What’s the Best Affordable Small SUV?

2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer, 2021 Subaru Crosstrek, 2021 Kia Seltos, 2021 Mazda CX-30 in a row Affordable Small SUV Challenge | photo by Christian Lantry

It’s been a few years since the Subaru Crosstrek won our comparison test of the smallest SUVs on the market (for a second time). Since then, it’s been updated and some newcomers have entered the fray, so we pitted a 2021 Crosstrek against a Chevrolet Trailblazer, a Kia Seltos and a Mazda CX-30 in a week of regimented testing to see if the Subaru could pull off a three-peat. The exact model years and trim levels we tested and their final ranking were:

1. 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD
2. 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Limited AWD
3. 2020 Mazda CX-30 Premium Package AWD
4. 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer RS AWD

As always, our results apply specifically to the vehicles we tested as equipped and priced — not the entire model line. (Among many other considerations, three of our contestants were equipped with optional engines.) Whether it’s the quality of the field or our ability to match the most competitive players, our comparison test results just keep getting closer. We say again as we have on occasion that even the “loser” is no loser, but we remain committed to scoring and ranking our contestants. Careful shoppers will view our likes and dislikes below for each car and decide what matters most to them. The Good and Bad entries are arranged in descending order of their importance to the judges — Managing Editor Joe Bruzek and Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays — and their influence on the results.

Affordable Small SUV Challenge
Results | Winner | How We Tested

All judging categories could earn a maximum of 20 points with the exception of driver-assist technology, which is limited to 10 points, and value, which allows a maximum of 40 points. The following graphic shows all categories and the various wins and losses at a glance.

Affordable Small SUV Challenge comparison chart Affordable Small SUV Challenge | graphic by Paul Dolan and Patrick Masterson

4. 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer RS 1.3T AWD, 211 points (out of a possible 350)

The verdict: Standout utility makes this an honest SUV, not some jacked-up subcompact hatch, and Chevrolet’s connectivity features are first-rate. But the drivetrain and chassis introduce flaws — some of them deep.

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Our Test Vehicle

As-tested price: $32,350
Powertrain: 155-horsepower, turbocharged 1.3-liter three-cylinder; nine-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
0-60 mph as tested: 9.91 seconds
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 26/30/28

The name Trailblazer isn’t new, but it adorns a much smaller, lighter 2021 model. Note that our test vehicle had the optional turbocharged 1.3-liter three-cylinder engine, which represents substantial changes: For one thing, it brings horsepower to 155 from 137 hp and torque to 174 from 162 pounds-feet, but it also replaces the standard continuously variable automatic transmission with a nine-speed conventional automatic. Don’t expect these two to drive similarly; they won’t.

Unlike the last-place finishers in some comparison tests, the Trailblazer is no outright loser. However, it’s definitely a matter of taste and preference because its performance was the most polar: It won four judging categories, lost in three and tied for last in two more. But what stands out is how demonstrative these differences were; its biggest wins were by 3 or 4 points and its losses by 2 or 3. In comparison, the other contestants leaned more in one direction or the other. 

The Good

Multimedia: One of the Trailblazer’s biggest wins, by 4 points, was in this judging category. “The Trailblazer merges a lag-free touchscreen with a wealth of inputs, including the group’s only wireless implementation of  Apple CarPlay and Android Auto,” said judge Kelsey Mays. “Many cars a lot pricier don’t have it this good.” Judge Joe Bruzek agreed, adding, “It was the only contestant without a built-in navigation component, which I think is OK considering how many ways the Trailblazer lets you use your phone for navigation.”

In-cabin storage: “My preference is multiple exposed cubbies and storage shelves versus one large bin where everything gets mixed up,” Bruzek said. “And the Trailblazer delivers. There’s a storage shelf above the glove box, a small cubby rearward as well as ahead of the gear selector in addition to a traditional center console box under the armrest. There was no shortage of space and organization for keys, wallet, hand sanitizer and mask.” Mays added: “The doors also brim with cubbies, and the backseat is the only one here with seatback pockets on both sides, not just the passenger’s.” This was another clear win for the Chevy, by 4 points.

