Small Crossover Shootout: 2021 Kia Seltos Vs. 2020 Mazda CX-30

Youthful exuberance versus affordable elegance — but which is best?

2020 Kia Seltos and Mazda CX-30
2021 Kia Seltos and 2020 Mazda CX-30

The insatiable demand for crossovers pushes manufacturers to abandon all caution when it comes to developing new models. Only have three crossovers in the lineup? We better make at least one or two more! Or so the thinking must be going. 

Take the new 2020 Mazda CX-30 and the 2021 Kia Seltos. Slotting somewhere between subcompact and compact in size, they join a sizable field of small crossovers that many folks are buying instead of small to mid-size sedans. With prices ranging between $20,000 and $30,000, this is a sweet spot in the market that is sure to see even more growth. 

After driving each for a week on the sparsely populated streets of our shelter-in-place world, I must admit to being pleasantly surprised. I’ve driven quite a few new crossovers that failed to impress and left me yearning for a time when people bought sensible sedans. With the CX-30 and Seltos, however, I can see why folks are opting to sit a bit higher. 

Kia Seltos: Spunky and playful, but could use some refinement

Although similar in size and intended purpose, the CX-30 and Seltos couldn’t have more different personalities. Whereas the Mazda is all swoopy and sophisticated, the Kia Seltos continues the brand’s tradition of offering distinctive design and solid value. The more traditional, upright exterior exudes a ruggedness that is missing in most crossovers these days.

What isn’t traditional is the powertrain. Although the base engine is a modest 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 147 horsepower, the Seltos SX Turbo AWD, which was tested, features a 1.6-liter turbocharged engine that puts out 175 horsepower and 195 lb-ft torque. There is a bit of lag, but once the turbo spools up and all the torque comes online, the Seltos jumps forward like a puppy straining at the leash. 

Unfortunately, acceleration is not exactly smooth, as gear changes are handled by a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that could use some tuning. At lower speeds, there is a pronounced jerkiness when shifting from first to second, and second to third, making a leisurely drive around town less than pleasant. 

Luckily, the Kia Seltos is otherwise a competent driving companion. The suspension is well-tuned, soaking up the bumps with ease, and doesn’t fold over when going around a corner. Only when driven hard do things start to fall apart, especially when compared to the more athletic CX-30, but for most drivers, the Seltos will be plenty of fun. 

On the inside, the Seltos offers a surprising amount of room. The more upright design pays big dividends when it comes to rear legroom and cargo space. You can easily throw a bike in the back without removing a wheel—something you can’t do in most small CUVs. About the only misstep is an abundance of hard plastic surfaces and leatherette seats that will never be confused with real leather. But given that this is what you generally find in cars at this price, I shouldn’t hold it against Kia that the Seltos isn’t a mini-Lexus.

The Seltos SX Turbo offers an impressive list of features for a car that stickers under $30,000. All the modern safety tech is present, including forward and blind-spot collision avoidance and lane-keep assist—and you even get radar cruise control. There’s a large 10-inch touchscreen that will run Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and Bose premium sound to keep the tunes pumping. 

Altogether, the Seltos is an impressive package that should be very appealing to younger folks looking for a car that is fun, practical, and offers excellent value. The herky-jerky transmission is the only real issue that gives me pause, as dual-clutch transmissions in affordable cars have struggled with performance and reliability problems (see Ford PowerShift). Given this is a brand new model, I’m hopeful Kia can smooth it out with further tuning. 

2020 mazda cx-30 awd
2020 Mazda CX-30

Mazda CX-30: Stylish, sophisticated, athletic. Just give it the turbocharged engine it deserves!

Mazda already has the successful CX-5, as well as the smaller CX-3 and equally practical Mazda3 hatchback. It sort of begs the question: is the new CX-30 truly necessary? 

It’s probably best to think of the CX-30 as a rugged version of the Mazda3 hatchback, like a Cross Country version of a Volvo wagon. The two share chassis components and have the same powertrain, and the interior is also identical. 

