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Compact SUV Contenders: GMC Terrain vs Kia Seltos

Jesse McGraw

Compact crossover SUVs are the new modern family vehicle. Today we’re pitting the GMC Terrain against the Kia Seltos in a battle for the best compact SUV for your family.

A Different League of SUV

Sedan and minivan sales have been on a steady decline, as SUV sales have taken more than their fair share of the family car market and run with it. However, while the full-size SUV category is basically dominated by a few heavy hitters like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition, the compact SUV segment is still a heavily contested battlefield. Toyota’s RAV4 currently sits at the top of the sales ladder, but nearly every manufacturer field some sort of compact crossover. Today we’re looking at a veteran offering looking to stay relevant versus a bright new prospect in the segment.

2020 GMC Terrain - gmc.com

2020 GMC Terrain – gmc.com  |  Shop GMC Terrain on Carsforsale.com

The GMC Terrain has been around since 2009, steadily refining its affordable luxury aesthetic over the years. For 2020, the Terrain is decked out with available safety features, offers all the technology and interior features one would expect from GMC, and carries over a redesigned modern body style from its 2018 refresh.

2021 Kia Seltos - kia.com

2021 Kia Seltos – kia.com  |  Shop Kia Seltos on Carsforsale.com

In the other corner is the Kia Seltos, a recent newcomer to the segment spawned from the same platform as the Hyundai Kona. The Seltos is a real stand out with a youthful design, currently one of the cheapest AWD offerings in its class and boasts plenty of technology and safety features. Does the 2021 Kia Seltos have what it takes to travel up the compact SUV ladder? Is the 2020 GMC Terrain able to hold its own against the new up-and-comer? Here’s a look at what we’ve found.

Specs – AWD Optional or Standard

2020 GMC Terrain 2.0L turbocharged I4 engine - carsforsale.com
2020 GMC Terrain 2.0L turbocharged I4 engine - carsforsale.com

The GMC Terrain sadly dropped its turbodiesel option from the 2020 model. Instead, it comes standard with a 1.5L turbocharged I4 engine making 170hp. The SLT and Denali trim levels get an available 2.0L turbocharged I4 engine making 252hp. Both are pretty modest engine offerings paired with a 9-speed automatic transmission, with standard FWD or optional AWD (except in the base SL trim). The 1.5L I4 paired with FWD can make for decent gas mileage at 26mpg city and 30mpg highway, but a towing capacity of just 1500lbs. However, if 21mpg city and 26mpg highway isn’t an issue, the more robust 2.0L turbocharged I4 with AWD allows the Terrain to accelerate 0-60mph in about 6.8s and gives it a towing capacity of 3500lbs.

2021 Kia Seltos 1.6L turbocharged I4 engine - carsforsale.com
2021 Kia Seltos 1.6L turbocharged I4 engine - carsforsale.com

For its part, the Kia Seltos comes standard with a 2.0L I4 engine making 146hp or a 1.6L turbocharged I4 engine making 175hp found in the S Turbo and SX Turbo trim levels. Both engine options limit the Seltos to a towing capacity of just 2000lbs. The Kia Seltos makes up for its lack of horsepower with standard AWD (optional FWD only available on the S trim) and its transmission options. The Seltos comes standard with an Intelligent Variable Transmission (IVT) which allows the vehicle to offer a smoother ride with quick acceleration while also providing a better fuel economy at 27mpg city and 31mpg highway.

In the Kia Seltos S Turbo and SX Turbo trims there is the 7-speed Quick-Shift automatic dual clutch transmission (DCT). While the DCT paired with the turbocharged engine hits fuel economy slightly (25 city and 30 highway), it creates a very fun and sporty feel further amplified in Sport mode. However, even with the DCT, the Seltos hits 0-60mph in only 7.3s, which is pretty good for the segment, but still behind the Terrain.

The Terrain beats out the Seltos when it comes to cargo, but not by much. Neither subcompact is especially generous, with the Terrain offering 29.6 cu. ft. behind the second row and 63.3 cu. ft. with the second row folded down. The Seltos offers 26.6 cu. ft. of rear cargo room and 62.8 cu. ft. with the second row folded down.

Driving – Hit the Road and Less of the Trail

The GMC Terrain does its best to capitalize on that disparity in horsepower, to mixed results. On the street, the Terrain offers a comfortable and smooth ride with little cabin noise. Its handling is effective and avoids feeling vague around corners. And yet, the Terrain just doesn’t make for a noteworthy driving experience. Add in the awkward toggle button shifting setup and the auto Stop/Start technology that turns off the vehicle’s engine while stopped making the whole driving experience feel, well, odd.

