Who It's For
Frugal- and fun-minded, young and young at heart, need only apply for this segment-defying sporty coupe.
Rarely did we go anywhere where someone didn't stop us and ask what it was.
It didn't have enough power to match its sporty looks or capable chassis.
It's a lot of car for the money, but it's an engine and some steering feel short of being great.
"What is that thing?"
Passersby asked each one of our staffers that question almost every time one of us parked the 2012 Hyundai Veloster. Truth be told, we weren't completely sure.
It would be easy to reply "It's a Hyundai Veloster." But that doesn't quite explain what it is. It's a hatchback with a small, efficient engine capable of 40 mpg. It has aggressive styling, one door on the driver's side, two doors on the passenger side, a feature-packed interior, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, and a sporting flair to it. But is it a sports coupe? Or the world's most stylish economy car?
Underneath, the Veloster is based on the same platform as the subcompact Hyundai Accent. It even has the same 1.6-liter, 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine. But from there, the cars couldn't much further from one another. The Accent is probably one of the more stylish cars in its class, but the Veloster is something else entirely. It looks like it was designed by a high school student's imagination run amok during study hall. You can't help but notice it.
And it doesn't ride like an Accent, either. It's decidedly sporty, with a firm suspension absorbing the road's imperfections. It's far more engaging than any normal A to B economy car.
So what is it? In its first model year, the Veloster appears to us to be the reintroduction of what used to be a sport compact segment once filled with cars like the Dodge Neon, Toyota Celica, Ford ZX2, and Hyundai's own Tiburon coupe. It offers premium features often unseen in its price range and a look all its own. But when you get down to it, is the Veloster really a sporty coupe? Or just a cool-looking car with a cool name with far more style than substance? We had a week with it to find out.
What We DroveHyundai CEO John Krafcik once said injecting a car with style could add $1,000 to $2,000 to a car's sticker price. A 2012 Hyundai Accent, the vehicle on which the Veloster is based, starts at $13,320, including $775 for destination and handling, for a no-frills model. Our Veloster came to us with a final tally of $22,170. Where's the beef?
A base 2012 Hyundai Veloster costs $18,075. And unlike the bare-bones Accent sedan, it's not a vehicle you only drive because you're a cheapskate. It comes standard with 17-inch wheels, a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system, Bluetooth and MP3 player connectivity, satellite radio, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and LED headlight accents. Ours came with the style package ($2,000) that includes 18-inch wheels, a chrome grille surround, a panoramic sunroof, a Dimension premium audio system, and leatherette -- a euphemism for vinyl -- on the seat bolsters and door inserts. It also came equipped with the tech package ($2,000) that adds different 18-inch wheels, a much-needed backup sensor kit, an in-dash navigation with a backup camera, and automatic headlights. Floor mats were another $95. And, to be honest, we're a little surprised opting for one of the $2,000 packages doesn't subsidize the cost of the wheels if you opt for the other.
The style made up plenty of the price difference over the Accent. But there was plenty to go along with it, too.
Along with the technology, the Veloster comes with stability control, four-wheel disc brakes, and front and side airbags among other safety features. It's also really hard to ignore Hyundai's drive-it-into-the-ground 10-year powertrain warranty. Together, the safety, technology, and looks make us think this car is geared for young people. But how does it do when you get it on the road?
The CommuteLooking at the stats sheet, it's easy to make the mistake that the Veloster is nothing more than an overpriced Accent coupe. But it's not. The Accent is a fine car unto itself, but where it's soft and sedated for those cross-shopping it with Toyotas Yarises (Yarii?), the Veloster isn't. Its suspension is compliant even on bumpy roads, but it's decidedly firmer and sportier. This car doesn't mind taking a corner with some authority. But it won't kill your back, either, especially because its front seats are incredibly comfortable.
Rowing through the standard six-speed manual transmission (a six-speed dual-clutch automatic is available for an additional $1,250), you're reminded that it is, in fact, still based on an economy car. It's easy to use, but shift throws are long. The feel is somewhat akin to stirring cold oatmeal as it gelatinizes. It's hardly what we'd call terrible, but after driving the Mazda2 and Honda Fit -- two subcompact benchmarks -- you realize how much further Hyundai's shifter feel refinement needs to go.
It also doesn't help that the transmission is paired to an engine that doesn't quite match the character of the car. While it's fine in city commuting, getting up to speed is a premeditated exercise. Because it's geared to achieve the best possible fuel economy, the engine feels sluggish, making you downshift more often, or put your foot into it to get more from the car. The result, as expected, was that we found ourselves oftentimes well below the car's 28 mpg city EPA fuel economy rating. It's possible to reach that 28 number -- or even the 40 mpg highway rating -- but you might hate the car's engine by the time you're done driving it.
Hyundai is planning a more powerful turbocharged version of the 1.6-liter engine used for an upcoming model, appropriately called the Veloster Turbo, upping power to 201 horsepower with a minimal fuel economy tradeoff. For those who want acceleration that matches the Veloster's looks, it can't come fast enough.
