2021 Kia Seltos vs. 2021 Chevy Trailblazer: Small SUVs Get Ready To Rumble

Auto manufacturers that haven’t entered the subcompact SUV class are missing out on the fastest-growing segment in the automotive industry. This is a class that appeals to a wide variety of consumers ranging from young people to the young at heart, and anyone looking for a cargo-friendly affordable vehicle with that must-have SUV look. Heck, some automakers are so giddy over sales that they offer two entries in the class to give buyers more options. Case in point: Kia and Chevrolet. Both already offer the Soul and Trax, respectively, but they recently the slightly larger 2021 Kia Seltos and Chevrolet Trailblazer to their lineups.

These two are on the larger end of the subcompact SUV spectrum, so-called ‘tweener vehicles that are bigger than their competitors but are still too small to be considered one-size-up compacts, which is the next size up. In most cases, putting a vehicle in between segments brings with it a host of compromises. So the question is: Do these two newcomers fall into that trap, or are they strong contenders? Most important, which one is better?

Kia Seltos vs. Chevrolet Trailblazer: Living Space

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Unlike most subcompact SUVs, which more closely resemble slightly lifted compact hatchbacks, the Seltos and Trailblazer are tall and upright. Both have raised seating positions and a commanding view of the road. The sightlines are similar to those in larger SUVs, and the view out is excellent thanks to large windows—at least in the Seltos. The Trailblazer’s rear and rear side windows are slightly smaller due to the gigantic C-pillars.

Because they’re slightly larger than your average subcompact SUV, the Seltos and Trailblazer offer generous seating up front and in the rear. Two 6-foot adults can sit behind each other. Even the center position can accommodate average-sized adults on short trips. Those in front, however, will likely find the side support lacking in the Trailblazer because of the flat, narrow seat backs. Both the Seltos and Trailblazer are practical for their size. The latter adds extra flexibility via a fold-flat front passenger seat, while the former is better packaged with its squared-off cabin that provides more usable space when the rear seats are up. The Trailblazer’s sloping rear window cuts into the cargo area, limiting the type of items you can carry when you have more than two passengers.

The Seltos’ fit and finish is a step above the Trailblazer’s. Other than the armrests, hard plastics are everywhere. That would be fine if our Trailblazer test vehicle cost around $25,000 instead of $32,350, a significant $2,865 more than the Kia. The Seltos’ cabin is an inexpensive interior done properly. You find a good mix of hard and soft surfaces, but none of it feels cheap or chintzy. Editor-in-chief Mark Rechtin describes them as durable materials that will be able to endure daily use. Quibbles? Both SUVs suffer from excessive amounts of exterior noise entering the cabin. However, the Trailblazer’s interior is the louder of the two because of too much tire slapping and wind buffeting.

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Kia Seltos vs. Chevrolet Trailblazer: Tech and Safety

Subcompact SUVs are packed with user-friendly tech to broaden their appeal. Both the Seltos and Trailblazer get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility as standard along with 8.0- and a 7.0-inch touchscreens, respectively. You can upgrade the Seltos’ display to a 10.3-inch unit in the SX Turbo model like our tester and the Trailblazer’s to an 8.0-inch one. Certain versions of the Trailblazer, like our RS AWD test vehicle, get wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Unfortunately, they kept cutting out while we were using them. The Seltos still requires cords if you want Google or Siri to take over multimedia duties, but it makes up for this with clearer graphics and greater responsiveness. Although both the Seltos and Trailblazer are available with a Bose audio system, the former’s is clearer and distributes sound more evenly throughout the cabin. The version in the Chevy is biased toward front occupants and doesn’t immerse the cabin in music.

Chevrolet has made some collision prevention technologies standard. Forward collision warning, pedestrian detection, front automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist, and automatic high-beams are included even in the most basic version of the Trailblazer. Kia requires you to choose the FWD Seltos S to get those same features. The LX, which has AWD standard, doesn’t get any active safety tech. If you want blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control, you need to choose one of the higher trims on both vehicles and add an optional package in the case of the Trailblazer.

