagen’s servicing charges.
Servicing the Seltos Sport costs $1037 over three years or $1914 over five years. For the same periods, the T-Cross costs $1214 and $2438, respectively. (The gap would be a bit closer, though, if you owned the turbocharged version of the Seltos.)
Intervals are either every 12 months or every 15,000km in both cases.
For those looking to run their compact SUVs on the strictest of budgets, it’s important to note the T-Cross’s turbo three-cylinder needs to run on premium fuel, whereas the Seltos is compatible with regular unleaded.
The Volkswagen compensates for its more expensive fuel to a degree, however.
Due to logistical reasons, we didn’t have a chance to record back-to-back fuel consumption figures, but individual testing of the models on the same roads – as well as other road tests of these vehicles – points to a consistent economy advantage for the T-Cross.
We’ve registered as low as 5.8 litres per 100km for the T-Cross and as low as 6.7L/100km for the Seltos, with the gap increasing to between 1.0 and 1.5 litres every 100km when there’s more focus on urban running.
This reflects official fuel consumption figures, which are 5.4L/100km for the VW and 6.8L/100km for the Kia.
If value for money is an important buying factor, you first need to assess whether an SUV body style is a must-have. Because for less or similar money, you can have hatchbacks elsewhere in Kia or Volkswagen showrooms that are still relatively practical but come with more features: a $29,340 Cerato Sport Plus in the former’s case; a $25,390 Polo 85TSI in the latter’s case.
For their segment, though, the Seltos Sport and T-Cross Life are reasonably well equipped – neither particularly generous nor especially miserly.
The Seltos is a convincing first compact SUV from Kia – driving well, offering one of the better CVT autos, boasting one of the biggest boots in its class, presenting an excellent infotainment system, and looking after owners with a super-long warranty and slightly cheaper running costs.
There’s a familiar classiness to the driving manners of Volkswagen’s smallest SUV. And a familiar maturity to the cabin. It’s easy to tell the T-Cross comes from the same company that makes the Golf and Tiguan.
Although the gearbox isn’t perfect for getting the T-Cross off the mark, it compensates once the vehicle is on the move, and drivers get to savour smooth steering, a relaxing ride and an entertaining three-cylinder turbo.
Unlike some compact SUVs, the T-Cross also offers a genuine practicality advantage over the car on which it’s based. That includes the clever sliding rear bench that also gives it a touch of innovation the Seltos lacks, along with better cabin storage.
Add in some tempting option packs that don’t make upgrading to the $30,990 85TSI Style variant a clear-cut choice and, overall, it’s the Volkswagen that gets our nod here.