2019 Hyundai Veloster First Drive: Grand Funk


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Full disclosure: I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the Hyundai Veloster. Back in my Chrysler days, I proposed the same kooky asymmetrical door layout for the original Neon. Seeing my rejected idea survive for a second generation as “normal” coupes and sedans are canceled is sweet validation. Discovering that the new car is as fun to drive as it still is funky to look at is even sweeter icing.

Hyundai has deftly matured the 2019 Veloster without altering its kid-at-heart essence. Dimensionally it’s 0.8 inch longer and 0.4 inch wider on the same wheelbase. By not changing the height, the roof slopes more steeply, but savvy packaging adds 0.6 inch of headroom, and seats-up cargo space balloons from 15.5 cubic feet to a CUV-ish 19.9 cubes. And although the stylists have resculpted the flanks, revised the nose, added LED jewelry, and applied the latest aerodynamic tricks like air curtains at the front and rear tires, nobody will mistake this rig for anything but a Veloster.

Under the redecorated skin are myriad improvements to better align the Veloster’s dynamics with its sporty looks. By exchanging some spot welds for 397 feet of adhesive tape, the body structure’s torsional rigidity improves by 27.8 percent. By increasing the high-strength steel content to 52 percent, enough weight is saved to mostly cover the added equipment.

To this stronger foundation are bolted lots of new Elantra and Kona bits, including a fully independent rear suspension to replace the humble twist-beam. In front, the steering rack moves closer to the axle centerline to improve steering precision and reduce toe-change during braking, aluminum knuckles save 5.3 pounds per corner, and the lower control arms are reconfigured to improve both lateral stiffness and ride isolation. Standard Michelin Pilot Sport 4 summer tires on R-Spec models promise to slash autocross lap times.

In the engine room, there’s a brand “Nu” 2.0-liter base engine that delivers 15 more horses and 12 more lb-ft than the 1.6-liter Gamma mill it replaces (for 147 and 132 total). Six-speed transmission choices include a manual and a torque-converter automatic replacing the old car’s dry-dual-clutch transmission. Torque multiplication from the converter allows 18 percent taller gearing in first with roughly equivalent launch feel, but it costs some fuel economy. Despite Atkinson-cycle engine efficiency, the EPA combined ratings drop by 1 mpg with the automatic, 2 mpg with the manual.

The top-spec turbo engine is unchanged, though its automatic option is now a seven-speed DCT (up from six). Interestingly, although the gears are all more closely spaced in the seven speed, the overall ratio spread is smaller than in the former six-speed. Happily, turbo fuel economy increases by 1 EPA combined mpg with either transmission.

I sampled every powertrain variant except the 2.0-liter manual, exploring traffic-free roller-coaster roads in the Texas hill country. The experience shaved 30 years off this grizzled veteran’s automotive mindset.

If you were a little kid longing to drive your cool neighbor’s Mitsubishi Eclipse turbo, Acura Integra GS-R, or Toyota Celica GT-S, the Veloster Turbo R-Spec is those cars for these times. It delivers every bit as much performance, personality, and swagger as those coupes did in their day, adding 21st century tech like Normal/Sport driving modes, engine sound enhancement (which can be turned off!), and a bright, reconfigurable head-up display for monitoring the tach. Worthy of special mention is the B&M Racing machined aluminum shifter and linkage, which feels great in the hand and operates with Honda/Mazda precision.

If the handling feels like the boss of BMW M’s dynamics team came to work for Hyundai/Kia, that’s because he did—developing this car as the basis for Hyundai North America’s first all-out performance model, the Veloster N, due this September. The R-Spec is a rung down from that one, but its body-motion control is exemplary, it steers with linear precision (and slightly artificial feel), and it hangs on in corners at least as well as any Civic Si or Focus ST, yet its ride is remarkably supple (like a BMW’s). Brake pedal modulation and heel-toe proximity to the throttle are both top-notch, as well. More linear, less turbo-lumpy power delivery is my only wish.

Step up to the Turbo Ultimate package with the 7DCT tranny, and the gear ratios allow high-rpm second-gear cornering in the tightest Texas hairpins with a paddle flick into the heart of the torque band in third. Sport mode orders multiple early automatic downshifts when slowing for a curve. This model’s Nexen N Priz AH8 tires lack the ultimate stick of the PS4s, but they scrub without squealing, and front-to-rear roll balance means adept drivers won’t be frustrated by understeer. Ultimate cars also get a handsome asymmetrical black and white interior.

After spending 150 miles in Turbos, the 2.0 feels noticeably slower, though in Sport mode it does its gol-dangedest to deliver at least 60 percent of the driving joy. The engine’s song at high revs is sweet. Wide-open throttle runs are smooth, but part-throttle hill climbs can result in upshifts that take the engine out of its powerband, resulting in busy gear changes. Compared to the twin-clutch unit, paddle shifts happen slower and 3–2 downshifts seemed to be rejected more frequently, but having the paddles is great. Hyundai expects half of buyers to take the 2.0-liter; those folks won’t be disappointed.

Saving the best news for last: pricing. The Veloster opens at $19,385 with standard 7.0-inch CarPlay/Android Auto display, automatic emergency braking, and lane keep assist. The Turbo R-Spec starts at $23,785, and a fully loaded Turbo with the Ultimate package and DCT costs $29,035. Fun fact: That’s at or below the inflation-adjusted prices of a late-’90s Eclipse GT, Integra GS-R, or Celica GT-S. And that third door to let your pals come and go from the back seat? Priceless.

2019 Hyundai Veloster
BASE PRICE $19,385-$26,285
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 4-pass, 3-door hatchback
ENGINES 2.0L/147-hp/132-lb-ft Atkinson cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4; 1.6L/201-hp/195-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSIONS 6-speed manual, 6-speed auto, 7-speed twin-clutch auto
CURB WEIGHT 2,700-3,000 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 104.3 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 166.9 x 70.9 x 55.1 in
0-60 MPH 6.8-8.7 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 25-28/33-34/28-30 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 120-135/99-102 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.64-0.69 lb/mile
ON SALE IN U.S. Currently