Cargo:We measured a modest 13.5 cubic feet behind the Trailblazer’s backseat, 17% less than the Seltos’ 16.2 cubic feet,” Mays said. “But many other features, including the only hands-free power liftgate and fold-flat front passenger seat in the test, helped lift the cargo score to a group-leading 14 points.”

Braking: “I didn’t expect one car to stand out, but the Trailblazer’s brake pedal gave me confidence and precision lacking in the other cars, with most of the brake action high up in the pedal travel for quick reactions.” Bruzek said. “It uses a brake-by-wire system, which rarely has a natural feel, but the Trailblazer does.”

Handling: “The Trailblazer trails the CX-30 [the highest-rated handling SUV of the group] only because the Mazda offers flatter, more composed handling,” Bruzek said. “You get the sensation that the Trailblazer is a little more top heavy.”

Front seats: Though the Trailblazer’s score in this category was just below average, “The front seats are supportive from top to bottom and the side bolsters have a snug, but not tight grip, and the adjustable lumbar makes a big difference,” said Bruzek.

Rearward visibility:The fold-down rear head restraints — the only ones in this group — help with the view out back,” Mays said. “Ditto for the backup camera’s crisp resolution, at least when you’re in Reverse.”

Selectable AWD: “Having options is great, and the Trailblazer lets you choose whether the all-wheel-drive system is active or not,” Bruzek said. “With the press of the AWD button, you can choose grippy all-wheel drive for slippery surfaces or front-wheel drive only for improved fuel economy.”

The Bad

Engine: “The engine sounds and feels like a diesel: lots of immediate torque for sprightly acceleration off the line but little additional power after about 4,000 rpm,” Mays said. Bruzek agreed: “It’s not the slowest off the line to 15 mph [the Seltos SX Turbo is], but after 15 mph, its acceleration falls off hard.”

Transmission: “Along with some lag on initial start, there’s transmission lag on kickdown,” Bruzek noted. Mays reported the same: “If you need more power while already in motion, the nine-speed takes a full lunchbreak to kick down. At steady-state 50-mph cruising, I consistently clocked well over two full seconds from getting on the gas to the transmission downshifting multiple gears — stumbling through intermediate ones first — to raise revs for passing power. That’s twice as long as the CX-30 took for the same exercise.” The Chevy ranked last in the powertrain category by 3 points.

Interior quality: “The bar is not very high in this class, yet the Trailblazer underdelivers,” Bruzek said. “Despite some highlights, like the dashboard padding and RS-specific flat-bottom leather-trimmed steering wheel and their attractive materials, it gets sparse quickly below armrest level. And the backseat has hard plastic armrests and top panels with no accent styling. The Trailblazer is the most expensive in the test, but that clearly doesn’t go to interior trimmings.” Mays noted “clumsy controls and sandpapery partial-cloth upholstery, yet nice chrome detailing and uncharacteristically rich headliner and sun visors. Hey, maybe just look up, not down,” he said. The Trailblazer rated last in this category.

Ride quality: “Shock absorption is generous, but rapid elevation changes or broken pavement expose weaknesses,” Mays said. “At worst, it’s a bouncy house; isolation and body control are major issues.” Bruzek said, Of all these small SUVs, the Trailblazer rides most like a small car. It’s high-strung, choppy and has a very busy ride quality. The wheels and suspension feel like they’re always moving up and down, and a hard hit over an expansion joint at 70 mph makes you cringe.” 

Seat comfort: The seats feel more like a collection of rock-hard cushions and lumpy bolsters fastened together,” Mays said. “In the backseat, low bottom cushion height can leave adult passengers’ knees uncomfortably elevated. There’s no headroom payoff; I’m 6 feet tall, and my hair touched the headliner.” (Caveat: Our test car had a panoramic moonroof, and such features can reduce headroom in both rows by an inch or more. As of this writing, however, GM publishes headroom figures only for the Trailblazer without a moonroof.) Bruzek called the limited headroom “surprising considering how upright and tall the car is the most toasterlike of the bunch.” Though the Subaru’s front seats scored lower than the Trailblazer’s, the Chevy had the fewest points when front and rear seat scores were combined.

