With its 2012 Veloster, has Hyundai come up with an answer to a question nobody asked?
Probably. But in the modern automotive era of niche products designed to appeal to slivers of the population, the offbeat often strikes a chord, sometimes loudly.
Check the record. Remember the Plymouth Prowler, now sought after as a collector car? Or the mid-engine Pontiac Fiero, the American Motors Pacer, and the 1960s-era Saabs with their three-cylinder, two-cycle engines? They are no more, but in their time had dedicated fans.
On the market today are such unusual offerings as the Toyota FJ Cruiser, Nissan Cube, Scion xB, and Honda Element, the last now on its way out. The funky, full of attitude Soul has become the best-selling vehicle in the Kia lineup.
The 2012 Veloster settles snugly into that group. It is a sporty coupe of sorts, but with a hatchback and three passenger doors, the third positioned on the rear passenger side like the innovative 1999 Saturn coupe, now defunct.
In concept, the Veloster is somewhat similar to the Nissan Juke, also a hatchback, with a conventional four-door layout. But the smaller Juke is jacked up to mimic a sport utility vehicle, has more power and performance, and is more expensive.
The Veloster, on the other hand, is an attractively styled, if unusually conceived, economy car that not only turns heads but ranks with the best in the high-mileage club. It has an EPA city/highway fuel economy rating of 28/40 miles to the gallon.
With that, it necessarily comes up short on the performance side of the equation. Despite heroic efforts to pare weight by infusing the Veloster with substantial injections of lighter high-strength steel (it weighs nearly 500 pounds less than the Juke), its modern, 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine can do only so much.
It’s not a dog, but it won’t win many drag races either. With either the standard six-speed manual gearbox or the state-of-the art six-speed automated manual transmission, the driver is obliged to pay attention and exercise skill to keep the Veloster cooking.
The charm comes in the handling. In that respect, it is analogous to the Mazda MX-5 Miata, a small two-seat convertible with nowhere near the brute power of many other sports cars, but which delivers driving exhilaration by squirting around curves in a way the big boys often cannot.
That’s the Veloster’s forte as well. Though the suspension system is fairly conventional, independent up front with a torsion-beam rear axle, Senior Engineer David Dutko and his team crafted a clever rear stabilizer bar that minimizes the normal tendency of a front-wheel drive car like the Veloster to under-steer—that is, to push straight ahead in corners. While the setup doesn’t produce neutral handling, the added chassis stiffness enables a driver to use the throttle to somewhat alter the Veloster’s path in hard cornering.
The steering is powered by a column-mounted electric motor that provides a hefty feel but not an excess of feedback. On well-worn roads, its straight-ahead tracking is sometimes disturbed, requiring steering corrections.
Power comes from a modern 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine with gasoline direct injection that enhances fuel economy. The same engine powers the Hyundai Accent economy car, which weighs about 150 pounds less.
It is mated to a six-speed twin-clutch automated manual gearbox—Hyundai’s first—that snaps off shifts instantly in automatic mode and can also be shifted manually with the shifter or paddles mounted on the steering wheel. Though it costs an additional $1,250, it doubtless will be the transmission of choice.
However, Hyundai officials expect that because of the Veloster’s sporty nature, about three out of 10 buyers will order it with the stick shift, an unusually high percentage. That manual gearbox is a six-speed similar to that in the compact Hyundai Elantra, which has an exceptionally slick shift linkage. The linkage in the Veloster is a bit stiffer but still precise enough to be enjoyable.
Base price of the stick-shift Veloster is $18,060. To ease production and make sure a customer’s choice is available at the dealership, there are only six ways to order the car. For example, a Veloster with the automated manual had a starting price of $19,310. Add two options packages that include such items as a navigation system, special 18-inch alloy wheels, pushbutton starting and a panoramic sunroof, and the suggested price came to $23,405, which is as much as you can spend.
With the same options, the tested stick-shift model had a bottom-line sticker of $22,060.
Hyundai folks say interior and exterior styling was inspired by motorcycles. Maybe, but it likely would take a dedicated two-wheel enthusiast to catch the drift.
Regardless, the interior is classy, with legible instruments and a swooping center stack. Front seats are supportive, with substantial seatback bolstering to hold the torso in place.
Even with the right-side door, entering the back seat requires some contortions. There’s plenty of knee room, but headroom is in short supply. Moreover, the head gets positioned smack under the rear glass, which if the Veloster hits a big bump could cause a whack to the noggin and accordion compression of spinal vertebrae.
- Model: 2012 Hyundai Veloster three-door hatchback.
- Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder, gasoline direct injection, 138 horsepower.
- Transmission: Six-speed manual.
- Overall length: 13 feet 10 inches.
- EPA passenger/cargo volume: 90/16 cubic feet.
- Weight: 2,740 pounds.
- EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 28/40 miles to the gallon.
- Base price, including destination charge: $18,060.
- Price as tested: $22,060.