To hear John Krafcik tell it, the 2012 Veloster is just another Hyundai. Allow us to rephrase that. According to the company's North American CEO, the searing Vitamin C orange coupe shown here is something we should've seen coming, the predictable end result of the relentless innovators at his Korean employer.
Yet to be fair, even now, "innovation" isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Hyundai. But perhaps it should be. After all, this is the same company that's led the way with radical customer relations plans like Hyundai Assurance (income loss payment coverage and buy-back, guaranteed trade-in values, etc.) and brash products like the 2011 Sonata, which passed on cylinders five and six in favor of forced induction – to say nothing of its unique hybrid variant and brave aesthetics. From marketing to product, Hyundai has rather quietly built a solid case for itself as an innovator.
And yet... even though we knew it was coming, we still weren't prepared for the Veloster. Aggressive family sedan styling aside, we haven't seen Hyundai allow its design team to so comprehensively stretch its creative legs as we have in this little four-door coupe. Did we say four-door? Indeed we did. Following hatchback naming conventions of three- and five-door bodystyles, this tangerine bolide is actually a four-door. It's got a conventional, longish driver's side door and a traditional lift-up hatchback. But stroll over to the passenger's side, and things get deeply funky – there's a second aperture behind a subtly shorter front door. We've seen similar setups like this in the past, a rear-hinged demi-door to ease access to a tight back seat, but this isn't a suicide solution. The Veloster employs a normal front-hinged rear door, albeit one with the handle hiding in the gloss black C-pillar.
The Veloster's styling is as idiosyncratic as its door configuration – there's just a lot going on. That's thanks to front lights shaped like Parasaurolophus heads and a gaping lower air intake and fascia whose gloss black elements look like they're trying to push their way out from inside the engine compartment. We could do without the faux hood vents, but presumably these are placeholders for the still-unconfirmed turbo model.
Prominent fender blisters shroud standard 17-inch wheels (18s are optional, including one design with unique body-color spoke inserts), and gloss black A-pillars combined with a tapering fixed quarterlight give the greenhouse a racy 'helmet visor' look. The beltline is high, with visual bulk curbed somewhat by a lilting cutline down by the rocker panel.
The rear end is... stubby. It has the same split-plane glass solution we've seen in other hatchbacks from the Lamborghini Espada to the Toyota Prius. But unlike those cars, the Veloster's vertical pane is larger than normal, and it's arched at the top to improve visibility. There's also a pair of unusual sheetmetal scallops that emanate from the rather globby taillamps and a strangely prominent rounded hatch-pull-cum-logo. Like the nose, there's also a gloss-black lower fascia that terminates neatly in a pair of handsome rounded rectangular exhaust finishers.
Simply put, nothing else on the road looks like the Veloster, and until they start popping up everywhere, you'll collect stares and finger points no matter where you go – even if you don't order yours in one of the Skittles-refugee paint selections. Is it pretty? Absolutely not. Unique? Uh-huh. Avant-garde? Unrelentingly. Its looks won't be for everyone, but we dig it.
Let's be clear – the Veloster is a little slip of a vehicle. At just 166.1 inches long, it's nearly eight inches shorter than a Scion tC, or about 5.5 inches longer than Honda's Lilliputian CR-Z, which doesn't have a back seat. It's also a comparative bantamweight, tipping the scales at as little as 2,584 pounds. That's not only lighter than its Japanese rivals, it's less than a Mini Cooper S (2,668 lbs) – a car that's nearly 20 inches shorter.
Given its light weight, you could be forgiven for expecting a cheap and bare-bones interior, but the Veloster's cabin is anything but. In fact, the level of standard equipment is nothing short of flabbergasting – especially for a car that starts at $18,060 (including $760 delivery).