Driver-assist features: The Trailblazer doesn’t offer lane-centering steering, something both the Seltos and Crosstrek had. It tied for last in this category with the CX-30.

Visibility: “Large A-pillars block forward visibility,” Bruzek said. “The side mirrors mount to the base of the window frame versus the door itself, so there’s a giant blocked area that’s wide open in the Crosstrek, the best of the group.”

Noise: “The Trailblazer tied for last in this category with a touch louder wind and road noise to my ear, but there were other noises that proved more annoying,” Bruzek said. “A buzzy engine is par for the course, but the transmission lugs the engine in high gear, which labors it and sends vibrations through the cabin. Perhaps specific to this car, the brake pedal switch let off an audible click every time we hit the pedal, and the accelerator pedal creaked every time it was pressed.”

Research the 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check

3. 2020 Mazda CX-30 Premium Package AWD, 213 points

The verdict: If you can get past the small backseat and cargo area, the CX-30 makes you feel like you got a bargain at its price with the classiest interior of the bunch and test-exclusive premium features.

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Our Test Vehicle

As-tested price: $31,965
Powertrain: 186-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder; six-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
0-60 mph as tested: 8.92 seconds
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 25/32/27

The CX-30 was the sole 2020 model we tested because, unfortunately, a ’21 wasn’t ready in time. But because this Mazda has been on the market for just one model year, little of substance has changed in case you choose to shop for a 2021. The biggest difference is the pending availability of an optional turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter four-cylinder with an advertised 250 hp and 320 pounds-feet of torque, which is not yet available. The standard engine is the same we tested in our 2020, with 186 hp. 

The Mazda won three categories and tied for first in a fourth. It lost four categories outright and then tied for last in four more. Though the bottom-ranked Chevy won one category more than this contestant, it’s all about the numbers, and the CX-30 edged it out by 2 points on the strength of its three decisive wins. Less decisive was our judges’ conclusion on the CX-30’s brakes: One, who likes a lot of pedal travel and linear response, rated it highest of the four vehicles. The other judge, who prefers a hard pedal with high engagement, rated it lowest. There will be no further mention in the sections below.

The Good

Powertrain: “Though not as quick to 60 mph as the Kia and Subaru, the CX-30’s drivetrain is exceptionally responsive,” Mays said. “The six-speed automatic kicks down to lower gears at a moment’s notice for passing, and the big four-cylinder revs out with a gratifying crescendo in power and sound.” Bruzek called it “the most cooperative and seamless engine/transmission pairing in our test.” The CX-30 won this category by a four-point margin.

Handling: “Despite basic rear suspension technology in a group with multilink and double wishbone rear suspensions, the CX-30’s handling is quite proficient,” Bruzek said. “It has the flattest, most direct handling and the most grip. It’s composed through the corners and is the liveliest of the bunch, with communicative steering and good tires that don’t freak out at the limits like others in this test.” Mays added: “Turn-in is slower than in the Trailblazer and Seltos, but feedback beats the pants off both. Steering this communicative would impress in a dedicated sports car.” Though the CX-30’s ride quality was rated a bit below average among these contestants, it didn’t represent as bad a trade-off as top-handling vehicles sometimes do in our testing.

Interior quality: “We’ve seen this movie before in the Mazda3, but what a lush cabin,” Mays said. “The brightwork is laced delicately around various controls, a level of detailing you don’t typically get from mass-market brands. Where your knees or elbows rest, padding abounds. The leather upholstery feels rich — and it appears almost all legit, absent big sections of obvious vinyl. The headliner is cheap and there’s some dropoff in backseat materials, but for the most part, this feels a cut above.” As Bruzek pointed out, “It’s not even the most expensive model we tested.”

