Hyundai chose to give us the first drive of its all-new 2012 Veloster in Portland, Oregon, a city that's seemingly flooded with the young, educated, creative types that many other cities are trying so hard to attract.
It's absolutely brimming with (often underemployed) 20- and 30-something hipsters. And it seemed appropriate, as that's largely the same crowd Hyundai is trying to attract with the Veloster. While some automakers position sporty cars a little higher up the economic ladder, that's not the case here.
According to Hyundai VP of corporate and product planning Mike O'Brien, the Veloster functions as a sort of "reverse halo" for the lineup—emphasizing accessibility and 'non-traditional' factors.
Hyundai doesn't try hide its demographic intent with the Veloster in design, either. From the outside, its roofline calls itself out as an abbreviated sport coupe. Meanwhile, from the side we saw an unmistakable likeness to the Kia Soul, which also has blacked-out A-pillars and a roofline that peaks at the top of the windshield. And when seen from the back—or up above—the Veloster looks like a sexy grand-tourer—further enforced by the chunky wheelwells and just-perfect proportions.
A 2.5-door coupe, a 4-door hatchback?
But then you might notice that there's a small back door, only on the passenger side—giving it some gawky credibility in the way of oversized glasses. And that blacked out lower airdam can be seen as the type of sinister grin you might carve into a jack o' lantern—especially when you're looking at a Veloster that's the burnt orange—or maybe it's just an ironic moustache. And in the palette are American Apparel-like colors like Electrolyte Green, 26.2 Yellow, Vitamin C, and Boston Red.
The Veloster, as Portlanders will often say, with pride, it "lets its freak flag fly," a little bit.
But just before you say, "Sorry, man, that sounds a little too...out there," consider this: While the Veloster flaunts it a little bit on the outside, there's nothing ironic or faddish about the interior; what you get is an interior that truly blends some of the racy feel of a sports car with the versatility of a hatchback. There's also a lot of performance influence, outside and in, from sportbikes—including V-shaped center stack that was contoured to look like a motorcycle fuel tank, a center console inspired by sportbike saddles, and vents modeled after exhaust tips.
Likewise, all those sportbike-related cues underscore a point that starts to emerge after you've had some time behind the wheel: The Veloster is far more than just an uber-hip body thrown over an economy-car chassis. Hyundai has given this little three-door some serious chops.
Some goodness for driving enthusiasts
First off, the Veloster can handle really well, putting it a league above the Elantra sedan, with which it shares substantial pieces of body structure and chassis. Hyundai has thankfully given it more goodness for driving enthusiasts; the Korean automaker green-lighted a U.S. engineering team to shelve the Elantra suspension and instead design and test a new, performance-oriented rear-suspension setup for the Veloster; they went with a V-torsion beam configuration, which includes an integrated (and large) 23-mm stabilizer bar, plus monotube shocks—in all, a huge improvement over the Elantra's twist-beam-axle rear.
What this means is that you can really throw the sub-2,600-pound Veloster around tight corners, yet it stays composed and doesn't exhibit the secondary motions you'd get over less-than-perfect surfaces with the twist-beam. Like a number of today's more sophisticated small-car suspensions, like the Ford Focus and Mazda3, it feels remarkably responsive and balanced for a front-driver; simply hunkers down evenly, shifting its weight back with no snap but an even, predictable attitude—without any more road harshness, which is really a triumph in the design. It's no sports car, but it's genuinely a sporty drive.
But for a number of reasons, we can't call the Veloster a favorite sporty car from a performance perspective. First off, Hyundai's electric power steering is better yet in the Veloster, but it still has a little too much artificial heft than we'd like, as well as odd, digital boost transitions at low speed; at high speed, the improvements are much appreciated, with a more secure, intuitive (although still somewhat muddled) feel. Turning diameter is better than any other small, sporty coupes, at 34.1 feet. 17-inch H-rated rubber is standard, while V-rated 18-inch performance tires are available—both on stylish alloys. Brake feel is excellent, though, with confident four-wheel discs, anti-lock and Brake Assist.
The other potential issue: The Veloster really needs a lashing to get moving quickly from a standing start—primarily because the engine sorely lacks low-rpm torque. And contributing to this lack of oomph off the line are relatively tall first and second gears with either transmission.
The engine—essentially the same unit under the hood of the 2012 Hyundai Accent—makes 138 hp and has dual continuously variable valve timing, for improved performance and fuel efficiency throughout the rev range. That said, it makes its peak torque of 123 pound-feet at 4,850 rpm, and the engine feels happiest way up in the 4,000-to-6,000-rpm range. It's surprisingly smooth and sounds good up there, and the feel of the car is totally different when you start to tap into the engine's full output. Keep the revs up and you can really catapult out of tight corners with confidence.
First with dual-clutch six-speed
The 2012 Veloster is the first vehicle anywhere in the world to get Hyundai's new EcoShift Dual Clutch automatic transmission—essentially two manual gearboxes, with shifts governed by separate clutches, solenoids, and sophisticated electronic controls. The new DCT pulls off shifts just as quick and responsively as the Ford unit in the Focus and Fiesta, only it's more composed at low speed. There's also an external damper for the clutch actuator, which further helps make the setup feel more refined. Hillstart Assist Control is also included, to keep the Veloster from rolling back before uphill starts. Manual Velosters have nice, progressive clutch takeup, though the shifter throws are still a little long and tight.
