2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo First Drive

Hyundai gives the 2013 Veloster an always-welcome dose of power with the Turbo.

What It Is
With the Volkswagen GTI, Fiat 500 Abarth and Honda Civic Si in its sights, Hyundai enters the hot hatch/sport compact fracas.
Best Thing
Summons power in any gear, great handling, terrific seats.
Worst Thing
Engine lacks character; bizarre styling made even weirder; cool matte finish requires a PHD in materials science to maintain.
Snap Judgment
A thoroughly competent hot hatch buoyed primarily by its polarizing looks.


"Ever see rattlesnake eggs?" the kindly middle-aged man said to us at the Barret Junction cafe. He had a bristling white-haired mustache and a manila envelope in his wrinkled hands, about half the size of a postcard. "You know what a rattlesnake is?"

"Well, rattlesnakes lay all these eggs, right and they're real dangerous. I got some in this here envelope, and I'll let you open the envelope, if you promise to be real careful. They might hatch at any time..."

I took the envelope in my hand. I carefully pried the flap open. gweerrrrrrerererererrrr, a little wound wire unwound itself, rattling a metal ring. "Hah hah!" laughed the man, more amused at having a bunch of city slickers. "Hah, good one, huh?"

We were in Campo, less than 10 miles from the Mexican border, to drive the new Hyundai Veloster Turbo. And I tell you this story to make the following point: the Veloster has always been as weird and surprising as a man asking you to open an envelope full of rattlesnake eggs. A stretch? Possibly. But by heeding our complaints and adding more power to the Veloster, Hyundai has created its first hot hatchback -- designed to take on the Mini Cooper, Volkswagen GTI and Beetle Turbo, Fiat 500 Abarth, and even the Honda Civic Si, while we're at it. Already well-equipped, does the upstart Veloster Turbo have the gall to take on this established crowd? Weirder things have happened in the desert.

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Walkaround

Good news for those out there who thought the Veloster just wasn't weird enough -- the Veloster Turbo gets even busier styling to add some aggressiveness to its weirdness. Oh sure, it all starts off innocently enough: the Turbo has cool knife-edged 5-spoke wheels that look like throwing stars. From the side, the lower rocker panels have a silver edge to them. And the dual-mounted center exhausts are shiny and look like the size of King Cobra bottles. But the rear end, with an overly aggressive black-painted faux diffuser, looks like some kind of angry hissing reptile. And the stop-sign-shaped grille gives it the impression of a leering jack-o-lantern, or a particularly aggressive squirrel that's simultaneously hiding acorns in its cheeks and fending off predators...Beetles, perhaps -- or maybe a scorpion?

And for $1,000, Hyundai will grant you matte grey paint -- grey, mind you, because matte white is too hard to clean and matte black has been overplayed from Lamborghinis to Honda Odysseys. The matte grey color is eye-catching (all the journalists flocked towards the matte cars in our first drive fleet, despite the fact that they couldn't ogle it from inside the car) but as befitting any high-end matte finish, it comes with a laundry list of things you can't do. You can't take it through a carwash. You can't use Turtle Wax. You have to hand-wash it, with microfiber cloths -- terry towels are the equivalent of 80 grit sandpaper. You can't sneeze on it, lest you void your warranty. If a bird excretes on it, the car gets salvaged. OK, some of those might not be true, but the takeaway is that there's a reason this kind of paint job usually only shows up on hyper-expensive cars whose owners can afford to pay someone else for their vehicle's upkeep.

Still, we give Hyundai credit for trying out the only example of a matte finish on something that's not a luxury car. As Hunter S. Thompson said, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro -- and the Veloster Turbo is Olympic levels of weirdness.

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Sitting Down

Well-equipped at $21,950, the Veloster Turbo comes with heated front seats, push-button start, power driver's seat, and a standard multimedia touchscreen that seems to imply that Hyundai might be dodging taxes to reach that low, low price. A modestly-named Ultimate Package grants the driver a navigation system, a panoramic sunroof, rearview camera with backup sensors, and automatic headlights.

But on top of the base Veloster, the Turbo gets unique leather seats with Turbo embroidery and a low-key swath of blue or silver trim on the sides. The oversized handles on the doors and center stack can also be had in blue, which looks strange in the sunlight. My initial gripes with the non-turbo Veloster was the driving position: the pedals were pushed too far to the right while the seat angled too far to the left. The pedals are in the same place, but the seats have enough bolstering and adjustment to avoid the second part of that complaint.

Other than that, the interior is basically the same as the regular Veloster, with the same problems: visibility is near-nil to the rear, thanks to the tiny windows. On the other hand, more than 15 cubic feet of cargo room is under the backpack-shaped hatch, more than the GTI and Beetle pair.

Driving

On our tour of the San Diego desert--a stone's throw from the Mexican border fence -- we stopped at a parking lot for an autocross course Hyundai set up. If you think the autocross was only there to stoke the egos of certain journalists and promise decades of face-rubbing conversation fodder, you're probably right.

But it also showed that the Veloster's chassis and front suspension were capable for the task of being run into the ground by said ham-fisted journalists. The car's high-speed handling was easily controlled, and the brakes are firm with a controllable feel. The Veloster's clutch has a smooth engagement, and its close-ratio shifter is accurate, yet it sometimes felt mushy -- especially from the third-to-fourth upshift -- and it's spaced so tightly that it's sometimes easy to miss a gear, like sixth. Fortunately, the engine is a good sport about it.

And the engine, that turbo engine, the raison d'etre of all this bizarreness. The base Veloster gets a 138-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine which it shares with the less-ambitious Hyundai Accent. In the Veloster Turbo, it gains -- surprise -- a turbocharger, which bumps power all the way to 201 hp. From a standstill, the turbocharger starts adding power at a low 1700 rpm, but it doesn't make full power until right before the car's 6,500 rpm redline; expect a lot of shifting. Power delivery wasn't always smooth, either. Floor the gas at freeway speeds, and there's a momentary hiccup as the engine regains its bearings.

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The Veloster isn't as single-minded as its competition: compared to the raw, Fiat 500 Abarth, for example, it's a veritable Mercedes S-Class. The Veloster Turbo is still quiet, even at higher engine speeds, and the engine lacks the character that finds itself so readily in the GTI and the Mini, to say nothing of the Abarth. In fact, it's quiet and tractable most of the time, even when it's being pushed hard. This is sport with a certain touch of lightness to it.

Summary

Hyundai calls its Veloster a "reverse halo," a flagship of its lineup that's actually obtainable. Certainly the Veloster is the most polarizing car Hyundai makes, with the Turbo accentuated by a dollop of more power. But after a day of driving, it's clear the Veloster Turbo isn't the go-kart the Mini claims to be, nor is it the rolling Whitesnake concert that is the Abarth. But it's quick, it won't embarrass its driver around corners, and its looks are nothing short of attention-grabbing.

We'd pick the package-less Veloster Turbo with the six-speed manual -- no sunroof, so you can enjoy the extra headliner graphics. We'd also be fools to pass up the matte grey paint, which will net us extra curiosity points as well as additional points for bizarreness. For those who aren't autocrossing every day, that's all you might need -- with no little surprises.

Basic Specs

1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 6-speed automatic or manual transmissions, front-wheel drive, 201-hp, $21,950, 26 mpg city/38 mpg hwy

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