Value: “I never think of Mazda as the value pick, but it came with surprisingly premium features both for its price and this class overall, including a head-up display, driver’s memory seat, automatic dual climate control and proximity keyless entry that requires only a grab of the door handle to unlock rather than pressing a button to release like the Seltos and Trailblazer,” Bruzek said. Mays cited the CX-30’s inclusion of a power liftgate and visible rear air vents, one of two models with the features.

Front seats: “With snug side bolsters, the CX-30’s seats are the most like a sports car’s, accentuated by a lower seating position than the other SUVs,” Bruzek said. “These were my favorite seats of the bunch, but unfortunately, being stuck in the tight confines of the CX-30’s cramped interior earned them second-place ranking overall in this category.”

The Bad

Rear visibility: “Rear visibility is horrendous, with a bulbous rear that has a large mass of plastic and structure that obscures your view when changing lanes or backing up,” Bruzek said. This resulted in the Mazda earning the lowest overall visibility rating despite decent forward visibility as mentioned above.

Backseat: “Backseat knee clearance is the slimmest in this group, and the big driveline hump crowds footwell space, adding insult to injury,” Mays said. Bruzek added, “While it has the most comfortable cushioning, the backseat’s size is laughably small even for this class. There’s less headroom and less legroom than the others.”

Child-seat accommodation: Related to the snug backseat, “The CX-30 was the sole vehicle that needed the front passenger seat adjusted forward considerably to accommodate our bulkiest rear-facing child-safety seats behind it,” Mays said. “As such, an adult passenger would find legroom up front tight — a key factor in the Mazda trailing the group in this score.”

User interface: With a dashboard display operable exclusively through separate console controls, the CX-30 was the only contender without a simple touchscreen. “Mazda perched the display high up on the dashboard, requiring you to use an armrest-level controller, so the fact that it isn’t a touchscreen is probably a moot point,” Mays said. “But it’s a usability misstep nonetheless. The aspect ratio is another problem: Although the widescreen measures a healthy 8.8 diagonal inches, it’s less than 3 inches tall. The result is an awkward widescreen display that doesn’t leverage space very well.” Bruzek highlighted the shortcomings of using the system with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto: “Not having a touchscreen, the controller requires too much attention to rotate the dial and watch the cursor skip from icon to icon, and rotate right past Podcasts and into Google Maps,” he said. “Dial controllers used to be exclusive to luxury cars, so I understand one aspirational reason to include them, but those automakers are now switching to touchscreens that better mirror your phone.” 

Multimedia: The CX-30 tied for last in this category because it included the fewest USB ports, two, with none in the backseat. It also lacked wireless smartphone charging, which two competitors included. 

Driver-assist features: The CX-30 doesn’t offer lane-centering steering, something both the Seltos and Crosstrek had. It tied for last in driver-assist scores.

In-cabin storage: “In-cabin storage is minimal, with marginal console and door provisions,” Mays said. “It’s no better when you get to the backseat. Leave your detritus at home.”

Firm ride: As noted under The Good, the CX-30’s ride quality isn’t terrible for a vehicle with top-rated handling, but our judges wouldn’t call it soft. “It’s definitely tuned toward the firm side,” Bruzek said. “But it’s not uncomfortable or unrefined, and it doesn’t jostle you around like the Trailblazer does.” Mays added, “The tuning is deliberately firm, with excessive impact harshness on just about everything. If Mazda wants to broaden the SUV’s appeal, softer shocks are in order.”

Lower ride height: “The driving position, like in the Crosstrek, is more car than SUV,” Mays said. “Though you sit higher than in a true compact sedan, the position is notably lower than in either the Seltos or Trailblazer.”

Research the 2020 Mazda CX-30| Search Inventory | Car Seat Check

2. 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Limited 2.5L AWD, 218 points

The verdict: The Crosstrek still has the goods that made it a two-time winner in the micro-SUV class — namely, the spaciousness and ride comfort afforded by a larger platform. But it’s finally been unseated.