2020 GMC Terrain Denali - gmc.com
2020 GMC Terrain Denali - gmc.com

Sitting at 6.9in. off the ground, the GMC Terrain isn’t a trail runner by any means. There is the traction select system that adjusts the vehicle’s AWD, traction control, and stability control to help improve its traction, but this doesn’t mean it is prepared for extreme conditions. It’s low stature and the low front bumper make it hardly a viable option when looking to tackle a rocky surface or deep mud. If you’re going with the GMC Terrain, don’t expect it to dive into the forests and take the off beaten path. A country road or some heavy snow are about as much action as the Terrain is equipped to handle.

2021 Kia Seltos - kia.com
2021 Kia Seltos - kia.com

The Kia Seltos is a similar story, but with greater capability. Driving in city limits, you’ll find the Seltos keeps its composure quite well when making quick lane changes in traffic and takes turns with ease. The car may look like it might have sporty handling to rival that of the Mazda CX-5, but it falls far short of that segment leader. Going into the actual ride itself, its price point is evident with noticeable cabin noise. The suspension, however, provides a smooth ride soaking up bumps in the road. The IVT simulates typical gear shifting and makes it a smooth transition at speed. However, the DCT, on the other hand, can feel jerky when shifting between gears.

2021 Kia Seltos - kia.com
2021 Kia Seltos - kia.com

The outdoors is where the Kia Seltos takes an edge over the Terrain. Its 7.2 inches of ground clearance makes the Seltos ever so slightly more viable off-road. That may not seem like much, but the angle of front bumper and the wheels closer to the corners of the vehicle provides a better approach for the wheels in off-road scenarios. Couple this with an AWD Lock that evenly distributes power to all four wheels and increases traction in inclement conditions giving the Seltos an outdoorsy edge over the Terrain.

Interior & Features – Leather or Leatherette

2020 GMC Terrain Denali interior - gmc.com
2020 GMC Terrain Denali interior - gmc.com

The interior is where you enjoy your car from, so having a great interior with plenty of comfort and functions really enhances the experience. GMC knows how to make a great looking interior with quality materials and, as with all GMC models, the Denali trim gives you the very best in interior design. Inside the Terrain you’ll find comfortable seats including sporty front passenger seats with large side bolsters. Rear passengers will find plenty of room for a compact SUV as well as an adjustable back rest. The lower trims feature cloth upholstery, but in the SLT and Denali you’ll find the perforated leather upholstery that GMC is known for.

The doors and part of the dash feature simulated wood complimenting the leather, colored plastics, and silver accent pieces. The top trim levels add ambient lighting. At the center of the dash is a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay® and Android Auto™ built in. In the SLT and above there is an eight-inch infotainment system and the Denali variant features built in navigation.

2021 Kia Seltos interior - kia.com
2021 Kia Seltos interior - kia.com

Moving into the Kia Seltos, you’ll find an interior design that speaks to a younger generation compared to the Terrain’s more adult luxury orientation. First off, the interior is mostly plastic, with only some of the higher trim levels receiving armrest padding on the center console and doors. The speaker covers have some pretty cool geometric patterning going on. At the SX-Turbo trim the Bose® speakers paired with the ambient lighting makes for a fun light show inside the vehicle.

The front seats feature similar sporty side bolsters to the Terrain that are equally comfortable. Lower trims see cloth upholstery while the farther up the trim level you go, the more SOFINO seat trim you see. SOFINO is a leatherette that withstands abrasion and use over time better than actual leather upholstery (though it can feel a bit cheap to the touch). In the rear, the Kia Seltos provides just as much room as the Terrain. And the hard-plastic seat backing are perfect for unhappy toddlers.

2021 Kia Seltos 10.25 inch infotainment system - kia.com
2021 Kia Seltos 10.25 inch infotainment system - kia.com

At the center of the dash you’ll find an awesome multifunctioning eight-inch infotainment system in reminiscent fashion of a sci-fi spaceship cockpit. At the SX-Turbo trim, the infotainment screen is extended to a best-in-class 10.25 inches and features built in navigation.

Trims & Prices – More for a Lot or a Lot for Less

GMC Terrain

The Terrain is priced as one would expect coming from GMC – a little steep. While the price comes with plenty of luxury comforts, safety features, and technology features, FWD is the standard drivetrain. If you want the optional AWD it’ll bump the price $1,600.

2020 GMC Terrain SL - carsforsale.com
2020 GMC Terrain SL - carsforsale.com

SL – MSRP $26,195

17in aluminum wheels, GMC Pro Safety features, seven inch infotainment system, active noise cancellation, Apple CarPlay® and Android Auto™, 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, cloth upholstery, keyless open and start, fold-flat front-passenger seat, traction select system, 3.5-in. driver information screen.

2020 GMC Terrain SLE - carsforsale.com
2020 GMC Terrain SLE - carsforsale.com

SLE – MSRP $29,595

Brings some features from the SL trim and adds heated power-adjustable outside mirrors, 4.2-in. multicolor driver information screen, body-color mirror caps, release levers for folding second row in cargo area.

