Every fourteen seconds, someone in America drives off a dealership lot in a new small car. Maybe it's a Cruze or a Caliber or a Corolla -- it doesn't really matter. They're almost all the same, designed with the same 40-mpg fuel economy number and the same $17,000 starting price and the same fictional six-foot guy sitting in the back seat as immutable parameters. Even the best of the segment -- the Ford Focus, the Mazda 3, and the Volkswagen Golf -- are so similar to the rest of the pack that they earn their accolades on nuance.
Small doesn't have to be predictable. The Mini Cooper and the Fiat 500 make up a small sect of subcompacts that boast presence, personality, and the possibility that they drive better than a sedate sedan. That subset has three new alternatives: the Hyundai Veloster, the Mini Cooper Coupe, and the Volkswagen Beetle. These three cars don't compare like Civic versus Corolla, but that's the point. They're cars for people who value individuality, for people who buy on driving character and design even though they also care about price and fuel economy. They're the cure for the common car.
SHEETMETAL THAT SAYS SOMETHING
All three of these cars are visually loud in an attempt to rise above the din of automotive homogeneity. Although they look very different from each other, they all aim to communicate that they're sportier than the mainstream. Volkswagen's Beetle has always drawn attention, but the new car is no longer the bubbly blonde that the New Beetle was. Instead, the 2012 Beetle adopts the stance and shape of Erwin Komenda's 1938 original while being longer, wider, and lower than the 1998 revival. The flatter roofline, larger wheel arches, and a windshield that sits closer to the driver conspire to create a more athletic, more masculine Beetle. Inside, the bud vase is gone and the cabin is defined by a thin-rimmed, flat-bottomed steering wheel; Germanic simplicity; and body-color accents on the dash and the door panels. This rekindled Beetle has the substance to remain relevant after the early buyers have made their purchases. More important, it is clean, simple, and timeless. Like a Beetle should be.
All-new above the beltline and oh-so-familiar below, the Mini Coupe rides on the same wheelbase as the hatchback and measures just 1.1 inches lower and 0.2 inch longer. To achieve the rakish profile, the windshield is swept back another thirteen degrees to flow into the curved roof, which reconnects to the rear deck lid via two blacked-out pillars made to look like one with a small wedge of tinted glass between them. It's an even sportier take on a car that already looks lithe and nimble, although from the rear, the roof is chunky and the tublike haunches appear out of place.
If you love the modern Cooper hardtop, chances are you'll love the Coupe. If you merely like the hatch, you might feel cheated by the two-seater. The three-box Mini is unquestionably cool, but to simply squish, stretch, and reposition the same signature Mini elements is as unoriginal as it sounds. It's the same story inside, where the Coupe has all the same form-over-function calling cards as the hatchback and the four-door Countryman.
Unlike the Beetle and the Mini, which are fresh renditions of familiar designs, the Veloster is truly novel. The reverse-wedge roofline, the squat rear end, and the wide stance create an aggressiveness never before seen in Hyundai styling. That dynamic promise is carried through in details like the tall rear apron, the cantilevered roof, and the center-exit exhaust. The polarizing face -- quite possibly derived from an employee pumpkin-carving contest -- makes the profile and rear-quarter views the Veloster's most flattering. Those angles also reveal the Veloster's charming mutation: three doors. On the passenger's side, there are two conventional, front-hinged doors, while the driver's side has a single, longer door.
DELIVERING THE PROMISED PERFORMANCE
No one would argue that these are performance vehicles, but they do promise something better than the typical small car. The smaller Mini Coupe is actually twenty-two pounds heavier than the Mini hatchback due to additional structural bracing, yet it drives just like the four-seat model, which is a good thing. We wanted a base Cooper Coupe and its 121-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine for this test, but Mini could produce only a Cooper S, which adds a turbocharger and a hefty price premium to raise the output to 181 hp. The spirited, punchy engine was paired with a six-speed automatic that is simply brilliant. Downshifts are always quick, well-timed, and direct without being abrupt. It gets even better when you click the shifter into the intelligent sport mode that holds higher revs and downshifts earlier. Our tester's optional sport suspension and Mini's stubborn reliance on run-flat tires conspired to create the harshest ride of the group, and the Cooper S is plagued by torque steer, bump steer, and excessive road noise. Those are the trade-offs for buying the best driver's car of this group. The Coupe boasts incredibly sharp turn-in, wonderfully weighted steering, and imperceptible body roll. Pitched into a tight turn, the Coupe is eager to swing its rear end around even more than the hatchback. This is the singular nuance that sets the Coupe apart from the hardtop hatch, and it makes the two-seat Mini the most tail-happy front-wheel-drive car on the market.
It's not as energetic as the Mini, but the Veloster exhibits chassis competence and steering subtlety that seem remarkable for a Hyundai. Of the three cars here, the Veloster offers the best balance of body control and ride quality, although its torsion-beam rear suspension can be ruffled by rough roads. The steering, while not nearly as quick as the Coupe's, is responsive on-center and decently weighted, and if you close your eyes really tight and focus all your energy on your hands, you might feel what the front wheels are doing as you careen off the road. As good as the chassis is, the powertrain is completely underwhelming. The 138-hp 1.6-liter borrowed from the Accent is discordant when pushed and slow to rev. Similarly frustrating is Hyundai's first attempt at a dual-clutch transmission, which doesn't yield the crisp, quick shifts of Volkswagen's DSG. Although the Veloster creeps naturally and steps off the line smooth-ly, it changes gears more slowly than most modern torque-converter automatics.
The Beetle's six-speed is far quicker, even though the base car is paired with a conventional automatic rather than the dual-clutch gearbox. The transmission plays nicely with the torquey five-cylinder to provide quick kickdowns and ample thrust for snaking through traffic. Under full-throttle acceleration, the 170-hp engine is a bit coarse, but its energy is much appreciated compared with the sluggish Veloster. Since it borrows liberally from the VW Golf parts bin, it's no surprise that the Beetle feels so familiar, particularly in the suspension's suppleness. However, the Beetle has been processed through the modern Volkswagen penny-pincher. The Golf's well-tuned electric power steering has been replaced by a lighter-feeling hydraulic setup, and the independent rear suspension has been traded for a torsion-beam rear axle. The Beetle is certainly sportier than the last car, but it isn't as agile as either the Mini or the Veloster. The Beetle displays the most body roll and has the least natural steering. In contrast to the outgoing car, though, this Beetle is far better to drive. You can now safely consider a Beetle for reasons other than styling.