Although we really likes both gearboxes, you'll be working those revs with either to get the Veloster to respond quickly. The DCT doesn't seem to allow brake-torquing (we didn't get to really test those limits) so our best takeoff was using lots of clutch slip in a manual car and keeping the engine in that livelier zone. Even in first or second gear, goosing the gas from low revs results in almost nothing until you get past about the 2,700-rpm mark. It weighs a bit more than the Accent, and you feel the lack of torque more here.Hyundai started designing its vehicles for taller people a full vehicle cycle ago, it seems, and so, despite its sleek roofline, the Veloster's just fine for this 6'-6" editor. Seats are adjustable for height but not tilt, and with the lower cushion in the lowest position, we found a pretty good driving position and several inches of headroom above. It should be noted that the moonroof does swallow up an inch or two.
Roomy in front, more coupelike in back
As for the packaging—let's just say that, while that back door might be inviting, think of it mainly as auxiliary loading, and don't plan on trying to pack two adults (or even skinny teenagers) back there. It's better than the backseat in any 2+2, but I could barely wedge my legs in back with the front seat in an average-height position, and the headroom issue was insurmountable for pretty much anyone over 5'-9" or so, based on a number of people we saw climb in.
Yet from the front seats, the Veloster feels unexpectedly airy and spacious—thanks largely to the roof's tallest point, which is just at the top of a rather high windshield (and the car tapers back from there). In terms of EPA interior volume—which, in all fairness, we've not found to be a very good gauge of how roomy an interior actually feels or is—the Veloster is best in class. But in this case, the Veloster really does feel quite a bit roomier inside than the tC, and much more so than the CR-Z.
The cargo area requires a surprisingly high liftover, but it's deep and spacious, and the hatch glass doesn't become too much of a liability. Detach the cargo cover and flip the seatbacks down, and you have a pretty low, flat cargo area. It's not quite flat, though almost. Smaller storage spaces are provided throughout the interior. There's a large center-console compartment, split into two, and rather large door pockets that are separated by a divider.
All three of the Velosters we drove, over more than 200 miles in all, felt super-tight and rattle-free. There was surprisingly little road noise, although we did notice some wind noise around the top of the A-pillar as we pushed above the 80-mph mark.
Up to 40 mpg, and very affordable
Fuel economy is a very important purchase factor for younger shoppers; many simply won't consider a vehicle if its gas mileage ratings are below a particular threshold. For the 2012 Veloster, the EPA numbers ended up slightly higher with the manual gearbox, at 28/40, than with the DCT, at 29/38, though they both figure to a 32-mpg EPA Combined figure. We saw about 32 mpg overall in nearly 120 miles in a DCT car, then about 30 mpg in a manual car—in both cases including some very enthusiastic driving and steep hills.
Sticker price is of course the other all-important barrier. The Veloster starts at $18,060 with the six-speed manual, or $19,310 ($1,250 more) with the six-speed DCT gearbox—both including the $760 destination fee.
Again eyeing the Veloster's always-connected, no-compromises target buyer, there's really not a thing missing. A seven-inch touch-screen display is—gasp—standard, as are Pandora internet radio capability, Gracenote display technology (song, album, artist), RCA inputs for video-game console connectivity. A Bluetooth hands-free interface—rapidly becoming expected, even in this class—is standard, too, and voice-recognition controls apply to both Bluetooth and Gracenote media playback—via an attached iPod, for instance.
Also included is the Blue Link telematics platform. Much like GM's OnStar, BlueLink. BlueLink includes a suite of safety services like Automatic Crash Notification (ACN) and Assistance, SOS Emergency Assistance, and Enhanced Roadside Assistance; but at a higher subscription level it also includes turn-by-turn directions capability.
The Pandora streaming connectivity, while cool, doesn't quite allow all the control users might want. It displays song information for the stream you order up on your iPhone prior to acknowledging the accessory connection, and you can thumbs-up or thumbs-down songs as they play, or switch between your list of previously-listened-to stations; however, there's no way to create a new Pandora station once connected. For example, deciding you want to listen to an Arcade Fire station--if you haven't ever listened to one--instead of your Hold Steady station requires disconnecting Bluetooth, creating it on the iPhone screen, then reconnecting the hands-free mode.
The high-end audio system comes with integrated XM Data services, including XM NavWeather and XM Stock Ticker. And with the optional navigation system, the Veloster offers a rearview camera system and backup warning sensors.
Buying and ordering a Veloster is going to be very simple, with a limited number of builds. Just two option packages, Style and Tech, will be offered. With Style, you get larger 18-inch alloys, the panoramic sunroof, leatherette seats, leather trim, alloy pedals, an upgraded Dimension audio system, and fog lamps; and the Tech Package adds backup sensors, painted wheel inserts, a nav system, push-button start, and a 115-volt outlet. Oddly, an auto up/down driver's side window is only included if you order the whole Style package.
It's hard to funnel impressions down to a single verdict, but at first drive (and a first thorough look up close) the 2012 Veloster already feels way more adventurous than anything Toyota has produced in recent years (under the Toyota badge, for sure), but it lacks the edgy, direct feeling to steering and other inputs that characterized some of the best Hondas like the Civic Si of a decade or more ago.
Turbo soon in the mix?
With a little more power, firmer suspension tuning, and some steering improvements, this setup could be something even greater. Stay tuned though; that's already in the works, in the not-quite-yet-official 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo.
With the fresh design of the 2012 Veloster, Hyundai truly found a way to update an idea like the Celica, NX2000, or Prelude for the times—and we have a hunch it'll appeal to a lot more people.
Not just hipsters.