Do you really need a 4x4? Exploring iconic passes and dirt roads in a Kia Seltos

Published Apr 20, 2023


There’s no doubt that South Africa has some of the most beautiful places to visit in the world and to be able to see them you sometimes have to go off the beaten track.

We also tend to think that once you have to take a car onto gravel surfaces to get there, you need a large SUV, bakkie or 4x4 of sorts.

That’s certainly not the case every time, and to prove this, Kia arranged a trip into the Karoo behind the wheel of their Seltos where we not only got to see the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) but also traversed some iconic passes and gravel roads.

The Seltos has been with us for two years but still proves a popular choice in the segment.

Climbing behind the wheel of our mid spec EX+ we headed for the N2 to our overnight accommodation in Barrydale.

The EX+ is the happy medium in the range, above the EX and below the top of the range GT-Line.

It’s fitted with a 1.5-litre turbo-diesel engine that develops 86kW and 250Nm of torque, driving the front 17-inch alloys via a six-speed automatic transmission. The rims are covered with 215/60R17 rubber which is a decent profile if you intend to do some exploring off the tar.

Our playlist was easily connected via Apple CarPlay (or Android Auto) with the phone mirrored on the eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system.

Of course Ronnies Sex Shop needed a stop before driving over Tradouw Pass.

It’s one of the many passes originally constructed by Thomas Bain that’s been tarred, manicured and repaired over the years but they have still retained the integrity of the original pass with the curves and sharp bends giving us an early appreciation for the handling capabilities of Kia’s compact SUV.

With the obligatory stop for pictures and drone shots of the car and the beautiful valleys in the background, we hustled through to Barrydale on the R62 to relish what Diesel & Creme Restaurant call the best milkshakes in the world.

I haven’t tasted many milkshakes outside of our borders but the peanut butter one I chose certainly tasted out of this world. There’s any flavour you could ever imagine and from a previous visit I can attest to the quality of their burgers, too.

We stayed over at the Karoo Art Hotel that’s been delightfully restored to its former glory and judging by the foreign tourists it must be a hit on Tripadvisor.

It could have been the lovely Karoo lamb and delightful red wine at dinner that affected my hearing, but I’m sure I heard there was an option for an early morning swim in a warm river pool.

Apparently a daily routine for some of the locals, much to my surprise when we stopped at a pool along the Tradouw River just outside town there was not a hint of steam.

In fact it was, in the juvenile way boys describe it, forefinger and thumb against each other cold.

With a bit of help from behind by my driving partner, Mark Jones from The Citizen, while I was contemplating whether to make a leap of faith, I unceremoniously plunged in.

Gulping for air and hoping time would allow my body to acclimatise, which it didn’t, only a handful joined us.

With a warm cup of Joe on the edge we shivered for five minutes while trying to get warm again, but agreed that the experience was invigorating and very special.

With feeling back in our toes, we headed into day two on a tight schedule and lots of gravel.

The Seweweeks Poort is a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful, yet easy to drive stretches of gravel.

It’s well maintained and regularly scraped, with twists and turns in every direction, crossing the river that flows through it 23 times, revealing spectacular scenery over its 18 kilometres.

No surprise that Bain was also the man involved here and there was also a family connection after making a right to Bosluiskloof Pass with his brother-in-law, Adam de Smidt responsible for a steep and twisty road to the Bosch Luys Kloof lodge for lunch.

The pass doesn’t lead anywhere except to the bottom of the kloof and was apparently originally used by shepherds to move their flocks to better grazing land.

It has spectacular drop-offs with no armco barriers, so concentration was the order of the day.

The convoy of Seltos’ eased its way down without any complaint to a welcome cold drink and lunch.

Heading back could have been a bit of a challenge, seeing as the chosen mode of transport in the area seemed to be Land Cruisers, but we needn’t have been too concerned.

The Seltos climbed its way up easily after we had switched off traction control that put the car in slow mode, with the ruts and ditches testing the suspension.

A long stretch of gravel before hitting the tar again to Laingsburg and Sutherland allowed us to test its ability at a faster pace than up and down passes.

It proved to be quite good actually as well as dust proof but it’s obviously not all wheel drive so you have to mind your Ps and Qs and stay alert to changing road conditions.

The road to Sutherland is long, with some lovely bends and twists and after a short tongue-in-cheek course on race lines by my partner we were driving the Kyalami nine hour.

The Seltos took it all in its stride as it cruised around the bends, with the gearbox playing along without any fuss.

The Southern African Large Telescope, or SALT, is an incredibly impressive piece of equipment and shows what we are capable of given the right circumstances.

It’s funded and operated by the SALT Foundation which is a collection of academic and government institutions throughout the world.

Partners from South Africa, Poland, the US and UK and India make it all possible.

They showed us how the telescope rotates into position to line up the specially made mirrors which is an engineering feat if ever there was one.

Images are then sent to various screens in the control room which to the untrained eye look like a row of coloured dots. From there, scientists and astronomers drill down to analyse a ton of data like age, surface content and any myriad of options that the clever people need.

Clearly, I should have concentrated a lot more at school.

A short drive and overnight at the Rogge Cloof Nature Reserve saw a tired group of journalists hit the sack early.

You may recall a few months ago that the Tankwa Karoo was completely flooded, taking large chunks of road with it, including the R355 between Ceres and Calvinia that is one of the longest straight gravel roads in South Africa.

Well, it was our route to lunch at the Tankwa Padstal.

The start was well washed away with some serious ruts, rocks and sand.

It required careful line selection, the type you do when slow driving an off-road course, but we managed without a scrape or a bump.

It’s probably a lot rougher than you’ll do on most gravel roads but showed the Cruiser, Discovery and Hilux that passed us from the front that a small front wheel drive crossover is also up to the task.

Once that bit was done, it was mostly plain sailing except for a puncture to one of the cars, which the R355 is notorious for.

Fortunately the Seltos has a full sized spare so it was saved the ignominy of completing the journey on a marie biscuit.

Covered in dust and mud when we stopped to fly back, the Kia Seltos had proved to be a pleasant companion, happily doing a lot more than it would normally be asked to but showing too that we have a magnificent country to tour off the beaten track.