"How about a ride in the Veloster?"
While the experience falls seriously short of taking a few orbits in the Space Shuttle, those seven words were enticing enough to motivate us to cross the dreaded Los Angeles basin during rainy rush-hour traffic last week. The Veloster is Hyundai's latest addition to a rapidly expanding lineup that now encompasses everything from the modest $12,000 Accent to the Lexus-fighting $58,000 Equus. The new hatchback - uniquely configured with one driver door and two passenger doors - is parked on the low end of the model range, promoted as a compact coupe offering fun-to-drive chassis dynamics, a long list of standard innovative technology and hybrid-beating fuel economy in one cool-looking package.
Hyundai isn't letting anyone drive the Veloster yet, but like proud parents, they are more than willing to show us around the car, from top to bottom, and take us for an extensive drive around the block - as passengers.
However, this isn't just a simple low-level meet-and-greet, as our host will be John Krafcik, CEO of Hyundai Motor America. Understandably, we had a slew of questions swirling around our minds before our ride: How comfortable is the cabin? Do tall adults fit in the second row? What does the engine sound like? How does it handle? Lastly, why does everyone keep comparing the new Veloster to the old Honda CRX?
Thankfully, the rain had stopped by the time we arrived in Fountain Valley. The clouds were breaking apart and sunlight was drying the pavement. Hyundai's Orange County headquarters isn't exactly picturesque, but the building adequately houses executives, engineers and mechanics as they work on bringing the automaker's new products to market (the company is moving into a new building next summer). These days, the facility is sheltering a handful of Veloster models, in various stages of development, as the vehicles undergo testing, refinement and fitting for third-party accessories.
After clearing security, we don our badges and walk upstairs to meet Mr. Krafcik. The amiable Chief Executive has generously agreed to give us a Veloster chalk-talk in his office, followed by a walk-around and a ride. (Rumor says that nobody outside Hyundai's inner circle has driven the Veloster and lived to talk about it.)
We bump into our first two Velosters in one of the labs, en-route to the garage. Each is being measured for graphics. One of the vehicles is matte gray (Hyundai says it was a vinyl wrap test, but our closer inspection says it was paint) while the other is white. Both are wearing vinyl stripes. The gray version, with large white vector stripes, appears to be related to the famous Ford Gran Torino in the 1970s American cop show, Starsky & Hutch.
Two more Velosters wait for us in the "top secret" service bay. The first car is one of the early prototypes, likely the model we photographed at the 2011 Detroit Auto Show, painted in Vitamin C over a black interior. Parked a few feet away is a newer pre-production prototype model, in Century White paint with black innards. We focused our attention on the latter, as the interior textures and electronics were most complete.
The exterior, a fresh interpretation of Hyundai's now-familiar Fluidic Sculpture design language, is sharp-looking in person. While the exterior features more than handful of complex curves, from the cutout containing the standard LED running lamps to the lower bodyside door sculpture, Hyundai has still found room for its familiar high beltline A-line crease running from the front fender through the door handle.
First, let's talk about those doors. From the driver's side, the Veloster appears to be a coupe, with one large traditional entry door. However, the passenger side is configured with two front-hinged doors - making it appear to be more of a sedan. The handle for the rear door is hidden in the C-pillar (just like the Acura ZDX). Pop it open, and it swings as widely as the door in front of it. The door opens and closes independent on the front passenger door - it is not a smaller "suicide" access door like those of the Mazda RX-8 or the Mini Clubman. To open the rear hatch, just find the handle conveniently hidden under the rear badge. There is a lot of room in there, especially with the split seats folded down. Hyundai says the Veloster's total interior volume beats the current-generation Scion tC, Honda CR-Z, Mini Cooper hardtop and Mini Clubman, and we believe them.