The heart of the interior is the seven-inch LG touchscreen, which comes standard whether you pony up for navigation or not. The display governs everything from the base six-speaker audio system (which itself includes standard satellite radio, iPod input and Gracenote music identification) to vehicle settings and Bluetooth telephony. What's more, Hyundai has included an RCA cable so you can play videos from your smartphone or hook up a video game console when parked (a 115-volt outlet is optional). You can diddle with personalization settings like wallpaper, color schemes and varying welcome chimes, or opt-in to play fuel economy games that let you see how your performance stacks up against other Veloster drivers. No, we're not kidding.
That last bit is made possible by Blue Link, Hyundai's new embedded telematics system that doesn't require a tethered mobile phone. Like General Motors' OnStar, it's a subscription-based setup with tiered services. The most basic level, Blue Link Assurance ($79/year), bundles features like monthly vehicle reports with an SOS assistance button and automatic crash notification. The next Blue Link package up, Essentials ($179/year), keeps the aforementioned functions but adds services like remote door unlocking, advanced vehicle diagnostics, voice text messaging and location sharing through Facebook(!), along with a brace of safeguards like stolen vehicle slowdown, location and immobilization. There are even parental-minded items like speed alert, curfew alert and "geo-fencing," which will automatically text, email, or call when your little snowflake takes the car to a friend's house that they're not allowed to visit. If you pony up for the full-house Blue Link Guidance package ($279/year), it adds on services like traffic and weather, voice activated point-of-interest searches, restaurant ratings, and so on.
We simply didn't have time on our first drive to test – let alone master – all of Blue Link's capabilities, but what we did use was both self-explanatory and effective. We even called and used the turn-by-turn directions feature with on-screen instruction, and it almost makes the optional navigation system seem superfluous. Blue Link comes standard on all Velosters, and there's a free trial period so you can tinker around and see if you want to become a subscriber.
All of Blue Link's whizbangery would be for naught if the rest of the Veloster's cabin was a hateful place in which to spend time, but it's anything but. Controls are easy-to-reach, the steering wheel tilts and telescopes, gauges are clear, and we like the big, Honda Ridgeline-like grab handles on the doors. Overall, materials and switchgear are class appropriate or better and fit-and-finish is excellent. Our test cars issued nary a squeak or rattle – even over suburban Portland's ubiquitous neighborhood speed bumps. An optional panoramic moonroof floods the interior with light, and the standard all-cloth seats are comfy. (Leatherette accents in the buyer's choice of three colors are bundled with available tech and style packages).
That bonus rear door opens up to an unexpectedly usable rear seat, with plenty of knee and legroom, and enough headroom for sub-six-foot passengers to avoid claustrophobia, though taller friends will likely balk. The split-fold seatback isn't even overly vertical, and the bottom squab doesn't leave you eating your knees. The rear door is admittedly a bit on the smallish side, but it's certainly preferable to an even smaller rear-hinged door, as on the Mazda RX-8 – and not just because you won't get trapped in a parking space between two open doors. Negotiate the trunk's high liftover height, and there's even a surprisingly generous 15.5 cubic-feet of cargo space. How the hell did they cram all that in such a tiny footprint?
If there's an Achilles' heel with the Veloster's cabin, it's over-the-shoulder visibility (when merging onto a one-way street, for example). That plunging roofline and rear door handle arrangement makes for a massive C-pillar, and while the arched vertical glass allows for better-than-expected visibility directly behind, it can't help left or right of center. We recommend the available backup camera, but even that will only help with tight maneuvers like parking.
Omissions? You can't order heated seats, an oversight that Krafcik pledged to us he would fix by the end of the model year, and leather and high-intensity discharge headlamps, once-costly options that are now making their way to the shallow end of the market, aren't available either.
The Veloster's powertrain is no less unique than its exterior, with a 1.6-liter, direct-injected four-cylinder engine and the buyer's choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch transmission, Hyundai's first. We sampled both cogboxes at the Veloster's Portland, Oregon launch, and their gearing makes the most of the Gamma's meager 138 horsepower (at 6,300 rpm) and 123 pound-feet of torque (at 4,850 rpm). Acceleration is best described as adequately entertaining – we're ballparking 0-60 mph at about eight seconds. This is an 'eco-sport' proposition, not an all-out performance car – that's what the Genesis Coupe is for.
