By on February 3, 2021

After we covered American and Japanese trios of $25,000 subcompact crossovers, round three means it’s time for the Korean offerings. But there are only two Korean brands in North America, so today we cover both of their entries and another from Japan.

Hyundai Kona

The Kona was a new offering from Hyundai in 2018 and took its place as the smallest crossover underneath the compact Tucson. In North America, the Kona is equipped with either a 1.6-liter turbocharged or 2.0-liter inline-four, depending on trim. There are six trims for 2021, which range from around $20,000 to $28,000. Today’s SEL AWD trim asks $23,700 and offers the 2.0-liter engine. 147 horses are managed by a traditional six-speed automatic.

Kia Seltos

The Seltos is new for 2021 in North America, though it has been in production since 2019 for other markets. It shares a platform with the Kona, but uses its own body and interior: Seltos is the more blocky and upright of the two. It’s also priced differently, with only four trims from $22,000 to $28,000. For $25,390, our selection today is the EX trim for which all-wheel drive is standard. The same 2.0-liter as in the Kona appears here, but the transmission is Kia’s IVT automatic. No shifting gears for Seltos.

Subaru Crosstrek

The Crosstrek debuted for model year 2013 as the XV Crosstrek, Subaru’s Impreza-based crossover that straddled the line between subcompact and compact. It received a second-generation for 2018 with a host of new refinements and additional features. Across four trims, Crosstrek ranges in price from $22,245 to $28,000, and all-wheel drive is standard across all models. Engines include 2.0- and 2.5-liter boxer fours. In Premium CVT trim, Crosstrek comes with the 2.0-liter (152hp) and asks $24,645.

Two Koreans, one Japanese, and three different approaches to a crossover. Which one’s a Buy for you?

[Images: Hyundai, Kia, Subaru]

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37 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Affordable Subcompact Crossovers in 2021, Round Three...”


  • avatar
    slavuta

    Neither of these is good for anything, so the field is equal

    Buy Kona
    Drive Seltos
    Burn Subaru

  • avatar
    Dawnrazor

    All three of these seem to have some desirability (unless one simply doesn’t like this vehicle class), and none seem like a “bad deal” (especially in contrast to competitors like the Ecosport and Trax at the same MSRP).

    However I’ve only driven the Subaru, so that would be my pick. No, it’s not “fast”, but it does handle well and has good interior ergonomics; the CVT actually seemed well-matched to the engine and wasn’t nearly as much of a bummer to drive as I feared. Also, I am fairly sure Subaru has successfully addressed the issue of some of their engines being prone to blowing head gaskets, so that’s probably less of a concern than it would have been 10 or more years ago.

    • 0 avatar
      conundrum

      Well, considering the Subaru FB engines are three iterations along now, and it was the non-turbo SOHC 2.5l EJ engines which ate head gaskets and mostly from the 2002 to 2006 model years, your being “fairly sure Subaru has successfully addressed the issue of some of their engines being prone to blowing head gaskets” strikes me as a fair assessment. Nothing like an abundance of caution!

      I had an EJ turbo in my ’08 LGT I kept for 12 years and drove the snot out of it with no problems at all. However, as I had to leave it at the dealer about three years ago while they procured a new front caliper, my loaner was a brand new Impreza on the new Global platform. There’s more to life than a reliable engine. Take the car, please! A more of a noddy car I haven’t driven in years, completely awful and wouldn’t track straight on a crowned highway, while skipping at the rear on potholey two-laner corners that the LGT didn’t even notice. I presume the Crossdreck is similarly awful.

      Surprised me how terrible it was. Even changed tire pressures. Nothing helped that little dog. I traded a ’99 Impreza on the LGT in late 2007, based on my like for that Impreza, and apart from power and better transmission, I noticed no dramatic change in road behavior. So the latest Impreza is likely worse than they were making 20 years ago, just better at crashing into brick walls. I changed brands when I got a new car, to Mazda. You can keep these Konas and Steltosses, I am biased against H/K personally, no real reason, just being unreasonable. Anyone can feel free to differ, and you’re welcome to do so, as it’s no skin off my nose.