The Grocery RunWhen you get past the fastback looks, the Veloster opens up to be a surprisingly practical car on the inside. Loading up groceries, the Veloster took all of them with ease, impressively holding 15.5 cubic feet worth of groceries and previously forgotten about necessities. The tradeoff for that comes by way of its sloping biplane rear window straight into view of the cargo area. If you put too much in the back, you can kiss the already lackluster rear visibility goodbye, too. Fortunately, our tech package-equipped Veloster with its rearview camera made that a nonissue: Don't get this car without it.
Moving toward the passenger compartment of the vehicle, and unique to the 2012 Hyundai Veloster, is an asymmetrical set of doors. The driver's door is longer than the passenger-side front door, as it also has to make room for a half-door for backseat access. The passenger side doors work well, but the driver's side door is oversized, which can lead to plenty of door dings if you're not careful. Interestingly enough, Hyundai sells the Veloster with the two shorter doors on the opposite side for right-hand-drive markets like the U.K. and Australia. It makes us wonder why the automaker couldn't just sell it here with four doors instead of three, adding another window that goes down, too.
The Weekend FunIt's hard not to sit in the 2012 Hyundai Veloster and think to yourself as you look at that Mercedes-Benz across the parking lot, "My car looks better." And, indeed, in a place as vain as Los Angeles' South Bay, where Porsches are as common as Toyota Camrys, it's nice to know your $22,000 car can carry some swagger, too. But when you close the door for the first time, hearing the creaking plastic of a loose door handle, it makes you wonder why Hyundai couldn't have just made the structure a little sturdier to match the added cost.
Pressing the centrally located ignition button on the dashboard, the car starts up with little drama. But then you see a picture of the Veloster concept car that debuted at the 2007 Seoul Motor Show appear on the infotainment screen, and you wonder, "Why is Hyundai teasing me with a car that isn't the one I'm driving?" It'd be similar to BMW using all the iconography from a high-performance M version of a car you didn't get, reminding you of the extra $20,000 you didn't spend to get a better car.
But rather than keep on nitpicking on tiny details, a larger one makes itself more regularly noticeable: The steering feels heavy, almost as if Hyundai tried to copy German automakers. But it lacks road feel, making driving twisty roads disconcerting. Taking the Veloster to North L.A.'s snake-like Topanga Canyon Road for a late-night jaunt proved tough to get a feel for the car. Its brakes handle the action fine. Shifting gears quickly isn't even that tough. But the steering only carries a facade of sportiness. Despite the Veloster's light weight, it takes a good amount of concentration to keep the car where you want it.
And for a supposed sports coupe, that simply doesn't cut it when you want to escape for a short getaway. If it doesn't have the power, its shifter is average at best, and its steering doesn't make you want to drive the car even more, can it really be worth it?
SummaryWhen you look at what the Veloster has, it's a solid deal. It's a tech-laden concept car brought to life, and it would suit the whims of most young drivers who need such toys in an attention-getting package. And, at $22,170, it's even a pretty good deal.
But pry away the style, and you have an economy car in a designer suit that's just a few tweaks away from being great. It doesn't need world-class steering feel; just some steering sort of connected feeling to the road. It doesn't need a great shifter; just a better one than it has. And its power issue will be solved with the upcoming Veloster Turbo.
But here's the $22,000 question: Is there a better car in its class for the money? Looking at what you can get, a five-speed manual 2012 Ford Focus SE hatchback with an almost identical feature count appears to be the Veloster's closest competitor. Its styling is far more sedate, but the Focus has the sunroof, hatchback practicality, and Sync and MyFord Touch voice and touchscreen commands. More than that, it has a sporty driving character that's been nearly untouched from its European roots, a punchier 160-horsepower engine, and it sacrifices little real-world fuel economy.
But most importantly, when you take away the "Look at me!" factor, the Focus hatchback has one thing the Veloster couldn't begin to touch: a fourth door for passengers. So forgive us, but until the Veloster lives up to its promise of sporting pretentions and practicality in one stylish package, we'd sooner take a car that actually has all those features already.
Spec BoxPrice-as-tested: $22,170
EPA City: 28 mpg
EPA Highway: 40 mpg
EPA Combined: 32 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 422 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Above average
Notebook Quotes"I hope the automatic transmission is better than the manual, because I could never own something this sloppy." -- Jason Davis, Associate Editor
"The Veloster is a cool-looking hatchback with an engine that has a little trouble getting out of its own way." -- Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"If Hyundai wants to be taken seriously as a performance car maker -- or even a premium manufacturer -- it really needs to rethink steering philosophy. Lifeless steering does not make for a fun driver's car." -- Keith Buglewicz, News Director
"If you're keen on the Veloster's bold styling, you'd be hard pressed to find better at this price point." -- Matt Askari, Associate Editor