This means that the CX-30 drives a lot like its hatchback sibling, which is a good thing. Sure, the center of gravity is a bit higher, and she weighs a few pounds more, but this is still very much a driver’s car. Steering response is exemplary, and the chassis is more than capable—making it child’s play to explore the limits of the somewhat narrow all-season tires. 

All CX-30s come with a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The engine makes a respectable 186 horsepower, but compared to Kia’s little turbo motor, it feels less urgent. You really have to stay on the throttle if you want to get moving in a hurry. Although a six-speed transmission sounds dated, the quick shifts and well-chosen ratios help prove that more isn’t always better.

Given that the CX-5 is now available with a turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter engine, and the Mazda3 will be as well, we can only surmise that it will be an option on the CX-30 in the future. Throw on some sticky tires, and a turbocharged CX-30 could be the ultimate sleeper. 

Take one look inside the new CX-30, and it becomes evident that Mazda is winning when it comes to making a premium product at a budget price. Why other manufacturers can’t make a beautiful interior at affordable price points is a question I’m often asking after spending some time in a Mazda. There are plenty of forty to fifty thousand dollar cars that would dream of an interior this elegant. 

Unfortunately, the CX-30 is not very spacious. The rear seats are more cramped than in the Kia, and cargo space is no bigger than a Mazda3 hatchback. Try to throw a bike in the back, and you’ll be removing a wheel or two. 

In Premium trim, it comes nicely equipped. Like the Kia, it has features that don’t come standard on some luxury cars, and yet a fully loaded front-wheel drive CX-30 still rings in under $30,000. In addition to all the latest safety gear, my test car featured radar cruise control, heated front seats, Bose premium audio, and a power rear liftgate. If there is anything to criticize, it’s the infotainment system, which has a user interface that frustrates in its minimalism. Trying to do some basic functions requires accessing too many sub-menus. 

Verdict: Two compelling new choices in an increasingly crowded field

If you’d asked me a year ago if I was excited that Kia and Mazda were coming out with two new small crossovers, I probably would have laughed while shaking my head. So it’s with a humble smile that I will now say my pessimistic assumptions were not justified. The Seltos and CX-30 are excellent new cars that prove that you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a nice set of wheels. 

For my money, I’d buy the CX-30. Although I’d probably be kicking myself if I didn’t wait for the turbocharged engine to hopefully arrive down the line. That said, I won’t fault anyone for picking the more youthful Seltos instead — especially if you need the extra space. 

  2020 Mazda CX-30 Premium Pkg AWD 2021 Kia Seltos SX AWD
Base Price $29,600
Price As Tested $30,700 $29,485
Engine SKYACTIV-G 2.5L DOHC I-4 1.6L turbocharged GDI I-4
Power (hp) 186 hp @ 6000 rpm 175 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 186 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm 195 lb-ft @ 1500-4500 rpm
Transmission 6-speed automatic 7-speed DCT automatic
EPA Combined w/AWD 27 mpg 27 mpg
Drivetrain Layout Longitudinally-mounted front engine, all-wheel drive Longitudinally-mounted front engine, all-wheel drive


Front: Independent, MacPherson strut
Rear: Torsion beam axle
Front: MacPherson strut
Rear: Multi-link


Power assisted four-wheeled discs w/electronic parking brake Four-wheel disc with ABS
Dimensions (length x width x height) 173 / 70.7 / 62.2 inches 172 / 70.9 / 64.2 inches
Wheelbase 104.5 inches 103.5 inches
Ground Clearance 7.9 inches (unladen) 7.3 inches
1st Row Legroom 41.7 inches 41.4 inches
2nd Row Legroom 36.3 inches 38.0 inches
Passengers 5 5
EPA Passenger Volume 94.1 cu. ft. N/A
Cargo Capacity Behind 2nd row 20.2 cu. ft. 26.6 cu. ft. (dual level cargo floor)
Max Cargo Capacity (rear seat folded) 45.2 cu. ft. 62.8 cu. ft. (dual level cargo floor)
Curb Weight 3,408 lbs. 3,317 lbs.