2020 GMC Terrain SLT - gmc.com
2020 GMC Terrain SLT - gmc.com

SLT – MSRP $32,395 ($35,490 with 2.0L engine)

Some features from the previous trims and adds 18-in. aluminum wheels, perforated leather seating, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, 8in infotainment system, ambient lighting, remote start, roof-mounted side rails, HD rear camera, fog lights, chrome accents.

2020 GMC Terrain Denali - gmc.com
2020 GMC Terrain Denali - gmc.com

Denali – MSRP $39,495

Some features from the previous trims and adds 19in aluminum wheels, Bose® premium audio, navigation system, front and rear park assist, rear cross traffic alert, lane change and blind spot alert, Memory Package retains driver seat settings, LED headlamps, chrome mirror caps and full grille, colored lower bumpers and side skirts, hands-free power liftgate, safety alert seat, heated steering wheel, wireless phone charging pad.

Kia Seltos

Kia knows how to make a good vehicle at a great price. The Seltos comes with AWD as a standard option for all trims and plenty of features priced all well below its competition’s price. Its top trim level is nearly equal to the GMC Terrain’s base model with AWD. This creates a price overlap between the two where you get more bang for your buck going with the Kia Seltos.

2021 Kia Seltos LX - carsforsale.com
2021 Kia Seltos LX - carsforsale.com

LX – MSRP $21,990

17in alloy wheels, eight inch infotainment system, Apple CarPlay® and Android Auto™, rear camera display, remote keyless entry, cloth seating, locking fuel door, basic safety package.

2021 Kia Seltos S - carsforsale.com
2021 Kia Seltos S - carsforsale.com

S – MSRP $23,490 ($21,990 with FWD)

Features from LX and added sliding center console armrest, rear armrest with cupholders, Cloth and SOFINO Seat Trim with Blue Stitching, fog lights, LED day running lights, LED taillights, enhanced safety package featuring lane keeping assist and forward collision avoidance assist camera.

2021 Kia Seltos EX - carsforsale.com
2021 Kia Seltos EX - carsforsale.com

EX – MSRP $25,290

Features from S trim and added 17in machine finished alloy wheels, wireless phone charger, chrome accents, smart key, LED interior lighting, illuminated sun visor mirrors, SOFINO seat trim, heated front seats, automatic temperature control, AC with auto de-fog system, rear ventilation duct.

2021 Kia Seltos S-Turbo - carsforsale.com
2021 Kia Seltos S-Turbo - carsforsale.com

S-Turbo – MSRP $25,490

Features from S trim and added 18in machine finished alloy wheels, heated front seats.

2021 Kia Seltos SX-Turbo - kia.com
2021 Kia Seltos SX-Turbo - kia.com

SX-Turbo – MSRP $27,890

Features from EX trim and added UVO link 10.25in infotainment system, navigation system, Bose® Premium Audio w/ Sound Connected Mood Lamp, Electronic Parking Brake, 7in Supervision Meter Instrument Cluster, auto dimming rearview mirror, LED headlights, further enhanced safety package including smart cruise control and safe exit assist.

Conclusion – A Purchase Dependent on Age

2020 GMC Terrain - gmc.com

2020 GMC Terrain – gmc.com  |  Shop GMC Terrain on Carsforsale.com

Both the GMC Terrain and the Kia Seltos carry features that pander to different demographics. The Terrain is geared toward older folks who like spending their weekends boating, visiting grandkids, and want a well-established brand name behind their vehicle purchase. Meanwhile, the Seltos hits the college kids and younger families. It has a youthful, sporty design, a fun and functional interior, and while its affordable price point may come with some cheaper materials, all-in-all it’s a clear bargain.

2021 Kia Seltos SX-Turbo - kia.com
2021 Kia Seltos SX-Turbo - kia.com

Although, around that $27,000 mark where the Kia Seltos SX-Turbo meets the base model GMC Terrain SL, the Seltos takes the cake, with a fully packaged AWD SUV with Bose® speakers, ambient lighting, SOFINO upholstery, a 1.6L turbocharged engine with an automatic DCT, and the largest infotainment system of any compact SUV. The GMC Terrain just doesn’t compete unless you drop another $10,000 for some of the same features. So, if you’re in the market for a great compact SUV without breaking the bank, the Kia Seltos is for you. Although, if you have the money to spend, shooting for the Denali trim on the Terrain won’t disappoint either.

WINNER: 2021 Kia Seltos

2021 Kia Seltos - kia.com

2021 Kia Seltos – kia.com  |  Shop Kia Seltos on Carsforsale.com

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Jesse McGraw
Jesse McGraw

Jesse's life-long car obsession began when he started collecting Hot Wheels as a child. He’s constantly keeping up with the latest car news and diving deep into automotive history. His automotive journey began with a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, only recently replaced by an impeccable 2014 Kia Soul. You can find him modifying and racing cars in video games when he’s not playing paintball or writing about cars.

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