It wasn't too long ago that when someone was seen driving a Kia, onlookers had a judgmental look of condescendence.

For the money, they'd say. Easy on the pocket, they'd think. For the budget conscious, they'd judge. Such phrases weren't unqualified; Kia, after all, really became known as a brand that early on found its core competence at building good cars at affordable prices.

But sometime after, Kia started to change. They didn't want to make budget cars forever. They hired top designers. They leveraged the advantage of having a giant like Hyundai behind them. They wanted to push forward and challenge their competitors across the strait, across the Pacific, and across to the Old World.

Something tells us that the Seltos, a new crossover from Kia named after the son of Hercules, is going to be an integral part of that ambitious challenge. And we're about to put it through its paces just outside of Seoul.

The Kia Seltos popped up on our radar only a short while ago, appearing on the feed from their press site really out of nowhere. And they held the world premiere in India; one of the newest juggernauts of the global auto industry that the world has its eye on, particularly in the wake of waning markets abroad.

The Seltos they launched in India and the model we're driving in South Korea are, to put it amusingly, same same but different. Of course there's the clear cut distinction that the Seltos launched in India is made there and the Seltos we're driving is made south of the DMZ. But perhaps what's most important is that the two Seltoses are not riding on the same platform; well, they're very similar, but there are differences, I've been told. It's highly unusual for a brand to have one model riding on different platforms, but I guess we'll jot that down to Kia's power to surprise.

Kia Soluto First Drive image

In terms of model stratification, the Seltos sits in the increasingly more lucrative size category that sits between the Soul and the Sportage. In this class, you'll find the likes of the Honda HR-V, Nissan Juke, and crucially, the Hyundai Kona. That last one is interesting because Hyundai and Kia really belong to the same family. Sibling rivalry then.

Walking up to the Seltos at their design bureau in Namyang, South Korea, one thing is for certain: this Kia is a looker. Based on the impression we get, the Seltos is not trying to be a rugged SUV, nor is it trying to be an aerodynamic crossover. Kia's design teams (a division that they have clearly invested heavily on) appears to have generated a blend of the two using the profile of an SUV with some interesting and downright unique design elements of a modern crossover.

Kia Soluto First Drive image

Beyond the proper proportions and illusion of size it gives vis-a-vis its actual size is the way they took some liberties with the face, and particularly the lighting. The keen eyed will notice that the tiger grill and headlamps look almost like a seamless unit. And once you start fiddling with the lights like the indicators and such, you'll notice that they played around with the lamps. The position LEDs (park lights of sorts) actually continue into the grille, which is cool. The indicator lamps are the LEDs below the headlamps and look rather neat when activated. I also liked the “ice-cube” like foglamps. This thing would look so cool cruising around at night; too bad we'll have to return it before sun down.

I like how the Seltos is well proportioned to look like a proper SUV. If anything, it reminds of of the Explorer from Ford, albeit very scaled down to compete against the Kona and company. Where I think they could have improved on fundamentally was in ground clearance; at just under 180mm, it's not riding very high. A rugged SUV this is not; it's a crossover with some SUV-inspired design considerations. That means the Seltos is meant for urban roads and highways, not the road less travelled. No matter though, as we've got some fine highways and byways to drive on in South Korea.

Kia Soluto First Drive image

Where we do expect the Seltos to elicit a few oohhs and aahhs is the moment showroom-going folk step inside one. There's a definitive high-quality aura about the cabin. The surfaces on the dash are tactile, and I particularly liked the layout and cleanliness of the design. The details are cleanly executed, the panel gaps are spot on, and the way the buttons feel when you press them all give a feeling of impressive quality. This isn't an exaggeration: if it wasn't for the Kia logo on the wheel, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were inside something built by guys who yell "Prost!" when they drink, not "Geonbae!".

What I did like, especially on a long drive, was the application of touchscreens. In the model we were driving, they had a 10.25-inch screen up top for the multimedia system, with a slimmer one below for the climate. The main screen is well-built and is more comparable to the ones found in Mazdas, and it's rounded off for good measure. It looks clean and is well integrated into the design, but unfortunately we might not see this screen on our Seltos units; the Philippine model will come with the smaller 8” screen, but will retain much of the functionality, including a Bluetooth system that allows for two devices to connect simultaneously. That means the passenger can play DJ on longer drives on a separate device.

Kia Soluto First Drive image

Seat comfort is better than I expected of a crossover of this size, and all seats were wrapped in leather on this top spec Seltos. The hide is synthetic, but it doesn't feel like it, which is good. Rear seat comfort and space is also good if you're seating 4 people because the rear seats are scalloped. The middle seat is elevated slightly as a result so it won't be as comfortable on a long drive for five. It's really better for 4, and the center backrest does have an armrest that comes down.

What is a real advantage for the Kia vis-a-vis competitor models is in boot space. The company says the Seltos can accommodate 498 liters of cargo in the back, and that's with the rear seats up. The measurement is VDA, meaning its obtained using blocks (200mm x 50mm x 100mm) that displace or equate to 1-liter of volume. They claim it's better than the Kona and the HR-V which is a tall order given that Honda does take pride in generating bootspace from their small models.

