First drive: 2019 Hyundai Veloster Turboby Byron Hurd
Hyundai's quirky hatch returns for a second act.
The Hyundai Veloster is a bit of a love-it-or-hate it proposition, and has been since its introduction seven years ago. Being a compact hatch limits its audience to a rather niche group of buyers straight out of the gate. Factor in the unconventional looks (and even more unconventional 1+2+1 door layout) and its okay-for-a-first-try chassis and powertrain setup, and the subset of consumers who would even consider it shrinks even further.
We drove the first-generation Veloster several times, with the Turbo model appropriately getting the the lion's share of positive attention directed at Hyundai's little hatchback. We weren't alone in being encouraged by Hyundai's first effort, but it had more than its fair share of flaws. Subsequent updates made it better, but it was still far from perfect. To make matters worse, every fix seemed to allow a different shortcoming to surface.
Still, we wouldn't help but think that, despite those flaws, a decent car was hiding under there somewhere. With the introduction of the second-generation Veloster, Hyundai set out to prove it.
We'll get this out of the way up front: If you weren't a fan of the previous-generation Veloster's looks, its mismatched doors or its general price/segment/performance, the new one is probably going to be a non-starter. On paper, almost nothing about it has changed significantly.
It's almost the exact same size (wider and longer only by fractions of an inch) and only has a tiny bit more space inside. The roofline was actually raked more aggressively than the previous car's, reducing the rear headroom just a tad. Hyundai figures that with Kona in the lineup, those who prioritize practicality have an alternative that didn't exist before.
Under the metal, however, it's a different story. The second-gen Veloster rides on a brand-new platform and boasts a critical chassis upgrade: an independent rear suspension. The base Veloster also gets a new engine. Before, it was stuck with a naturally aspirated 1.6L four. That has been replaced by a 2.0 making 147 horsepower and 132lb-ft of torque. The six-speed manual and six-speed auto both carry over.
But we didn't drive that. Nor did we get our hands on the hopped-up Veloster N--our transplant of the i30 N powertrain from Europe; we'll see that this fall.
Here, Hyundai is launching the new Veloster with the Turbo model, which is offered in three guises: R-Spec, Turbo (yes, the namesake spec is the mid-trim) and Turbo Ultimate. They're powered by a 1.6L turbo-four (which is essentially a carry-over) making 201 horsepower and 195lb-feet of torque. All three are also offered with a six-speed manual; if you opt for the Turbo or Turbo Ultimate, you also get the option of a seven-speed dual-clutch.
Your trim choice will depend on your intentions. If you want the value option, you pick the Turbo, which gives you a good whack of standard equipment. If you want loaded, Ultimate is the obvious answer. However, both lock you out of a few key features.
That brings us to R-Spec. R-Spec is as Internet-enthusiast-spec as a car can be. No frills, just thrills. It's offered only with a manual transmission (with a factory short-shifter not offered on other manual Velosters) and it comes with standard summer rubber; it's good rubber, too--Michelin Pilot Sport 4s. Outside of a dealer swap or the aftermarket, you can't get those on any other Veloster.
It also gets unique, sportier suspension tuning and a two-mode version of the Veloster Turbo's drive mode select toggle. The " smart" mode is exclusive to DCT models. It does, however, get the same active noise "enhancement" found on other Turbo variants. We'll touch on these more later.
Ultimate, or ultimate value?
Price-wise, the Veloster Turbo lines up pretty close to the Hyundai Elantra Sport and front-wheel-drive Hyundai Kona with the 1.6T. Appropriately, its equipment and material use scales about the same as well.
Inside, it has the same sort of high-sided, plasticky feel that we associate with cars like the old Scion/ Toyota Corolla iM. This is accentuated by an absence of any real premium materials, even in places such as the interior door toppers. We're being a tad picky, as premium materials aren't really the norm for the compact segment, but then again, neither is the Veloster.
So it's an economical car, in other words, but that should come as no surprise. It's not meant to be a direct competitor to the likes of the GTI. In fact, Hyundai slots it more closely to the Beetle, mostly owing to the fact that the latter is only available with two doors.
On the plus side, you do get things like standard seven-inch display audio with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, "Qi" wireless charging (available on the high end) and some fancy driving aids, including forward collision avoidance assist and lane keep assist (segment exclusives, Hyundai says). A HUD is also available, if you're into that sort of thing; the digital cluster on the Ultimate suited us just fine.
That pun ain't going anywhere.
Hyundai brought two variants of the Veloster Turbo for us to sample, R-Spec and Ultimate, and all of the latter were equipped with the seven-speed DCT, meaning we got equal time with each transmission. We chose to spend the morning rowing our own gears and the afternoon letting the DCT do the work.