Kia continues to prove its mastery of value by taking the same driver assistance technologies in the Telluride and putting them in the smaller, more price-sensitive Seltos. Adaptive cruise control offers impressive levels of accuracy, leaving just the right amount of distance between you and the vehicle ahead, something the Trailblazer’s system doesn’t do. Rechtin complimented Kia’s lane keeping assist, which works more like a lane centering system and even gives you an early warning to add more steering input if the car can’t complete the turn on its own. In comparison, the Trailblazer’s older system bounces you back and forth between the lane lines.

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Kia Seltos vs. Chevrolet Trailblazer: Road Manners

A good driving experience is key to a well-rounded vehicle, even affordable ones like subcompact SUVs. The Trailblazer, with its Camaro- and Blazer-inspired looks, screams “I’m fun.” Once you drive it, you immediately realize it’s not. The 155-hp turbocharged 1.3-liter inline-three-cylinder engine struggles to motivate the Trailblazer.

“The engine doesn’t actually deliver power commensurate with all the growling it’s making,” Rechtin said. “I would feel very nervous passing somebody going uphill due to the lack of power.”

Although the nine-speed automatic is responsive, it always wants to go to the highest gear, constantly kicking the engine out of its narrow powerband. At the test track, the lack of speed becomes most evident. The Trailblazer hit 60 mph in 9.3 seconds and the quarter mile in 17.0 seconds at 80.5 mph.

The Kia Seltos boasts superior performance, thanks to the 175-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, the Seltos hit 60 mph in 7.4 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.9 seconds at 86.9 mph. Going up a hill and passing on the highway are a breeze thanks to the peppy engine. The gearbox, though smoother than before, still hesitates slightly at low speeds. Associate online editor Nick Yekikian also complained that the transmission holds gears too long.

When it’s time to stop, the Seltos halts from 60 mph in 117 feet, 4 feet shorter than the Trailblazer. Good pedal feel gives the driver confidence during hard braking in the Seltos.

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Superior ride and handling characteristics further separate the Seltos from the Trailblazer. “Honey, I shrunk the Telluride!” Rechtin proclaimed, referring to Kia’s larger mid-size three-row SUV and 2020 MotorTrend SUV of the Year. Comfortable and composed, the Seltos exudes confident road manners. Together with communicative steering, good body control, and agile handling, you get a well-rounded subcompact SUV. This is reflected at the limit, where the Seltos generated 0.82 average g of lateral grip on the skidpad and lapped the figure-eight course in 27.4 seconds at 0.63 average g. The Trailblazer’s uneven ride tosses you around over road imperfections and expansion joints. Further ruining the Trailblazer’s driving experience are sloppy handling and poorly calibrated steering, which Yekikian found tended to snap out of your hands and back to center.

Kia Seltos vs. Chevrolet Trailblazer: The Verdict

Although the Trailblazer is an improvement over Chevrolet’s previous effort, the Trax, it hasn’t fully figured out the subcompact SUV formula yet. Too many shortcomings prevent the Trailblazer from becoming a class leader in a subcompact space, which is occupied by vehicles from automakers that have been in the segment longest. Kia is one of them, and the experience shows when you drive its latest SUV.

The Kia Seltos prevailing against the Chevrolet Trailblazer shouldn’t surprise anyone. Better interior packaging and quality, great road manners, and superior tech features reveal the Seltos to be the stronger entry. You don’t sacrifice much by going to a smaller vehicle; you get everything you want and then some. Even if you opt for a midlevel S or EX model, you still get a generous list of standard equipment, including standard all-wheel drive, and the base 146-hp 2.0-liter engine still offers good power. The fact that Kia has managed to keep the price tag in check is just the cherry on top.

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2nd Place: 2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer RS AWD

A better second effort from Chevrolet, complete with a throwback nameplate. Unfortunately, it doesn’t drive that well, and the materials quality could be better, especially for the as-tested price.

1st Place: 2021 Kia Seltos SX Turbo AWD

One of the most well-rounded subcompact SUVs, offering space, power, agreeable road manners, and excellent tech features at a great value.

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