We sampled a variety of different Velosters, and the six-speed manual is an able (if undistinguished) partner. However, we noticed some car-to-car variation in terms of clutch operation, none of which were quite as linear in action as we'd like. The self-stirrer is still a fun-to-drive setup and it's a long way from a deal-breaker, but we do wish the left pedal offered a crisper engagement point.
We also tried out Hyundai's new six-speed EcoShift dual-clutch gearbox ($1,250), and found it to be an agreeable piece of kit. Responsive and at least as refined as other DCTs in this end of the market (we're looking at you, Ford), it's easy to keep the engine on boil thanks to wheel-mounted paddleshifters that work even if the gearshift is left in Drive. We wish the paddles were a bit more substantial in size and feel, and that the transmission held gears at redline, but overall, it's hard to complain about the way this gearbox conducts itself, especially considering the gas mileage it generates.
Oh, did we mention the fuel economy? A six-speed manual Veloster nets 28 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the freeway (the DCT rings up 29/38). A manual CR-Z, by comparison, ekes out a three mpg edge in urban driving, but gives it all back on the freeway (31/37). We'll take that tradeoff every day of the week, especially as the Honda is smaller, heavier, adds hybrid complexity and costs thousands more.
If we had a single drivetrain nit to pick, it's with the sound – or rather a lack thereof. Hyundai is rightfully proud of the how quiet the Veloster is, claiming substantially lower wind and road noise levels than more expensive rivals; a particularly impressive feat of cabin isolation considering its extra door. But what sound that does come through from the engine and exhaust is uninspiring. While the Gamma isn't particularly raucous or coarse, it also isn't sporty. Hopefully Hyundai is leaving a more assertive soundtrack on the table for future variants, namely the aforementioned turbo.
The Veloster may ride atop a chassis derived from parts of the larger Elantra, but it's got its own tidier footprint. Despite being smaller, its wheels-at-the-corner stance not only helps maximize interior space, it lends the Veloster uncommonly neutral handling and commendable ride composure for such a small car. The chassis is rock-solid, thanks in part to lots of high strength steel (65 percent), a stiff rear substructure and dual center roof rails.
Suspension is basic but well tuned, with front MacPherson struts and a rear torsion beam with welded-in 23mm stabilizer bar (read: there will be no swapping in stiffer bars without considerable effort). Portland's roads are in pretty good nick (particularly the twisty bits that roll alongside the Columbia River), so we'll need to wait to get the Veloster back on the lunar surfaces of the Midwest to see how it handles rougher roads.
Despite its quick 14.2:1 steering ratio, with 2.88 turns lock-to-lock, the Veloster's electric power steering isn't quite as kart-like as the Mini Cooper, but it is smartly weighted and accurate, with no need for minor corrections on the freeway. In corners, our tester's optional 18-inch Kumho Solus KH25 all-seasons were quick to take a set and offered forgiving breakaway characteristics.
When it comes time to slow the front-drive fun, the Veloster has progressive-feeling four-wheel disc brakes (front: 11-inch vented / rear: 10.3-inch solid), along with a catalog of electronic bacon-savers (electronic brakeforce distribution, anti-lock, stability and traction control, etc.). And if it all goes pear-shaped, you've got six airbags and the aforementioned Blue Link safety net – provided you don't cheapskate-out after the free trial ends.
From where we sit, the 2012 Veloster stands as proof that, every once in a while, it's just good company policy to let your designers and engineers off the leash to indulge in a niche-model tangent. While the high-volume Sonata may stand as the car that put the world's automakers on notice, it's the Veloster's unbridled creativity – from its iconoclastic design to its in-car tech and gobsmacking value – that should really throw a scare into the competition's boardrooms.
If this is Krafcik's idea of "predictable," well, we can't wait to see what happens when Hyundai finally decides to shake things up.