Also capturing our eye was the large panorama roof (part of the optional Style Package) which pops up and opens out as it did on the Honda CRX (when open, it stops just short of hitting the satellite radio antennae). The rear of the Veloster features a cool-looking center-mounted twin-pipe exhaust, which owes something to the Porsche Boxster. This model is also wearing the optional 18-inch alloys (17-inch alloys are standard) with color-contrasting inserts (part of the Tech Package) wrapped with 215/40VR18 tires.
We begrudgingly settle our six-foot, two-inch frame into the front passenger seat of the white Veloster - we want to be driving - with Krafcik (five-foot, ten-inches) at the wheel. Fellow Autoblog associate editor, Jeff Glucker (six-foot, three-inches) occupies the right rear seat.
Hyundai reiterates that the design of its Veloster is inspired by high-performance sport bikes. While the blacked-out A-pillars give the exterior its "motorcycle helmet visor" appearance, it's the cabin's center stack that really stands out. The pushbutton start is smack-center, right below the HVAC controls and above the transmission lever. Silver grab handles, like those on bikes, are found to the left and right of each front passenger. We really liked the almost Honda Ridgeline-esque ones on the doors, as they are a comfortable place to settle hands.
The front two seats, upholstered in a combination of smooth and woven fabric, are comfortable and there is generous headroom. A glance over the shoulder towards the second row and cargo area reveals more space than one expects. Tall man Glucker, hanging out in the rear seat, is doing just fine. The four-passenger Veloster (there are cup holders in the center of the rear bench) accommodates his frame nicely when the front passenger seat is moved up a few inches. There is decent legroom back there, but Glucker's head bumps against the leading edge of the hatchback if he leans forward (he notes it isn't a deal breaker, and it's still more comfortable than most of the cramped vehicles in this class).
Krafcik may be our chauffeur, but he certainly isn't going to drive like one. We depart the parking lot of Hyundai's Orange County headquarters and he immediately puts his right foot to the floor. The direct-injected 1.6-liter engine, rated at 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque, jumps to attention. With a curb weight of just 2,584 pounds (more than 400 pounds lighter than a Scion tC), the Veloster should accelerate at an enjoyable clip. Unfortunately, our Veloster is packing 500-plus pounds of dude, so acceleration is less than breathtaking. Mated to Hyundai's first six-speed dual-clutch gearbox - tuned for economy rather than neck-snapping shifts - the four-cylinder gives it a hero's try as we thread our way briskly through the traffic. Word on the street says the six-speed manual transmission is the sportier of the two gearboxes.
While the exhaust tips look trick, there really isn't much noise emanating from the rear of the vehicle. Most of the audible track comes from up front, just like most other economy-oriented compacts. The engine isn't buzzy or annoying, but there is no mistaking its eco-40 mpg mission.
The suspension, with its rear stabilizer bar neatly integrated into the V-torsion beam design, was apparently tuned on Southern California's famed Ortega Highway. In an attempt to demonstrate the Veloster's handling, Krafcik swerves abruptly left, right, left and then right again. We observe zero drama as the chassis responded well to the steering input without any untoward tail wag. On the other hand, there is a high likelihood that more than one Orange County soccer mom on the road near our vehicle ponders reporting us to the police.
Most everyone, including Hyundai, brings up the old Honda CRX when discussing the Veloster. That beloved compact (produced from 1983-1991) wasn't especially powerful, but it was celebrated for its superb driving dynamics, roomy two-place cabin and commendable fuel economy. The Hyundai Veloster will likely deliver performance numbers comparable to the performance-oriented CRX Si of yore, but with much more interior room, refinement and better fuel economy – all while meeting much more stringent safety standards and offering a back seat.
Only fools gauge driving impressions from the passenger seat, but we are left with nothing but good things to say about our ride in Hyundai's new 2012 Veloster. The cabin is roomy, comfortable and delivers generous utility. The standard Blue Link telematics platform offers a comprehensive level of innovative electronic componentry and the 1.6-liter GDI seems to deliver decent power with impressive fuel economy.
Is the Veloster a modern-day incarnation of the much-admired CRX? Next time, put us alone in the left seat and we'll find out.