John Krafcik didn't get to be president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America by having unguarded moments around members of the press. But here, after three long days spent wringing out the 2012 Hyundai Veloster near Portland, Oregon, it happens.
"We worked our ass off on this thing," Krafcik says.
And after experiencing the Veloster on these roads, surveying its features and efficiency and considering its $18,060 starting price, we think those collective asses were a reasonable sacrifice.
Once we get our butts in the driver seat, the 2012 Hyundai Veloster initially feels sporty and lithe: ready to pounce and thoroughly modern. A stomp of the clutch and a tap of the centrally mounted start button are greeted by a typical four-cylinder cycle. It's a bit of a letdown from such an aggressively styled hatchback. So, too, is the throttle response, with a muted reaction to quick stabs of the pedal. Engine sound is barely perceptible at idle.
OK. So far the Veloster isn't exactly getting our blood pumping, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is not a hot hatch, it's an eco-minded hatchback that is rated at 40 mpg on the highway when equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission. A 1.6-liter four-cylinder rated at 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet is currently the only engine.
But at this price, you really can't expect a raspy bark or grin-inducing performance. Those will easily set you back a few grand more for something like the Genesis Coupe ,Mini Cooper S or VW GTI. But damn it all, we want that snarl, and here's why.
Shake Your Tail Feathers
We've been driven in the Veloster before and even drove an early prototype in Europe. But this is the real thing, and what we experience here is what will be on dealer lots.
Carving through hairpin switchbacks scrawled on either side of the Columbia River, we find the 2012 Hyundai Veloster's suspension more willing than its benign engine. In the curves, it's settled and balanced, with plenty of warning leading up to the limit (consisting mostly of manageable understeer). The Achilles' heel in this package is the torsion-beam rear suspension; a carryover from the economical Elantra on which it is based. And really, those shortcomings are only apparent when setting up a turn under hard braking. Big weight shifts will move the rear end, but there's ample control.
The electronic nannies are also well tuned. As we skirted the Veloster's performance envelope, stability control never once intervened. In reality, we doubt most owners will push to these limits. It's more likely that they'll tie curves together without going wide open and threshold braking between. In this regard, the sporty hatchback delivers. We can thank Dave Dutko, senior chassis engineer, for the Veloster's balance of comfort and athleticism — something distinctly lacking in the European prototype we previously drove.
Dutko admitted that suspension tuning continued right up to a month before launch, and one of the biggest challenges was to get his Korean counterparts to agree to a stiffer setup. Hyundai allows different markets to customize chassis tuning. Korea gets a softer and floaty ride, while Stateside, we enjoy a moderately stiff setting. Europe, apparently, will have an even firmer version, which probably explains the stiff-riding prototype we drove there.
What a Nice Tail You Have
Regardless of geography, the 2012 Hyundai Veloster will likely turn as many youthful heads as we witnessed it doing in hipster-plagued Portland. It's unlike anything on the road right now, with the sort of courageous styling that says, "We can still take a chance." We suspect the Veloster's asymmetrical three-door layout caused quite a dust-up when the Southern California designers presented it, but the poised execution has likely quelled most naysayers.
The larger single door on the driver side makes for easy entry and egress and imparts a racy image. The two smaller doors on the other side retain sedanlike convenience for passengers and parcels alike. Yes, other cars have tried this, but their rear-hinged suicide doors were met with less favorable results. Honestly, we think most casual observers won't even realize there's a third door on the Veloster.
The rear door's handle is neatly hidden in the window trim and the seams are well integrated into the body's character lines. And this all contributes to the Veloster's overall impact. The sloping roof line and flared rear wheel arches hint at greater aggression, while the blacked-out glass roof and A-pillar bless it with a sleekness that is uncommon in this class. Heck, we're even OK with the fake hood vents and scalloped inlets under the headlights.
As leery as we are about corporate marketingspeak, the designer's sport bike styling influences seem genuine. From the sculpted body panels on the outside to the chunky air vents and densely packed center stack on the inside, we suspect there's a Suzuki B-King in his garage (or at least in his heart). The Veloster's cabin further benefits from well-textured (though hard) plastic surfaces and a generous list of standard features.
More Than You Bargained for
The 2012 Hyundai Veloster is, quite simply, the most well-appointed vehicle in its price range. A 7-inch touchscreen, voice recognition, cutting-edge telematics, power controls and plenty more extras are all standard. Options are limited to two packages that notably include bigger wheels, a sunroof, upgraded entertainment systems, leather, navigation, a rearview camera and keyless ignition/entry.
There's also a dual-clutch automatic transmission available (a first for Hyundai). We found it capable, smooth and well-matched to the Veloster's weight and power. It also comes with hill-hold and steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles.
What's the Catch?
If it sounds as if we drank the Hyundai Kool-Aid and went back for seconds, rest assured, the Veloster is not perfect. Though wind and engine noise are well muffled, road noise is pronounced, especially on Oregon's coarse highway surfaces. And despite the lack of high-frequency noise interference, the voice-recognition system struggles to decipher most commands. Some of the metallic-finished interior trim pieces also tend to create some sun dazzle.
Forward visibility is relatively unobstructed, thanks to narrow A-pillars, but the view rearward is hampered by that sloping roof line. The trailing roof edge spoiler runs right through your field of vision, and the lower glass distorts the vertical scale of everything behind you. The angled upper hatch glass further obscures the view.
The front seats provide plenty of lateral support and long-distance comfort, but there are some ergonomic issues, particularly for shorter drivers. The shifter and stubby armrest are placed just a bit too far aft for the average male adult. Those who need to sit closer to the wheel will likely take greater issue with this. There's also no heated seat option.
The rear seats have enough legroom, but the low seat cushions and limited headroom mean 6-footers will want to avoid multi-hour road trips in the back. Furthermore, those relegated to the rear will have their heads exposed to the unforgiving sun, as the expansive glass hatch hovers just above. There is a deep and generous 15.5-cubic-foot trunk in back but the rear seats do not fold flat to the floor.
In the End...
These faults are easily outbalanced by the Veloster's strengths. Hyundai starts with evocative styling, continues with ample features and winds up with a small-car driving experience that fights above its weight class.
The 2012 Hyundai Veloster doesn't pretend to be anything other than a youthful and modern interpretation of the hatchback. It doesn't have to because it's bookended by Hyundai's more-than-adequate Elantra and spicier Genesis Coupe. More power will come later in the turbo version but, for now, the Veloster's $18,060 base price and 40 mpg highway rating are a potent combination.
In fact, if you're John Krafcik, those might even be numbers worth losing your ass over.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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