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Every once in a while, a new car comes out that startles the often boring sameness that muddies the product pool. If it succeeds, praise will follow, even if reluctant. And if it endures, it might attain that ultimate compliment and be labeled “quirky.”
In recent years, two of the crown-princes of quirk have been the Hyundai Veloster and the Nissan Juke. I used to kid designers and engineers of both Hyundai and Nissan for exchanging secrets, because while the Juke and Veloster shared a resemblance, with bulging headlights, odd silhouettes, and bulging bulges and contours.
Alas, Nissan, which also had a quirky square car called the Cube, is just introducing a new and quirky crossover SUV called Kicks, and in an apparent tradeout, has banished the Juke to the realm of former cars.
That consession leaves the Veloster alone in the ever-decreasing quirky world. So alone that Motor Trend announced there would be no change to the 2018 Veloster. Ah, but Hyundai fooled ‘em. Behind the curtain, Hyundai had prepared an all-new Veloster to come out this month and replace the original after seven years, but it will be listed as a 2019 model. It is somewhat more mainstream, if that’s the South Korean manufacturer’s intention, with some of the odd bulges have been rounded off.
But the Veloster’s other trademark touch remains. If you approach it from the driver’s side, it is a compact little 2-door coupe; approach it from the passenger side, and it appears to be a compact 4-door sedan. In reality, it is both. The Veloster has a large door on the driver’s side, although you could still squeeze behind the driver’s bucket into the rear. But no need. On the passenger side, there are two doors, big enough in front, and conveniently sized for easy entrance to the rear.
Mike O’Brien, the affable vice president for product planning for Hyundai America, calls it a “compact sporty car,” and that covers it well. It will continue the unique 2-plus-1 door design, and its center dual exhausts. It also adds all the latest safety and security items, such as blind spot alert, rear cross traffic warning, and adds the ability to execute voice commands. Wireless charging gives it a progressive feature, and it also provides attention alert, to startle you back to full focus if it senses that your senses are fading.
Hyundai acknowledges that Veloster is something of a niche car, but it fits the company’s plan to offer performance and quality at an affordable price, with surprisingly upscale features. O’Brien points out that the median age of Hyundai buyers is 55, and for Veloster it is 49, helping lead into that lucrative younger-buyer element. Also, 45 percent of Veloster buyers traded their cars in for another Hyundai product.
The new Veloster, however, might prove to be a destination more than a stepping stone, because along with all its features and quirkiness, it also is adding a strong dose of performance.
It used to be underpowered for what its image was perceived as, with a normally aspirated 1.6-liter engine. For 2019, there is a strong 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder, as seen in the Elantra and new Kona SUV. It delivers 147 horsepower at 6,200 RPMs and 132 foot-pounds of torque at 6,000.
Those numbers are significant, because the optional engine is the 1.6-liter turbocharged 4, producing 201 horsepower at 6,000 revs, and an impressive 195 foot-pounds of torque that maintains that peak from 1,500 to 4,500 RPMs — or, from idle speed to don’t attract the cops.
Hyundai had a regional introduction for the Veloster and the Kona, and held it in Detroit. Part of the reason, officials said, was to show the U.S. media that this time Detroit is serious about recreating itself and eliminating its blight and boarded up locations. So part of the programmed drive route took us through some of the near suburbs so we could see for ourselves. In that regard, I was lucky to have enlisted an old friend, Frank Washington, as codriver. Frank and I have often driven together, but this time it was special, because he’s a black man who has lived in the tough areas of Detroit, and as we drove, he was able to give me a graphic tour of all that is looking up in the city.
As it turned out, we drove only the turbo 1.6 version of the Veloster, mostly in the sportier “R Spec” version. With paddle shifters on the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, and firmer suspension, we were impressed with the car’s handling.
Suspension has been modified, revised in the front, with multilink replacing the beam unit at the rear. With a length of less than an inch longer, at 166.9 inches, and less than an inch wider, at 70.9 inches, the Veloster has the same height and wheelbase.
Mike Evanoff, manager of small car product planning, said that cargo space behind the second row seats is more than in the Volkswagen Beetle, Mini Cooper, Fiat 500, and Toyota C-HR — all of which might fit into the “quirky” corner of the showrooms, but none of which can match the Veloster’s performance.
On top of that, when you select the 1.6 turbo yu get a choice of 6-speed stick, automatic, or 7-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddles. You can set the car for normal, sport, or smart, and if you like the exhaust note, you can pipe in “active engine sound” and either increase the sound or eliminate it electronically through the audio system speakers.
The Turbo R-Spec also adds the performance wrinkle of offering the 6-speed stick only.
Perhaps the best news is the pricing of the new Veloster. The basic front-wheel-drive with the 2.0 stdarts at $18,500. Move up to the automatic and it’s $1,000 more. Moving all the way up, to the top of the line Turbo R version, and it’s a mere $22,900.
For all that performance, and 30-plus miles per gallon, starting under $23,000 is a bargain for shoppers looking to downsize, or for a second car as an urban runabout, or for sending a kid off to college with a safe, solid vehicle.
Among the features, Evanoff said the customers most-want the blind-spot detection/warning, but what might be most important is a sophisticated new advanced emergency braking feature, which not only warns you if you’re closing too fast on the car ahead, but will apply full braking to help you stop in time to avoid an impending accident.
Known for building durable and trouble-free cars with great mileage, at bargain prices, the value and safety built in to the Veloster will now be augmented by a new high-performance division, also, which will be called “N Brand.” Other models will follow, and there will be aftermarket availability in the near future. The “N” comes from Namyang, which is the core development site in South Korea for all of Hyundai’s somewhat subtle performance operations.
The punch in the Ns will come from ideas brough forth by Albert Biermann, hired away from BMW, where he had a hand in developing that company’s “M” models at all levels. Maybe it’s logical that he follows up the M with the N.
It has been most of a decade now that Hyundai has developed and built its own engines, strengthened its bodies and frames, built its own transmissions, added some considerable style, and all the while improved on its reputation for high quality and high efficiency cars that offer more than the modest prices might suggest.
With Veloster, you get to combine the cute and quirky with some real performance starch, and it’s about time Hyundai takes so much of what t’s learned in various types of racing and pours it into a high-performance specialty division.