Kia Soluto First Drive image

The boot tray also has two positions; we presume they got the number using the low position of the tray with the space saver tire as that generates more space. The tray (or board) can also rest 110mm higher, which gives a little less space, but is now almost level with the lip for easier loading. With the 60/40 rear seats fold down down, the loadspace is almost fully flat. Cargo room expands massively, though they didn't give us a figure for that.

Once on the road, Kia's new Seltos proved to be a real treat to take around. The electric steering is light and the braking is quite positive; all models have disc brakes on all four wheels. The ride is measuredly comfortable. I used that phrase because there is a caveat: the roads in this country are generally much smoother than the ones in ours. We did encounter a road that seemed to have more speed bumps per kilometer than the many gated communities in the metro, but still, we'd hold off on passing true judgment of the ride quality of the Seltos until a full local drive.

Kia Soluto First Drive image

There is another reason why: the suspension of this Seltos will be different compared to the Philippine model. The front suspension is the same: a MacPherson strut system. Where it differs is the rear, as the version we're driving is all-wheel drive and uses a multi-link suspension in the back. The Seltos for the Philippine market will be front-wheel drive only, and that means they use a torsion beam setup because they don't need to fit a differential and accompanying CV joints to drive the rear wheels. The ride of that more cost effective (and non-independent) rear suspension shouldn't (in theory) be as comfortable as this one, but we don't have any examples we can drive here.

There's also the engine: it's a 1.6-liter gasoline unit that makes 177 horsepower (metric). It sounds like a very high figure for a 1600cc engine, the reason is that the engine comes with a turbocharger and direct injection. They paired the engine with a 7-speed dual clutch gearbox and all-wheel drive which is perfect for these kinds of fairly open roads. The T-GDI engine also has 265 Nm of torque that's already available at 1500 rpm up to 4500 rpm. That's fun to play with whenever the stoplight turns green, lunging the Seltos forward from a standstill to 100 km/h in 8 seconds like it's had a double shot of espresso.

Kia Soluto First Drive image

Sadly, however, the 1.6 T-GDI engine isn't what we'll be getting in our market. This motor requires gasoline that conforms to Euro-6 standards, and would probably have issues (likely to be direct injection related) if subjected to our lower grade Euro-4 fuel in the long run. There's also a 1.6-liter diesel variant with 134 PS and 320 Nm of torque, but we won't get that as well; it's also Euro-6 and would choke on our fuel.

So, the engine our market will get is the 2.0-liter twin-cam 16-valve 4-banger. That engine makes 149 PS at 6200 rpm and 180 Nm of torque. It's a bit of a let down to be honest; the power of this engine is addictive as the torque kicks in so early that it makes traffic a little more fun. The 1.6 turbo is efficient too because we don't have to step on the accelerator as much with the torque, and it averaged 14.3 km/l on our stints on the highway (3 passengers, average speed 76 km/h). We don't expect such figures from the 2.0.

Kia Soluto First Drive image

Another big change will be the transmission: Philippine spec Seltos models will not have the DCT, but will instead come with a CVT, or what Kia calls their IVT. That spec change is more interesting, as DCTs can be problematic in our kind of traffic; they're better suited for long drives and feel weird (with a jerkiness bordering on irritating) in Metro Manila traffic. The CVT or IVT could be the better option, but there are none of those variants here for us to drive and experience.

We take a break from the drive and park our fleet at Jebu Island, past a road that they say is really underwater during high tide, taking stock of the Seltos experience is going to be tricky. In this specification and on these fairly smoother roads, it's hard to point out flaws, if any. The Seltos was clearly conceived with a lot of thought into the features, into the engineering, and definitely into the design. We still have to wait a while to try the proper Philippine spec, but if it comes close to this, we can say the future is bright.

Kia Soluto First Drive image

Kia needs to bring this in at the right price; somewhere between PhP1.1 million up to about 1.4 million would be the sweet spot for the three variants they're planning: the LX, EX and EX+. If they can get the base LX at under 1.1 million, that would mean they could undercut the Kona which is currently selling well in our market. 

We won't sugarcoat it: the Kia brand sorely needs a model like the Seltos in our market, especially after the slump in sales they experienced in the Philippines from 2016. Things came to a head in 2018, when the brand's performance amounted to less than a quarter of their 10,010 units sold in 2015.

Many of the challenges seemed insurmountable, particularly when banks withdrew their support to allow Kia to offer low downpayment schemes after Picanto buyers in particular defaulted on their payments. Now Ayala has stepped in as the new custodians, promising to bring back the luster to the proud Korean brand.

Perhaps its fitting that Incheon is already visible to the north as we made our way around Jebu. Yeah, it's the site of their modern airport, but history buffs would know that Incheon is significant for its role in the Korean War: it was the site of the UN and US amphibious landings that turned the tide. What looked like South Korea's inevitable defeat turned into a fighting chance to survive... and thrive.

This Seltos, in our market, could be Kia's Incheon.