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Our Test Vehicle

As-tested price: $31,440
Powertrain: 182-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder; continuously variable automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
0-60 mph as tested: 8.73 seconds
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 27/34/29

We had one major complaint about this model upon its 2018 redesign even as it won our past Challenge: It was modestly powered, and modest power in the flatlands with no load easily becomes underpowered when loaded with people or cargo, or taking to hills and higher elevations without a turbocharger to compensate for the thinner air. Though that 152-hp, 2.0-liter engine remains standard, for 2021 the Sport and Limited trim levels get a 2.5-liter four-cylinder rated at 182 hp that makes the Crosstrek competitive but doesn’t leave anyone in the dust. That’s the version we tested. Had it not been, one judge mused, the Crosstrek’s second-place finish wouldn’t have been a guarantee. It won four categories but lost four outright and tied for last in four more.

Like the CX-30, the Crosstrek feels more like a car than an SUV, with a seating position a few inches lower than both the Seltos and Trailblazer though its ground clearance remains impressive. 

The Good

Visibility: “The Crosstrek simply does a great job with natural visibility,” Bruzek said. “Little quarter windows in the base of the front door window frame and side mirrors mounted to the door panels aid in forward visibility, while the low beltline helps with rearward visibility when changing lanes.” Mays noted “bulky rear head restraints that don’t fold down” as the only downside to the Subaru’s top-rated visibility.

Ride quality: “Ride comfort is the most telling sign you’re in a car based on a compact platform, not a subcompact,” Mays said. “The Crosstrek improves on the bounciness of the Trailblazer and, to a lesser extent, the Seltos, and it exhibits none of the CX-30’s harsh impacts.” Bruzek added, “The difference is in suspension tuning that’s pillowy soft. No other car would be my pick to drive the farthest, both at highway speeds where the ride is serene or on city streets where the suspension isolates you well from rough roads.”

Safety features: Reverse automatic braking and pivoting, curve-adaptive headlights helped our Crosstrek Limited earn the most points in the safety category, an analysis of as-tested crash-avoidance technologies.

Child-seat accommodation: With easily accessible Latch anchors, top tethers and seat belt buckles, plus sufficient backseat clearance for even our bulkiest child-safety seats, the Crosstrek scored the most points in our evaluation of car-seat accommodation.

Interior quality:Interior styling is about as cohesive as a Picasso painting, but the quality is good where it counts, with soft-touch surfaces and contrast trim dutifully where you’d expect,” Mays said. “It ain’t pretty, but it reflects investment.” Bruzek added, “The Crosstrek isn’t far off from the top-rated CX-30’s high marks. It’s less classy and more flashy, with orange contrast accents, a larger variety of colors and materials, plus simulated carbon-fiber accents. What’s most impressive is that quality doesn’t drop off much from the front to the backseat, which is a rarity in the class.”

Passenger space: “The backseat sits a bit low to the floor, but headroom and forward knee clearance are good and adults can fit comfortably,” Mays said. The backseat scored just one point behind the first-place Seltos, where the Crosstrek’s front seats rated last. Even so, Mays continued, “They offer roomier knee clearance and more adjustment range than you get in a lot of rival SUVs at this price.” Bruzek agreed, but qualified that “the Crosstrek’s size and comfort are a class above but are not an exclusive characteristic any longer. The Seltos is more space-efficient, with its boxier SUV-like shape giving it more cargo room and passenger headroom with a smaller footprint versus the Crosstrek’s more traditional hatchback shape.”

Acceleration: “Equipped with the more powerful optional engine, the Crosstrek had the best acceleration from 0-15 mph, meaning it will jump through an intersection the quickest, but from 0-60 mph, it didn’t stand a chance against the Seltos Turbo,” Bruzek said. “The Crosstrek didn’t feel the quickest because the sensation of the CVT is unlike other transmissions, but it certainly did the trick off the line.”

The Bad

Front-seat comfort: “The Crosstrek’s flat and wide seats will probably fit someone just fine, but for my tall and lanky frame, they lacked lumbar and side bolster support,” Bruzek said. “The seat also had an adjustability disadvantage with only six-way power when the rest had 10-way adjustability including lumbar.”