Hyundai hosted us in Austin, Texas, and we spent the day skirting the edges of the state capital's suburbs on country roads, highways and surface streets. As we set off in the morning, we made our way from our hotel in the Rainey Street district to Lake Travis. Before and after a brief stop at the lake, we got the chance to really throw the R-Spec through some curves.
The R-Spec is essentially a wheel, tire and suspension package on an otherwise base-model car. That aspect of its formula hasn't changed; the same was true of the 2016 R-Spec we tossed around the rural roads outside of Annapolis, Maryland.
But saying it like that minimizes the transformation the Veloster has undergone. The steering isn't perfect, but it's a damn sight better than the old Veloster's. The feedback isn't earth-shattering, but it feels much more direct. It's hard to communicate just how vaguely the first-generation Veloster communicated with the driver; that's made more difficult by having driven this one.
We're also impressed by Hyundai's refinements to the 1.6L's power delivery. On paper, nothing has changed here, but the engine feels more responsive and flexible. We tried some second-gear corners in third just to see how it would respond and came away impressed. The half-second of turbo lag was made more obvious by the fact that we were deliberately provoking it. In other circumstances, it would be so trivial as to be easily overlooked.
The Michelins also delivered as promised, shrugging off the heat and offering up plenty of grip no matter what we were asking of them. This is one case where the OEM offering is more than enough tire for the car. In this segment, that doesn't happen often. And unlike the Pilot Super Sports offered on the previous car, they're not just a band-aid intended to mask the dynamic shortcomings of the chassis.
We think Hyundai could have gotten away without including drive modes for the R-Spec model. There's really no point in using Normal (vs. "Sport"). The latter's steering isn't so heavy as to be problematic on a highway cruise, and the throttle response is not so aggressive that you're chirping tires just pulling out of a driveway. The Michelins keep it in check just fine.
The drive modes also tie in with Hyundai's new audio enhancement technology. Dubbed "Active Engine Sound," it's a good implementation of a feature we still consider superfluous--a system which uses the Veloster's speakers to modify the engine note. Dive into the Vehicle options menu of the touchscreen and you'll be able to call up a menu offering four different sound modes--Off, Minimized, Normal and Enhanced.
The last is a misnomer, really, as all but "Off" is a form of enhancement, but perhaps we're splitting hairs here. Even on "Enhanced," it's really not all that boisterous, though "Off" mode borders on silence. We were surprised that the cabin of a car this inexpensive could be so sound-isolated. Sign of the times, we suppose.
All in all, we liked the R-Spec, but it didn't grab us the way we'd hoped. It's good, but we can't help but think maybe it suffers a bit from the fact that it has to play second fiddle to the upcoming Veloster N. The Veloster Turbo is the sportier version of a cute hatchback, not the all-out enthusiast model--even the R-Spec doesn't fit that bill.
In the clutch
Our afternoon in the Turbo Ultimate was even more enlightening. To this point, Hyundai's seven-speed DCT hasn't really stirred us. Most of its earliest applications were intended to be fuel-saving (It was a fixture of the company's short-lived "Eco" models throughout the lineup.). This, though. Well...
It's good. It's not quite on the level of Volkswagen's DSG, but it's light-years better than Ford's dual-clutch gearbox (and we suspect it's light-years more reliable; what isn't?). And in this application, we actually like it better than the manual.
That's not a knock against the stick. It's a good box in its own right. But the dual-clutch is programmed perfectly to match the 1.6L when left alone and snappy and responsive when manipulated either by the wheel-mounted paddles or the gear selector's manual mode.
It simply suits the car, making the most of the Turbo's 'tweener role in the lineup, offering sit-back-and-relax practicality for the everyday drive and quick shifts and manual selection when you want to hustle a bit. For anybody but the purist, it's the gearbox to get.
The Nexen all-seasons on the Ultimate were adequate. We made the most of them by exploring the Veloster's willingness to rotate on throttle-lift. Even with all of the nannies in place, it would willingly swing the tail around when called upon. Not too far, mind you, but considering how many safety features this car has, we were honestly surprised that we weren't scolded just for thinking about it.
Leftlane's bottom line
We said before that we suspected Hyundai was hiding a good car somewhere in the Veloster formula, and we're pleased to say they've finally revealed it. If you can get past the quirks (and you're not holding out for the N model), a charismatic and competent sport compact awaits you. We're curious to see if the 2.0L is similarly improved over the old 1.6.
2019 Hyundai Veloster Turbo R-Spec base price, $22,900; as-tested, $23,785
2019 Hyundai Veloster Turbo Ultimate DCT base price, $28,150; as-tested, $29,035
Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Hyundai.