2012 Hyundai Veloster coupe distinctive, tight handling

2012 Hyundai Veloster

2012 Hyundai Veloster (Credit: Tribune Media Services)

On the heels of redesigned Elantra compact and Accent subcompact, the new 2012 Veloster adds a coupe to Hyundai's burgeoning small-car offering. The distinctive Veloster is a true three-door hatchback: It has a liftgate, two front doors and a single rear door on the curb side for easier backseat access. By Hyundai's estimation, the Veloster competes with the likes of Honda's CR-Z hybrid and the Scion tC, and might be cross-shopped with the Fiat 500, Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Beetle.

The 2012 Hyundai Veloster is a distinctive, high-mileage sport coupe that hints at the excitement to come in future variants.

Hyundai simplifies things by offering just one Veloster trim level starting at $17,300, distinguished only by three interior color schemes, which include gray, black and a red-and-black combination. The interior choices depend on the exterior color chosen. Options include an automatic transmission for $1,250 and two feature-filled packages. With currently known options, the Veloster tops out at $23,310.

I drove the Veloster with both manual and automatic transmissions.

Exterior and styling

Somehow Hyundai has managed to design another car that looks unique and stylish without being overly polarizing (or just plain ugly). Available in seven colors, including bold yellow, orange and green, the Veloster stands out as something entirely new.

Seventeen-inch alloy wheels are standard. The optional Style Package, for $2,000, includes 18-inch wheels, fog lights and a chrome grille surround with piano-black highlights, along with interior feature upgrades. Different 18-inch alloy wheels with body-colored spokes join additional features in the Tech Package, which requires the Style package, adding another $2,000 (for $4,000 total).

The Veloster also introduces Hyundai's first exterior graphics options, which include stripes and other designs. They're available when ordering or at the dealership.

Ride and handling

I've called out handling as an area in which Hyundai needs improvement overall. For example, though the new Elantra is more than capable enough, it doesn't match the athletic Ford Focus or Mazda3, or maybe even the Chevrolet Cruze. I also find the Genesis Coupe too skittish. The Veloster's dynamics and roadholding are among the best Hyundai offers -- when equipped with the optional 18-inch wheels.

My chief complaint about the Veloster is its steering, which feels numb on-center and tends to wander at low and medium speeds, improving somewhat on the highway. Beyond the steering issue, the Veloster is exceptionally light -- starting at 2,584 with a manual transmission -- and it feels that way. As important, it manages its weight well, with admirable balance for a front-wheel-drive car, and minimal body roll.

The optional 18-inch tires showed no evidence of the automaker's quest for fuel efficiency, as some low-rolling-resistance (a.k.a. traction-resistant) tires on small cars do. The Kumho Solus KH25 all-season tires, rated P215/40R18, are well matched to the Veloster.

Note that I didn't drive the standard 17-inch tires, which are Nexen Classe Premiere CP671s rated P215/45R17. Though they're ostensibly all-season tires, these give me pause. The same models proved inferior in the cold and snow earlier this year on a 2011 Kia Optima, on which they were also standard equipment. Pay extra attention to these tires if you test drive the Veloster, even if it's not cold out, and consider the 18-inchers if you have any concerns.

Power

Handling can't be divorced entirely from engine power, because there has to be enough oomph to pull the car out of a corner, and here the Veloster's modest power comes into play. Shared with the Accent is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 138 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 123 pounds-feet of torque at 4,850 rpm. Thanks to direct injection and variable valve timing, the little 4-cylinder offers pretty broad torque delivery across the rev range. The six-speed transmissions make the most of it, launching the Veloster quickly when needed.

Taking on hills and powering out of sharp turns demands lower gears, keeping the driver -- or the automatic -- busy. The manual is a competent player with a forgiving clutch and a relatively short shifter equipped with a foolproof button for entering Reverse gear, to the left of 1st. (Why don't more automakers use this design?)

The more impressive choice is the automatic, a six-speed EcoShift DCT, standing for dual-clutch transmission -- Hyundai's first. The dual-clutch automated-manual design means little to the average driver but can feel different to the more attuned operator. While DCTs are usually touted for their fast shifts, the overriding goal is lower weight and greater efficiency, and Hyundai's version takes it a step further by using a dry clutch system rather than a hydraulic design. So far the only dry-clutch DCTs we've experienced come in the Ford Fiesta and 2012 Focus, which have their detractors.

When in Drive mode, the DCT behaves like any other automatic transmission. You can also slide the lever to the right and then shift up and down sequentially, or use the standard shift paddles on the steering wheel.

I'm impressed with the DCT. It performed nicely over a couple of miles of stop-and-go city driving. When I let off the brake at a stop, it would begin to inch forward after minimal delay. I noticed none of the balkiness or vibration we experienced just a week ago with the 2012 Ford Focus SFE. The transmission shifts up through the gears smoothly and without drama, and it doesn't downshift too conspicuously as you slow to a stop. It also downshifts reasonably quickly when it's time to pass. Hyundai engineers erred on the side of comfort, opting for smoother shifts rather than quick, hard transitions -- a wise decision. They say it shifts faster when in manual mode, but I found the difference to be minimal.

There's no automatic sport mode, but there's an Active ECO button on the dashboard that intrigues me more than similar modes from other brands. Rather than change the shift behavior directly, it affects the accelerator pedal -- not making it less sensitive but instead damping out sharp changes in position, smoothing the engine response and improving efficiency, Hyundai says, by up to 7 percent. What this does is make the regular Drive mode more responsive than some cars' are, because of their manufacturers' pursuit of higher mileage. The transmission also reacts quickly to sharp jabs of the accelerator pedal, kicking down one or more gears for passing power.