Handling: “Unremarkable steering feel and excessive body roll will keep you from wanting to throw the Crosstrek around,” Mays said. Bruzek cited “significant squat and dive during braking and accelerating, and tires that don’t like changing direction and howl when pushed. The front end quickly loses grip but does a good job telling you to back it off. No fret, though, because the trade-off is superb ride quality.”

Cargo: The Crosstrek’s space advantages run out behind the backseat, with just 13.0 cubic feet of as-tested cargo volume — worst in the group, and 20% behind the Seltos — with no assistive features, such as a power liftgate or fold-flat front passenger seat, to rescue its score,” Mays said.

Backseat features: “There are no rear climate vents, reclining backseat or backseat USB ports,” Bruzek said. “It has the size to haul people in the back, which helped it place second for the overall rear seats category, but there aren’t any features that make it something you’d frequently want to do.”

In-cabin storage: “Curiously, the generous seating space doesn’t translate to cabin storage space any more than it does cargo space,” Mays said. “Console storage is modest, with the group’s smallest center-armrest compartment.”

CVT: “I own a 2012 Subaru Impreza with the 2.0-liter and continuously variable automatic transmission,” Bruzek said. “Compared with my car, the 2021’s CVT is light-years more advanced with simulated kickdowns for passing and simulated upshifts on acceleration. What the 2021’s CVT does poorly is inherent with almost all CVTs: revving a noisy small-displacement four-cylinder and being slow to accelerate when you’re already in motion.” Mays was less charitable: “Even when you change Subaru’s SI-Drive modes to their sportiest settings, mostly this just feels like a 2000s-era CVT, complete with slow revs and lots of droning,” he said.

User interface: The Crosstrek scored second to last by just one point above the CX-30 in this category, having one of the smaller displays (8 inches) with slow reflexes, a low-resolution backup camera, an outdated instrument panel and an overly busy steering wheel: “Drive mode buttons are great things to have on steering wheels of sports cars, but there’s no need to clutter the already cluttered wheel with drive mode selectors on a car that’s anything but sporty,” Bruzek said.

Adaptive cruise control: Though the Crosstrek fared well in driver-assist features scoring thanks to lane-centering steering, it’s worth noting that its adaptive cruise control can hold the vehicle at a stop for only a few seconds before the driver must intervene because the parking brake is a conventional mechanical type, not electric like the other three models in the test.

Research the 2021 Subaru Crosstrek | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check

1. 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD, 226 points

The verdict: The 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo out-Crosstreks the Subaru Crosstrek by having similar size and ride quality but going beyond with more SUV-like seating and extra backseat accommodations.

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Our Test Vehicle

As-tested price: $29,485
Powertrain: 175-hp, turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder; seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
0-60 mph as tested: 8.03 seconds
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 25/30/27

Like the Crosstrek, the Seltos offers an upgrade engine as an option in the S trim level with all-wheel drive and in the top trim, the SX, which is AWD only. The SX is what we tested, endowed with its turbocharged 175 hp rather than the larger but not turbocharged 2.0-liter’s 146 hp. The Seltos also proves similar to the Crosstrek in offering passenger room more common in a larger class but at the more affordable price — something that often pays off in comparison tests like this one.

There’s almost no red in the Seltos’ ledger. It had just one category loss along with five outright wins and one more shared win. The most notable difference is that the margins were all razor thin; as a judge noted, even the Selto’s standout qualities don’t exactly stand out. All the same, when totalled, its overall score put it 8 points above the second-place finisher, the widest margin. That makes the Seltos not just a winner, but by this Challenge’s standards, a clear one.

The Good

User interface: “Kia’s 10.25-inch touchscreen, included as an option in our Seltos SX, has enough height, roughly 3.5 inches, to avoid the aspect-ratio problems that plague the CX-30’s widescreen,” Mays said. “It also gets must-have physical controls and a bonus 7-inch gauge display.” Note that lower Seltos trims have an 8-inch touchscreen, so the Kia’s two-point superiority in this category, its greatest margin, is conditional.

Driver-assist features: Kia got the most points in this category, Mays said, because “Our Seltos had adaptive cruise control and hands-on lane-centering, both of which work from highway speeds down to a halt in standstill traffic — and hold you there, something the Crosstrek’s adaptive cruise stops doing after a few seconds.”

