Something surprised me when browsing our online buyer’s guide the other day—right now there are more than 17 subcompact SUVs on the market from mainstream automakers. Everyone from Chevrolet to Toyota competes in the space, and more vehicles join the segment every day. The 2021 Kia Seltos is one of our favorite new subcompact SUVs to enter the fray; this 2021 MotorTrend SUV of the Year finalist impressed us with its killer style, great power, and exceptional value. But while the segment grows in number, those already in the field aren’t sitting still. The 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport is the latest update to another MT favorite (not to mention a 2018 SUV of the Year finalist), offering more power, updated styling, and new features. But is the new kid on the block the better SUV? We took the turbocharged 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo and the new 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport onto some of our favorite roads to find out.
Tale of the Tape: 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD vs. Subaru Crosstrek Sport
As the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek and Kia Seltos play in the same segment, they’re matched fairly evenly in the specifications department.
Riding on Subaru’s modular Subaru Global Platform, which underpins everything from the compact Impreza sedan to the three-row Ascent SUV, the Crosstrek is the bigger of the two; its wheelbase is 1.4 inches longer than the Kia’s, and it’s 4.5 inches longer overall.
Subaru offers three different powertrains in the Crosstrek: a standard 152-hp 2.0-liter flat-four, a 148-hp gasoline-electric setup in the Crosstrek Hybrid, and, new for 2021, a 2.5-liter flat-four producing 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque, as found in our 2021 Crosstrek Sport. Although a six-speed manual is standard on the Crosstrek’s base engine, the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport is available only with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Like all Subarus, save for the BRZ sports car, all-wheel drive is standard on the Crosstrek.
Aside from the new 2.5-liter flat-four (borrowed from the Subaru Forester, Legacy, and Outback), the 2021 Crosstrek also gets some minor styling revisions inside and outside, plus an updated version of Subaru’s X-Mode off-road software and its EyeSight driver-assist safety tech.
The new 2021 Kia Seltos is slightly shorter and stubbier than the Crosstrek and has a more traditional SUV-like appearance. Riding on a small-car platform shared with the Hyundai Kona and Kia Soul (among others), Kia offers two powertrain options in the Seltos. Standard is a 146-hp 2.0-liter I-4 paired with a CVT. On the base $23,165 Seltos LX, it comes standard with all-wheel drive. Moving laterally over to the $23,165 Seltos S nets you more standard creature comforts, but standard front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive is available for an extra $1,600. Optional—and equipped on our Seltos SX Turbo test car—is a turbocharged 1.6-liter I-4 that makes 175 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. It comes standard with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox and all-wheel drive.
In addition to its two engine options and stylish sheet metal, the new-to-market Seltos also offers Kia’s latest suite of driver-assist tech and premium infotainment options.
How Much Are the 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo and 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport?
Competing in the $20,000-$30,000 range isn’t easy. Raw materials and labor costs being what they are, there’s not a lot of room for automakers to undercut one another while still ensuring they generate profit. As such, it’s unsurprising how similarly the Seltos SX Turbo and Crosstrek Sport are priced. The 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport starts at $27,545, and, as equipped for this test with a $1,600 package that includes a moonroof and blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert, it stickers for $29,145.
The 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD, at $29,010 to start, comes similarly equipped to our Crosstrek Sport (though it was missing the $700 optional moonroof). The only options on our $29,485 as-tested Seltos SX Turbo were carpeted floormats and Starbright Yellow paint that in some light perfectly matched our Crosstrek’s Plasma Yellow Pearl paint job.
2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport or 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo: Which Is Faster?
The test track is where some daylight begins to appear between the Seltos and the Crosstrek. Despite being down 7 hp to the Crosstrek, the Seltos is the quicker of the two from a standing start. Thanks to its quick-shifting dual-clutch automatic transmission, the Kia accelerates to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, whereas the Crosstrek, saddled with its more lackadaisical CVT, needs 7.8 seconds to hit 60 mph from a standstill. Interestingly, the Subaru shows some signs of life when we look at its quarter mile performance. Its 16.0-second run at 87.7 mph is 0.1 second slower than the Kia’s (but its trap speed is ever so slightly faster than the Seltos’ 86.9-mph turn).
In layman’s terms, this means the Kia’s torque and transmission help out at city speeds, but the Crosstrek’s power advantage bridges the gap at highway speeds. We can actually see this play out in our 45-65 mph passing test, where both SUVs take 3.9 seconds. The Crosstrek’s few extra horses and the CVT’s ability to quickly “downshift” help it keep pace with the Seltos, which has a harder time keeping ahead because of its engine’s peaky power delivery and slow downshifts.
In braking and handling tests, the Seltos has the edge again by the thinnest of margins. Its best 60-0 mph stop was 117 feet; the Subaru needed 124 feet. The Kia also managed to lap our figure-eight course quicker than the Crosstrek, averaging 0.63 g over its 27.4-second lap versus 27.9 seconds at 0.60 g for the Subaru.
When it comes to fuel economy, the Subaru claws back some points with an EPA rating of 27/34/29 mpg city/highway/combined versus the Kia’s 25/30/27 mpg score.
