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Friday
Oct212011

First Run: 2012 Hyundai Veloster

By Al Vinikour

It used to be asked about a certain Japanese car company if they could do anything wrong. As it turned out, it could. But there’s a new company to take its place, as far as I’m concerned. Hyundai. And its newest model shows it has the ability to build more than family sedans.

The Veloster is something the more upscale Genesis Coupe was never meant to be: a car aimed at Millennials and a replacement for the Tiburon. Like that car, it’s front-drive. Unlike that car, the Veloster, the name conjures up images of velociraptors but means nothing, is a three-door hatchback. You read that right. A three-door with a hatchback. Or, as Hyundai calls it, a “2+1 door” vehicle. It’s also a “reverse halo” car for Hyundai. That is, it’s an entry-level car that acts as a gateway into the rest of the Hyundai lineup.

Unlike previous three-door offerings by other car companies, Hyundai has done that third door right. Instead of a rear-hinged “suicide door,” the third port opens conventionally. However, only the right-side of the car (the curb side for those of you who grew up with me in Indiana) has a second door. (Hint: there is no driver’s side rear door — even in right-hand drive countries. Think about that for a minute.) That means there’s no need for the front door to be opened first, nor is there a potential safety hazard created by rear hinging. Also, a front-hinged door makes entry and exit from the rear seats easier. Topping it all off, the door handle is creatively hidden in the C-pillar trim so the vehicle retains its coupe looks.

Cool interior, but not quite as roomy as you might think.So let’s get to the question everyone has in mind: Does the third door design work? Personally, I can’t say much for the rear seating. Unlike some vehicles in this class, there actually is some rear seat leg room. Short dashes won’t leave two adults in the back crippled, but a several-hundred-mile sprint just might require some mild therapy. If you slouch a bit, it’s possible to find a comfortable position under the glass rear hatch that butts up against the panoramic sunroof. But expect to have your hair brushing the inner surface of the glass if you’re tall.

The hinge for the hatch is located just behind the B-pillar, giving you an idea of just how much glass is up there. And the close proximity to the heads of taller passengers is a bit odd at first, especially when the hatch is opened and they are suddenly sitting with their heads outside. Nevertheless, the Veloster is significantly larger than its competition in terms of passenger and cargo area, but much of that passenger room seems to be up front.

Gamma 1.6-liter has 138 hp, but a turbo version is rumored.

Under the hood is Hyundai’s Gamma 1.6-liter inline four. This dual variable valve timing motor has 138 hp @ 6300 rpm, and 123 lb-ft @ 4850 rpm. Good, but not great, especially for a car that bills itself as “sporty.” On the plus side, there are two transmission choices, a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT). The EcoShift DCT (Please, can we drop all of the “Eco” nonsense?) has no interruption of torque during shifts, which are pretty seamless. And, you can leave it in full automatic mode or use the paddle shifters on the backside of the steering wheel to go up (right paddle) or down (left paddle) the gears. If that doesn’t work for you, slot the lever into Shiftronic mode and use it to shift gears. Hyundai claims the Veloster is 80 lb. lighter than a Mini Cooper S, an unbelievable 400 lb. lighter than Scion’s tC, and has the best specific output (86.3 hp/liter) of any car in its class. It makes you wonder how the Veloster will perform if (when) Hyundai turbocharges the 1.6-liter.

Personally, I don’t care about the Active Eco (there’s that word again) system that modifies engine and transmission control for better fuel economy. Hyundai claims it gives up to 7% better real-world fuel economy, and it may. But to me, it’s just another button to push. Can’t it default to this setting and shift out when the car is driven aggressively?

Steering is electrically powered, but tuned for a sportier feel. The front suspension features gas-charged MacPherson struts and a 24-mm anti-roll bar. The rear has a V-shaped torsion beam with an integral 23-mm anti-roll bar, and monotube gas-charged shocks. The Veloster also comes with electronic stability control, traction control, four-wheel ABS with electronic brake distribution and brake assist, and — on DCT-equipped models — hill-start control so the car won’t roll back on steep slopes.

Hyundai claims Veloster’s unique design was inspired by a high-performance sport bike, but then designers will say just about anything when trying to explain why a vehicle looks a certain way. The car has distinctive black A- and B-pillars that, combined with the narrowing of the side windows, is meant to evoke the look of a motorcycle helmet’s visor. And it does. There’s also a more aggressive form of Hyundai’s signature hexagonal front grille, hood scoop details and unique LED position lights. There’s a lot of “visual excitement.”

Optional packages let you create a different look, including a side stripe that is similar to the one on Starsky and Hutch’s Ford Torino. Seriously. Seventeen-inch wheels with 215/45HR-17 tires are standard. Or you can choose from a pair of 18-in. wheels, including one with painted inserts, wearing 215/40VR-18 tires.

We test drove the Veloster on some of the most beautiful scenery America has to offer — the highways of Oregon. Unfortunately, the freeways have an unevenly porous surface that creates a lot of tire noise. And that is to be expected of a car with aggressive rubber. However, drive it on more regular surfaces, and the noise all but disappears. It will take further testing on more representative roads to see if this is a real problem, though I can say the car corners well with little head-toss or unwanted ride motions.

"Sport bike inspired?" I guess...

Though the big news on this car is the third door, I concentrated my attention where I was sitting, the front of the cabin. I particularly liked the instrument gauge cluster. It’s highly styled yet surprisingly legible. The center stack carries over the sport bike design theme with air registers that resemble a high-powered bike’s exhaust, but the rest of the supposed sport bike design cues were lost on me. Nissan’s Juke, with its center console that looks like a miniature sport bike fuel tank, does a more credible job in this department.

One item I found to be instantly attractive was Veloster’s navigation system. It projects through a 7-in. high-resolution LG touchscreen that’s standard on all Velosters and sits in a deep, V-shaped center stack. I can’t recall ever seeing a map display that so crisply shows the overhead interstate/major highway signs as depicted on the roads themselves. And when they say “turn by turn navigation” they’re not just whistling kim chee. The instructions give plenty of warning, which many do not. Also, the “Nav Babe” doesn’t yell at you if you blow an instruction. Instead she soothingly suggests an alternative way of getting back to the prescribed route.

Veloster has to be a tough competitor because Hyundai has pitted it against schoolyard bullies like Volkswagen Beetle, Mini Cooper and Scion tC. It seems to be priced right. The base car with manual transmission starts at $17,300. The most expensive Veloster carries the Tech Package and DCT transmission. It costs $22,500. Add $760 for delivery charges, and you have an attractively priced car that features unique styling, an odd number of doors, Hyundai’s Blue Link connectivity system with a 7-in. touchscreen interface, and 40 highway mpg. That’s decent value.

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