      Skip the rubbish and try out a CX-30 is my vote.

  • avatar
    RangerM

    Since I won’t invest my own money in anything with a CVT or with the name “Subaru” on it……

    Buy the Hyundai
    Drive the Kia/Subaru until they break (likely sooner than later), then burn them

    • 0 avatar
      Mike Beranek

      But wait… aren’t the Hyundai and Kia essentially the same thing? Quality-wise, I mean, one should be just as good as the other?

      • 0 avatar
        RangerM

        H/K are very similar; overlapping ownership and sharing technologies. But the Kia is a CVT. The Hyundai isn’t.

        Since I tend to keep my vehicles for 10+ years, I can’t bring myself to trust any CVT without more long-term data. The Subaru thing is just about multiple bad experiences/anecdotes.

  • avatar
    eng_alvarado90

    Alright, here we go:
    Buy: Subaru –> best resale, build quality and capability out of these three. Roomy enough as well

    Drive: Seltos –> TBH no one is a thrilling experience, but I had to burn something worse, which leaves us with…

    Burn: Kona –> unusable cargo room, no ground clearance, polarizing design. Had it been the Turbo and it’d swap seats with the Seltos. Yes it’s the only one w/o CVT but these Hyundai 6spd autos do nothing for me.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    The rental Kona I had was pretty nice (interior and driving), and the Kona is better on gas than the Seltos.

    No Subarus for me until they get rid of the boxer engine.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      No Subarus for me as long as I live in Denver and have to deal with them clogging up the left lane on I-25.

      On the other hand, I’d love to be a government-sanctioned currency printer – I mean, Subaru dealer in Boulder or Fort Collins.

      • 0 avatar
        A Scientist

        “No Subarus for me as long as I live in Denver and have to deal with them clogging up the left lane on I-25.”

        Ugh, SOOO much this. I’m in the Triangle area of NC. The worst drivers here by a COUNTRY MILE are all driving Subarus.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    @Corey:

    For another $300, the Kia can be had with a turbo engine and non-CVT trans, and so equipped, it’s a great deal. Not sure why this isn’t the one you’d choose, but, given that…

    1) Buy: Seltos, with the turbo. I’ve driven the Kona so powered, and it’s darn nice.
    2) Drive: Kona
    3) Burn: Subaru, and the method of the burning shall be to first douse all the “Coexist,” “26.2,” and “Dog Rescue Mom” stickers on the back in nitroglycerin, and then light them with a flamethrower.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I know people with all three of these but my friends & family aren’t poor so they own the top trims. The Subaru especially I can’t imagine going for less than the Sport/Limited/Hybrid level. My hot take on all three is that if you need an MSRP under $25k then you’ll be much better off in a Kicks, Venue, or Corolla hatch because most of the worthwhile stuff is beyond that paywall.

    Anyway:
    Buy the Kona. It has the oldest and most conventional drivetrain so hopefully it’ll hold up.

    Drive the Subaru. In case I visit Colorado and need to blend in.

    Burn the Kia. It’s fine but nothing I’m really looking for.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    For the third week in a row, the Trammps rule the day and I can’t get this song out of my head…

    To my surprise, one hundred stories high
    People getting loose y’all, getting down on the roof
    Folks are screaming, out of control
    It was so entertaining when the boogie started to explode
    I heard somebody say
    disco inferno
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
    (Burn baby burn) disco inferno
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
    Satisfaction came in a chain reaction
    (Burnin’)
    I couldn’t get enough, so I had to self-destruct
    The heat was on, rising to the top
    Everybody going strong, and that is when my spark got hot
    I heard somebody say
    disco inferno
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down y’all
    (Burn baby burn) disco inferno
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
    Up above my head
    I hear music in the air
    That makes me know
    There’s a party somewhere
    Satisfaction came in a chain reaction
    (Burnin’)
    I couldn’t get enough, so I had to self-destruct
    The heat was on, rising to the top
    Everybody going strong, and that is when my spark got hot
    I heard somebody say
    disco inferno
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
    (Burn baby burn) disco inferno
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
    burn that mother down
    (Burn baby burn) disco inferno
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
    when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    When my spark gets hot
    when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    (Just can’t stop) when my spark gets hot
    disco inferno
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
    (Burn baby burn) disco inferno
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
    (Burn baby burn)
    (Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
    (Burn baby burn) disco inferno

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      The only way to get rid of that repeating for hours in your head is to kill with another earworm.