Is the Crosstrek Sport or Seltos SX Turbo Better in the Real World?
Although the Kia and Subaru are matched evenly on paper, the two have tremendously different characters in the real world.
Perhaps in an attempt to capture some of the essence of the award-winning (and hot-selling) Kia Telluride, the 2021 Kia Seltos immediately feels more SUV-like than the Subaru. You sit high in the Kia’s cabin, with a commanding view of the road. The Seltos’ ride initially lends itself to that SUV-like impression, too, with a heavy sort of stiffness over speed bumps and potholes that’s more typical of traditional body-on-frame SUVs. That impression begins to fade some as you spend more time behind the wheel; the truck-like solidity evolves into unmistakable firmness reminiscent of a hot sport compact, complete with all the head toss and gut jiggle you would expect. Thankfully, though, the setup avoids excess body roll, while the steering is quick and pleasingly hefty but somewhat artificial feeling.
The Kia’s little turbocharged 1.6-liter engine and seven-speed transmission are at their happiest hammering away at wide-open throttle. Unfortunately, that’s not quite representative of how the average American drives. Despite what we found at the test track, the engine, when run at city and highway speeds, is laggy and the transmission is slow to respond, especially when calling for a downshift to beat traffic around town or pass a slow-moving truck on the interstate. In heavy stop-and-go traffic (or just negotiating your parking lot or driveway), the powertrain becomes even more irritating, behaving as if it were a freshly minted manual driver, with rough, slow shifts and lots of head toss as the Seltos’ drivetrain attempts to put the power down without feeling like it’s going to stall. The Seltos’ base powertrain is much smoother.
The Subaru Crosstrek, despite the “Sport” in its name, is the more refined and relaxed of the two vehicles. There’s an unmistakable feeling of solidity and quality in the way the Crosstrek goes down the road; the Subaru’s balanced chassis and superb suspension tuning is probably the root cause of this impression. Sure, you’ll get tire scrub and some understeer when you really drive hard, but the Crosstrek’s chassis can absolutely handle far more power and grip than what’s on offer. Its suspension is even more impressive. Using nothing but old-school engineering, it still manages to completely obliterate the perma-landslide purgatory found on the rough-road section of our test loop in much the same way a Mercedes-Maybach GLS600 did on the same stretch of road just the day prior. What that means on less extreme sections of roadway is the Subaru rides exceptionally smoothly and comfortably.
“Smooth” accurately describes the Crosstrek’s powertrain. Unlike our experiences in our long-term Subaru Outback, which has a turbocharged engine and CVT, throttle tip-in on the Crosstrek Sport is linear. And the Crosstrek gets up and going without the Seltos’ drama. It’s not necessarily as exciting as the Seltos when its engine is on full boil, but the Subaru feels quick once the flat-four is in its powerband, and it feels acceptably powerful when it’s not. It doesn’t live up to the “Sport” badge on its rump, but the Crosstrek now at least offers a gasoline powertrain more than capable of keeping up with traffic.
Subaru Crosstrek or Kia Seltos: Which Has the Best Interior?
Despite the little injection of matching yellow trim to the bottom of the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Sport’s steering wheel (and the yellow thread in the seat stitching), the car’s cabin is much the same as the versions that came before it. That’s no bad thing. Since its debut, the Crosstrek has been one of our segment favorites due to its balance of practicality, quality, and features. The neoprene-wrapped seats (a Crosstrek Sport exclusive) are comfortable, spacious, and adult-friendly both front and rear, while the cargo hold is positively massive for an SUV of this size, even if the Seltos ends up edging the Subaru in overall cubic feet.
We’re also fans of the Crosstrek Sport’s 8.8-inch Apple CarPlay- and Android Auto-friendly infotainment suite, which is both intuitive and responsive. That said, we wish the smaller multi-function display on top of the dash was a color unit as found on higher-spec Crosstreks (rather than looking like an old alarm clock).
After hopping out of the Subaru and into the Seltos, the Kia makes a killer first impression. Kia’s major focus on interior design in the Seltos’ cabin is just something you don’t get elsewhere in this segment. Power seats with lumbar adjustment, automatic climate control with vents for rear passengers, and an 8.0-inch CarPlay- and Android Auto-compatible infotainment system (also shared with Hyundai and some Genesis models) are impressive enough. But then you look at things such as the fractal speaker grilles for the Bose sound system, and it’s impossible not to feel like you’re in a far more expensive car.
Unfortunately, it seems like some of these lovely touches came at the expense of fundamentals. The Seltos’ cabin, though technically larger than the Crosstrek’s, feels smaller for passengers, and it features lesser interior materials than what Subaru offers for nearly the same money.
2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo or 2021 Subaru Crosstrek: The Better Buy
This comparison is close. The MotorTrend of the ’70s or ’80s would likely have said something along the lines of, “If you want something sporty-ish get the Kia, but if you want something more comfortable, get the Subaru” and hit the local bar.
Thankfully, we’ve moved past such fence-sitting. While both of these SUVs are exceptional segment standouts, for us, the Subaru’s final bit of polish, superior ride quality and efficiency, and its near-identical instrumented-test performance earn it the top spot in our SUV rankings.
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