The Veloster is no rocket, but thankfully it pays off in EPA-estimated mileage: 28/40 mpg city/highway for the manual and 29/38 mpg for the automatic. Both have a combined rating of 32 mpg.

Some shoppers are sure to conclude that the Veloster's styling makes promises the drivetrains don't keep. Perhaps they just need to wait for a more powerful version, perhaps a turbocharged one. The most Hyundai officials will say is there's no technical reason the car couldn't get a turbocharger. Beyond that, industry publications predict a turbo version for the 2013 model year, and unmistakable wide-mouthed-Veloster test mules have been spied on several occasions. I'd count on it; Hyundai established a risky direction with the midsize Sonata, maximizing efficiency with a platform that supports smaller engines rather than high cylinder counts, relying on charging to eke out more power. The Veloster, which shares elements of the Accent and Elantra platforms, could follow the same approach.

For now, the base Veloster should satisfy many buyers. The transmissions make the best of the available power if you don't mind frequent shifting -- or the noise that sometimes accompanies it. There's a substantial ratio difference between 2nd and 3rd gears, so when you drop down, especially with the DCT, you hear a lot of engine noise.

Hyundai says it targeted its noise treatments at high-frequency sounds, and here they've done pretty well. Even at high speeds, a front passenger and I were able to converse with without raising our voices. The overwhelming sound was a constant rumble from the tires, which might stem from the exceptionally coarse pavement around Portland, where Hyundai held the Veloster's national introduction. I'm withholding judgment because the tires went silent, if only for a moment, every time we crossed a short patch of smooth blacktop or concrete -- and also because a ride in a Lexus LS460 L featured the same soundtrack on Interstate 84.

The low-profile tires provided reasonable ride comfort for a car of this type, even after a full day of driving. Ditto for the Veloster's seats and cabin overall, which features contemporary cloth upholstery and nice enough materials. The Style Package adds a panoramic moonroof, leather on the steering wheel and shift knob, faux leather seat bolsters and door trim, alloy pedals and a one-touch feature for the driver's power window. The package also includes a stereo upgrade, but the standard Veloster has loads of connectivity: Bluetooth cellular and streaming audio, an auxiliary input, an iPod/USB port and an RCA cable that lets you play video on the dashboard screen when the car is parked.

The Tech Package adds keyless access and pushbutton start, a 115-volt outlet, automatic headlights, sonar backup sensors, a backup camera and a navigation system. Even without the system, turn-by-turn navigation is available through the standard Blue Link, which is similar to OnStar.

Through the third door

Unlike the Mini Cooper Clubman, Saturn ION coupe and a few other recent models, the Veloster's single rear door is forward-hinged, so it can be opened via a handle without first opening the front door. It's executed so nicely, people tend to see it as a big plus ... rather than focus on the fact that the car shorts you one door on the other side. For ease of entry on that side, the driver's seat has a swing-away shoulder-belt guide and an additional lever to tilt the seat forward. Points for going the extra mile, Hyundai.

Once inside, I found the backseat surprisingly workable, at least for a short trip. Legroom comes at the generosity of front occupants, who typically have some to spare. At 6 feet tall, my head just cleared the ceiling -- though it's not the ceiling so much as the rear window, and that's likely to be more of a problem if you run over a bump.

Safety

As an all-new model, the Veloster hasn't been crash-tested as of this writing. It includes six airbags: the frontal pair, front-seat side-impact airbags and side curtains that cover all the side windows. As federally mandated of all 2012 models, the Veloster has antilock brakes and an electronic stability system.

Equipped with Blue Link, the Veloster carries a GPS receiver and cellular telephony, which provides additional safety features, including Automatic Crash Notification when an airbag is deployed, along with operator supported one-touch SOS and roadside assistance. Subscription fees apply.

Veloster in the market

When I saw the Veloster introduced last year, I suspected it would serve as a coupe version of the Elantra, which currently comes only as a sedan. However, we now expect a proper Elantra Coupe to debut this November 2011 at the Los Angeles auto show.

So what does that make the Veloster? It's a separate model -- a sporty car that can serve as a foundation for more serious performance cars, akin to the Volkswagen GTI, Mazdaspeed3 and other so-called pocket rockets. While I'd question the move from another automaker, many of which are attempting to consolidate and pare down their product offering, Hyundai has been storming the U.S. market for years, snatching market share and putting the competition on notice. Economy be damned, as one of the few growing automakers, Hyundai is wise to take advantage of the instability and strike now.

Snapshot

Starting MSRP $17,300

MPG
City: 28 -- 29
Highway: 38 -- 40

Available Engines
138-hp, 1.6-liter I-4 (regular gas)


Transmissions

6-speed manual w/OD
6-speed auto-shift manual w/OD and auto-manual

New or Notable
* New hatchback replaces Tiburon
* Four seats
* Curbside rear door
* 1.6-liter four-cylinder
* Six-speed manual or automatic
* Introduces Blue Link Telematics

What We Like
* Bold styling
* Manual transmission option
* Generous front-seat legroom
* Lightweight
* Extensive connectivity

What We Don't
* Limited rear headroom
* Limited rear legroom
* Awkward cargo-hatch opening
* Hard dashboard surfaces
* Driver distraction risk

© 2011, Cars.com

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