      Baby shark, doot doot do doot dodoot doot

      You’re welcome.

      Buy and drive the Subaru, if only because the front end is free of LEDs. It looks like a real car. You can drive it for a while and then trade it in on something else when you get sick of the CVT. Meanwhile, the cargo capacity and build quality will come in handy.
      Crush the other two. They won’t be worth much in a few years, anyway.

  • avatar
    3SpeedAutomatic

    My ideal small SUV would exclude a turbo charger, CVT transmission, overly complex dash board, or too many gears in an automatic transmission. I’m not much on bleeding edge technology. As an example, I have Microsoft SYNC in my ’12 Escape. It has yet to work properly, even after reading the owner’s manual (a separate booklet in itself). Yet, the bluetooth feature (proven technology) works perfectly!!

    I’ll avoid complexity for the sake of my sanity, and my pocketbook past the warranty period. I dread the idea of replacing the Escape should it be totaled in an accident. Not happy with what I see on the horizon.

    Sometimes, less is more!!

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      The Kona featured here is pretty “basic”. No turbo, no direct injection, conventional 6A that’s been around for a long time.
      You can also get the Crosstrek with a manual transmission and it has no turbo and a very traditional interior design.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Go electric.

      Except for Porsche, they have a 1SpeedAutomatic. :)

      Except for Tesla, they have a simple user interface.

  • avatar
    ajla

    After three rounds of baby CUVs I think we need a set that uses the Blackwings.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    As per my posts the past few weeks I am shopping in this market.

    Don’t need AWD. Don’t want a turbo. And although I do not mind driving a CVT I am wary of owning one. Would also prefer to not have direct injection engine.

    Do want enough room in the back seat for 2 comfortably. I have been told it must have heated seats. And wouldn’t mind a heated steering wheel.

    So if I could put the Seltos body on the Kona drivetrain that would be my choice.

    Subaru has the least depreciation so that could be the ‘buy’.

    Off the 9 that have been in this series it seems that the Mazda is the one that best fits my needs.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I agree with most of your choices. A DI engine doesn’t concern me if it is maintained.

      I hate car shopping, for many reasons. A test drive can subsequently trash all the homework you did on paper.

      Maybe you’d consider a Kicks? I nearly bought one, but not as *my* DD. The CVT wasn’t bad. If CVTs had been exploding left and right, Nissan would be the another Takata by now. But CVTs are becoming harder to avoid. :(

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        Thanks.
        I am actually thinking that the Soul is preferable to any of the 9 vehicles mentioned in these articles.

        However would prefer a Soul without a CVT (if buying).

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    I know Corey doesn’t like it when people don’t play correctly, so I’m going to follow the rules today.

    Buy the Kia. Kia is on a hot streak lately. I like the fact that this vehicle has already been introduced in other markets (otherwise wouldn’t buy the first model year). “Blocky and upright” appeals to me. CVT is not a new technology in 2021 and it is time to get over my aversion to them. I *am* still a ‘recent turbos’ snob (hair flip). Have never owned an AWD vehicle and we’ll give it a spin.

    Drive the Subaru because I’m curious, then park it. Subarus are becoming popular enough to be mainstream, and I’m not a joiner (Thurston Howell sniff). And I don’t own dogs at the moment (ok I never have). Actually I would drive this for 3 months and visit as many National Parks as possible, just to get the full Subaru ownership experience. And then run away.

    Burn the Kona. I have had actual Kona coffee in Hawaii, and this is nothing like that. When you are styling a front fascia, you can go a lot of different directions, but you aren’t allowed to choose three of them at once. Pick just one. Didn’t happen here. Burn.

