Our driver threads the white 2012 Hyundai Veloster through light midday traffic on the northbound Pacific Coast Highway. Traffic is a mix of Aston Martins, new Porsches and rental Mustang convertibles.
"The most important part has to be the way it drives," he says. "It has to be fun to drive. You can add the technology items afterward to any car."
Those were the priorities given to Hyundai's development team. First, it had to make the 2012 Hyundai Veloster fun to drive. If anyone knows this, it's this guy behind the wheel. He's John Krafcik, CEO and president of Hyundai Motor America.
We're riding shotgun in the Veloster while Krafcik wheels it to our chosen lunch spot, a ramshackle restaurant in Malibu that serves fish so fresh it'll pinch your backside in the kitchen. Our time in the passenger seat is the closest anyone outside of Hyundai proper has come to driving the squat hatch.
Veloster in the Wild
Krafcik nudges the console selector backward to command a downshift and points the Veloster's puggish nose down the sun-drenched blacktop. The car he brought is a preproduction prototype loaded with all the trick bits it has to offer, including a six-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT).
"That's one difference between this prototype and the production one," says Krafcik. "All production [DCT-equipped] Velosters will have steering wheel paddles, but this car doesn't have them."
Then he woods the throttle and the direct-injected 1.6-liter four spins sweetly toward its 6,700-rpm redline as we reel in traffic. The little 138-horsepower mill is quite smooth and seems to relish being wrung out. It could use more aural personality, an area Krafcik acknowledges they're still working on.
For sure, the Veloster won't pin you to your seatback; it's not that kind of car. Instead, Hyundai has built a latter-day Honda CRX. That very car — in second-generation, 1988-'91 guise — came under heavy scrutiny during the Veloster's gestation, an association that Krafcik is eager to share: "We benchmarked the CRX. Fantastic car, not just from a dynamics standpoint but the overall package, and what that car was to the marketplace at the time. We saw a huge opportunity to capture some of that."
Light Weight Is the Key
Another couple taps of the console selector and the revs drop to cruising speed. The gearchanges of this dry-clutch automated manual gearbox aren't the quickest we've experienced but are totally devoid of shift shock. For a prototype, this Veloster is pretty well finished. It feels tight. Solid. The cabin is said to be production-representative, and it's quieter than we expected for a car that starts right around $17,500. Conversation in the cabin at freeway speeds requires no raised voices or concerted effort at all, even from the backseat.
Krafcik continues, explaining that lightness is an integral part of the Veloster experience. No, not quite CRX light, as that car wouldn't have a prayer of meeting the crash regulations faced by modern cars. Think current Mazda MX-5 light. That's a noteworthy feat for a car that seats two adults in true comfort up front and two more in relative comfort in the backseat.
We've been driving for almost 30 minutes and Editor in Chief Scott Oldham, who stands a strapping 6 feet tall, still claims to be comfortable back there, with plenty of head- and legroom.
More Light Weight
Hyundai's in-house steel-making capability gives the company a built-in cost advantage in using tailored steels to pare vehicle mass. Weighing 2,584 pounds with a manual gearbox and 73 pounds heavier in DCT guise, the front-wheel-drive Veloster — built on a heavily revised version of the Elantra platform — is skewed toward agility rather than outright speed. That its trimness helps garner a predicted 30 city/40 highway mpg means its arrival couldn't have been timed better.
As if on cue, Krafcik whipsaws the tidy steering wheel in an impromptu slalom on the Pacific Coast Highway as we pass an antique shop. The car transitions brightly, juking instantly from lane to lane with genuine spunk.
Its steering is quite quick, Krafcik's hands moving very little to yank the Veloster's leash around. "I think the Caterham Super 7 has the best steering of any car ever made," ponders Krafcik. "That was my own personal reference point [for the Veloster] from the steering point of view. We didn't quite get to Caterham levels, but no car ever has." This is tougher to dismiss as mindless patter when you consider that Krafcik keeps a Caterham Super 7 in his home garage alongside a Porsche 911 (997).
Then we come up on a beautifully restored Honduras Maroon 1962 Corvette. Top down. Krafcik starts spouting specs. "327. T10 four-speed. Nice." But the guy in the Vette is all over the Veloster. We have a moment, exchange a wave and move on.
