Kia Dominates This List of Sportiest SUVs Under $30,000

by Gabrielle DeSantis

Sports cars are great, but they can carry hefty price tags and aren’t always accommodating to passengers and cargo. Though not as agile as, say, a Corvette, some SUVs are surprisingly sporty. Automakers like Mazda and Kia know their consumers want a little more engagement from the SUV driving experience.

And now, three small Kia crossovers appear on a U.S. News list of the 14 sportiest SUVs under $30,000 for 2021. The winners are the Seltos, Sportage, and Soul. But are these vehicles truly athletic enough for a thrill-seeker?

2021 Kia Seltos

The Kia Seltos is the newest addition to the brand’s lineup, sporting a 175-hp turbo-four engine in the two highest trims. It pairs with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic instead of the standard continuously variable transmission, plus all-wheel drive. U.S. News says the turbo-four offers excellent acceleration, but the shifts are too slow for a dual-clutch gearbox. The engine also occasionally hesitates at slower speeds.

The Kia Seltos has a firm ride, but most reviewers agree the steering wheel provides good feedback. Though the base engine is more efficient, the Seltos’s optional turbo-four still gets decent gas mileage. It’s rated for 25/30 mpg city/highway. 

2021 Kia Sportage

RELATED: 2021 Kia Seltos, Soul, or Sportage: Which Should You Get?

The Kia Sportage comes standard with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder capable of 181 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, which gets high praise from Edmunds. However, some critics also say it could use more torque and that the engine feels slightly underpowered.

But the Sportage’s handling is what really makes this compact SUV stand out. It can pull off sharp turns with minimal body roll, aided by its surprisingly firm suspension. Even with that, the ride feels serene and the seats supportive.

If you want to pay a little over $30,000, the Sportage SX Turbo offers a 240-hp turbo-four. It provides better acceleration and feels like a better match for this crossover’s lithe road manners. This trim also includes luxurious extras like a panoramic sunroof, a premium audio system, and ventilated seats.

2021 Kia Soul

The Kia Soul’s best engine is a 201-hp turbo-four, standard on the aptly named Turbo model. It pairs with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic but cannot be paired with AWD like its siblings. Though not as quick, the standard 147-hp engine and six-speed automatic feel sporty as well, some critics say.

Regardless of the engine, each Soul has a tight turning radius and feels solid around corners. However, its small stature also causes it to shake over rough pavement, and the steering lacks feedback. But its compact dimensions make it a useful commuter car with a surprisingly spacious interior.

SUVs that top the list

Unsurprisingly, Mazda vehicles occupy most of the top spots on U.S. News‘ list. The sportiest SUV in the roundup is the CX-5, with a standard 187-hp four-cylinder engine. A 250-hp turbo-four is also on tap, but that model starts at $30,560.

Both engines provide quick acceleration from the get-go, and the transmission feels smooth. Also, the handling is top-notch, with electronically-assisted steering that doesn’t come off as too robotic. Many critics report a stiff ride, but the cabin is still comfortable and quiet.

Starting at only $20,790 and packing a 148-hp turbo-four, the Mazda CX-3 is one of the cheapest options on the list. Though it doesn’t have the stamina of some of its rivals, it boasts the best handling among Mazda’s SUVs. Ranking one spot below the CX-3 is the CX-30, with a 186-hp engine and a nicely balanced ride.

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