Front seats: “The front seating position is more SUV-like than those of the Crosstrek and CX-30,” Bruzek said. “I’m 6 feet tall with long legs, and the driver’s footwell has a surprising amount of depth that allowed my left leg to extend and relax versus competitors that limit the space and put my knee in a more raised position.” Mays confirmed that the Kia’s driving position is “some 2 to 5 inches higher than the others with seats raised all the way,” he said. “The Seltos felt like a legitimate SUV.”

Backseat: “The backseat combines decent knee clearance with a reasonably high seating position and small driveline hump,” Mays said. “Throw in a reclining adjustment [the only SUV here to have it, as-tested] and center air vents [one of two], and the Seltos can accommodate backseat adults better than most.” Bruzek agreed: “For me, backseat air vents are a must-have family-friendly feature to keep kids comfortable, but they’re valuable to anyone who will ride in the backseat.”

Value: “At the lowest as-tested price by nearly $2,000, the Seltos has everything you’d expect for the class and a little bit more,” Bruzek said. “The largest omission was the lack of a moonroof that all three competitors had.” The Seltos’ warranties are also the longest at five years or 60,000 miles bumper to bumper and 10 years or 100,000 miles for the powertrain versus three years/36,000 miles and five years/60,000 miles, respectively, for all three other contestants.

Highway ride quality: “Good ride quality isn’t something you typically get in this class, which makes it even more notable when a small SUV is as comfortable at highways speeds as the Seltos,” Bruzek said. The Seltos rated second in the overall ride quality category behind the Crosstrek.

Cargo volume: “Our cargo scores combine measured volume behind the backseat with cargo-aiding features, the latter of which the Seltos had relatively few,” Mays said. “But for volume alone, the SUV’s as-tested 16.2 cubic feet exceeded the others by some 2 to 3 cubic feet.”

The Bad

Interior quality: “Similar to the Trailblazer, the Seltos is all over the place,” Mays said. “Most controls don’t feel as rickety, but there’s no shortage of cheap, plasticky finishes. Kia’s vinyl Sofino upholstery is not so-fine-o: Nobody will mistake it for the genuine leather in the Crosstrek or CX-30.” The Seltos rated second-to-last in this category and below average.

Handling: “What could have been a high-riding Volkswagen Golf GTI is dashed by a suspension tuned more for comfort than handling precision and tires that give up too easily for any performance credibility,” Bruzek said. “But in this class, a comfort-oriented suspension is just fine.” Mays added, “The Seltos feels like it has the group’s quickest steering ratio, with unexpectedly immediate turn-in — but feedback is numb throughout, and understeer becomes persistent once the tires reach their limits.”

Powertrain: “The Seltos’ engine revs strongly once it gets cooking, but the cook is late to work every time,” Mays said. “Turbo lag off the line, something absent in the also-turbocharged Trailblazer, is alive and well here.” Bruzek, who performed the instrumented testing, confirmed “noticeable acceleration lag from a stop that means the Seltos SX is the slowest from 0-15 mph, but it rockets away from there to the test’s best 0-60-mph time. The turbo engine and transmission are an odd couple: Though fast shifting is a hallmark of dual-clutch automatics, the Kia’s DCT has balky shifts like a conventional transmission and with the DCT’s trademark shudder accelerating from a stop.”

No power liftgate:The Seltos is one of the most SUV-like of the group in many areas, but the lack of a power liftgate is one nagging omission that would make it the ultimate small affordable SUV,” Bruzek said. “The Trailblazer and CX-30 we tested both had the feature.”

Collision avoidance limitations: “Despite its relative wealth of driver-assist tech, the Seltos had curiously low parameters for collision avoidance technology,” Mays said. “Its automatic emergency braking system can apply maximum braking at vehicle speeds up to only 37 mph for both pedestrians and other vehicles, as specified in the owner’s manual — well below the maximum speed parameters for the same feature in the other SUVs.”

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Former Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a launch veteran, led the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe Wiesenfelder

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