Later it occurs to me. I'd bet my first born there isn't another CEO at an OEM who knows what engine and transmission came in a '62 Corvette. Including Akerson at GM, and they made the thing. Krafcik is a real car guy and it's one of the reasons Hyundais and Hyundai are red-hot right now.
Feeling the Hardware
After the Corvette, we start talking hardware.
Light weight has obvious advantages when it comes to vehicle dynamics, which works out in the Veloster's favor as its suspension underpinnings are not at all exotic. MacPherson struts and twin-tube dampers support the front end, and a torsion beam and monotubes locate the rear.
"Early in the program, our engineers knew what the development brief was, and they got to work to make the most sporty torsion beam ever," boasts the CEO. The Veloster's long 104.3-inch wheelbase provides a primary ride that has a natural gait with none of the hobby-horsing you experience in, say, a Fiat 500. That car wasn't on Hyundai's radar when it dreamt up the Veloster, but it'll surely compete for the same dollars.
Cars like the Scion tC and the two-seater Honda CR-Z were the intended targets, and the Korean hatch is more firmly suspended than its contemporaries, in line with its sporting intent. It rounds off the road's sharp edges well, although there's also an underlying busyness to this prototype's ride that suggests that additional refinement of the dampers' valving is needed. We're told that the development team is still in the process of finalizing the suspension, steering and transmission calibrations, so there's still some fiddle room remaining.
The base Veloster will roll on 17s. This preproduction prototype is rolling on the optional 18-inch wheels and Kumho Solus all-season tires measuring 215/40. Summer tires will be available on the turbocharged Veloster, which Inside Line confirmed is heading for production back in January at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show. It'll be powered by a 1.6-liter direct-injection turbo motor making 208 hp at 6,000 rpm.
Sharp Cabin and All the Tricks
While Krafcik slices around a lawn truck, I peruse my surroundings. The center stack is really tidy, its concentric HVAC controls serving to make the most efficient use of space possible. The 7-inch touchscreen is sharp and bright, and there are enough storage nooks to keep most pack-rats happy.
Its crisscross dashboard graining and chunky, silver-accented door handles and vent rings mesh well with the angular motif inside. There's a welcome lack of reflective trim, and comfort is easy to find in the front seat. Rear-seat passengers will find decent space and will be baked through the glass overhead on sunny days, though the additional light imparts a sense of spaciousness to the cabin.
Hyundai wisely didn't aspire to Caterham-grade interior austerity, as the Veloster's cabin is striking and well-appointed. This particular example is chock full of all available goodies and would be at the very upper end of Veloster pricing at around $22,700 were it to reach a showroom in September with other Velosters. It includes both option packages, Style and Tech, and among the highlights are keyless ignition, navigation and a panoramic sunroof. The DCT will be a stand-alone $1,200 option over the six-speed manual gearbox. The Hyundai Veloster will even let you play Xbox video games directly through its multimedia screen.
What's With the Doors, Though?
You can call the Veloster's signature door configuration a gimmick, but there's real function here. The single door on the driver side is long for easy ingress, and for tall drivers, the rearward B-pillar improves visibility through the side glass. You can also easily slot your man-purse or regular purse behind the seat.
The sedan-style doors on the passenger side facilitate multiple passengers more easily than a coupe without the drawbacks of a suicide door. "[Suicide doors are] the way that many unsuccessful coupes and pickups have been done," says Krafcik. "You get that thing in a parking lot and you have to send out a search party to find the poor person who's stuck in the middle since you have to open the front door to get the rear door open. It's really never worked in practice."
This kind of lateral thinking used to be the bastion of Honda. We press Krafcik. Is Hyundai the new Honda? "Hyundai is the new Hyundai. Honda's a great company. Maybe they're going through a rough patch right now but with the engineering talent they have I'm sure they're gonna be back strong and fighting. And their powertrains are just absolutely terrific.
"We've been consciously upping the ante of the innovation side and we've been taking a lot of risk, frankly." Not so much risk that they'll let a journalist drive the Veloster just yet, but that will come in time.