  • avatar
    readallover

    Technically speaking, the Buick Encore and Chevy Trax are built in Korea.

  • avatar
    theonlydt

    Buy – Crosstrek. It’s a good car with frustrating trim levels. I want the 2.5 without leather and without the awful neoprene. Give me my cloth seats. The 2.0 is underpowered. However, robust, drives well (power notwithstanding), half decent space, expensive, but good. I’d take the CX-30 from the last list over this, but it’s a clear second place.

    Drive – Kia Seltos – because I haven’t yet.

    Burn – Hyundai Kona. Anyone defending it has NOT experienced the ride quality yet. Or had a family member/friend/someone you don’t hate experience the back seat. Burn the thing.

    Of the nine sub-compacts so far, only three are better than bearable (appearingly the Seltos, the Subaru, and the Mazda). Why is is so hard to get this sector right?

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      “Why is it so hard to get this sector right?”

      The OEM’s (with very few exceptions) pay less attention to smaller vehicles. They don’t put their best people on them (generally). And their best people aren’t very good anyway (very generally). And work in a management structure which is not optimized in any way (at most OEM’s).

      If you have any interest in the automotive industry, WATCH THIS VIDEO:
      https://tinyurl.com/3eao3cfr

      Ignore the editorializing article for now, just WATCH THE VIDEO – all the way through.
      If you work for a legacy OEM, WATCH THIS VIDEO. (It explains why your job is going away.)

  • avatar
    Farhad

    Can’t I burn all?
    OK, then Buy Subaru (best resale)
    Drive Kia (least ugly)
    Burn Hyundai (pure ugh)

  • avatar

    My answer will be the same: Burn all that garbage out of existence.

  • avatar
    N8iveVA

    Buy/Drive the Crosstrek. Decent offroad and in the snow and good resale and cargo area.

    Burn both Kona and Seltos. Poor resale value. Front ends only a mother could love. Cramped interior in the Kona and useless cargo area. To get the decent trim and engines you have to opt for the $28K models. At that point i’d move up a class.

  • avatar
    theonlydt

    I own a second gen Soul – right car at the right price at the right time. It’s not bad. Not stellar, and the engineering underneath isn’t as sophisticated as it feels for the first 20 yards. However, it’s nippy, compact, relatively spacious, relatively quiet, rides and handles surprisingly well unless you push it (when the roads are bad or you push it the short wheelbase, torsion bar suspension and lack of sophistication in the shocks tuning becomes apparent). The third gen Soul has more ground clearance (useful with my steep driveway), better fuel economy etc. If I were buying FWD my money would probably be there, again, over any of the nine on this list with FWD. If you “compromise” with FWD over AWD, then why put up with all the compromises made for these 9 to make them AWD?

  • avatar
    fiasco

    I wanted stick shift and decent handling. Needed good ground clearance and could use AWD/4WD. Drove a used Mazda3 and was very sorely tempted to pull the trigger, but ground clearance was merely OK, and the salesman said the previous owner traded on a Jeep, even though it had studded snow tires on it.

    Having previously had two stick-shift Subarus (one that went 223k miles before being traded for beer to a Lemons Rally team and another that had a bum fuel tank coincide with the need to move an infant, a toddler, and a great-grandmother simultaneously and led to minivan ownership), I test drove a 2021 manual Crosstrek (heated seats, cruise control, and a fancy screen that has a radio and Apple CarPlay) and found I could be onramp to 85 in less than 10 seconds, which was better than the “OMG IT’S SO SLOW!!!” warnings I had been given.

    The Crosstrek is a bit cozy and not quite as comfortable compared to the 97 Volvo I’ve driven the past six years (I inherited the Volvo after I wore out the previous Subaru) It handled better than expected, so I ended up coming home with it. After 1300 miles in three weeks fully intend to run this one more than 200k. Only issues, the TPMS is flaky (can I just pull the damn bulb in the instrument cluster?) and I really need a set of winter tires (keeping with Subaru tradition of AWD and crummy tires).

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