Allow us to stop you before you even begin. We're well aware there are many other turbocharged compact cars on the market that can out-gun the 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo, the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo, and the 2012 Nissan Juke SL and cost about the same amount of money. We've praised the now-arriving Ford Focus ST, tussled with the hairy Mazdaspeed 3, and named the Volkswagen GTI our Automobile of the Year twice in the past five years. Why look elsewhere for forced-induction fun?
With apologies to Lloyd Price, the answer lies with personality. This trio offers it in spades, thanks to oddball styling and quirky features both inside and out. Regardless of the tack, each car packs about 200 horsepower, offers a six-speed manual for row-it-yourself entertainment, and is priced between $23,000 and $25,000, making any one a surprisingly affordable proposition.
Which one best suits our personalities? We criss-crossed southeastern Michigan in all three to find out for ourselves.
2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo
If the first cut is the deepest, the second might just be the most entertaining - or so the Veloster Turbo would have you believe. Our first experience with the basic Veloster had us flummoxed: we enjoyed its boy-racer looks and dash of practicality, but its meager output - only 138 hp - along with relaxed handling had us wishing its attitude matched its cosmetic pretenses.
Thankfully, the Veloster Turbo feels as if it's finally trying to live up to its looks. A revised steering rack feels heavier, as does the clutch, which grabs surprisingly early. Brakes offer quick bite, and there's little travel or sponginess to the pedal itself. Acceleration is certainly spritely compared to the base Veloster, thanks to a dual-scroll turbocharger bolted onto the direct-injection 1.6-liter I-4. From a horsepower perspective, its 201 ponies edges out both the Beetle Turbo and the Juke, though its 195 lb-ft places it mid-pack in terms of torque. Power junkies may not care, but there's another number that's important: 38. As in 38 mpg, which is what the EPA rates the Veloster Turbo at on the highway test cycle. It's far better than either the Beetle or Juke, which return 30 and 31 mpg, respectively.
The Veloster Turbo's true secret weapon isn't underhood. Spend an extra $1200 - roughly the same you'd pay for this matte grey paint - and Hyundai slaps super-sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber on all four rims. The change in tire compound completely alters the character of the car, and for the better. As we noted during our very first drive of the Turbo, the steering still feels somewhat dead on center, but on our PSS-equipped car, it somehow grows more responsive the more you dial in steering. You'll be able to dive quite deep, as Hyundai says these tires alone increase lateral grip from .82 to .94 g.
Ride quality, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. Although it's more compliant than previous Hyundai sports cars - notably the Genesis Coupe - the Veloster Turbo grows perturbed over rough road surfaces, especially when encountered in the middle of a bend. "All that grip doesn't inspire much confidence if there happens to be a bump mid-corner," noted senior web editor Phil Floraday. "Hyundai really needs to figure out how to make a sporty suspension that can soak up the bumps as well as class-leaders, but not allow excess body roll."
The Veloster's scalloped door pulls, polka-dot headliner, V-shaped instrument panel, and center-mounted start/stop button may not be for everyone, but they do go a long way towards livening up a somewhat dark interior. We're more impressed with just how much room there is inside, considering the Veloster boasts a roofline that could double as a ski slope. Front headroom is only four-tenths of an inch away from the group-leading Beetle, but front leg and shoulder room - 43.9 and 55.6 inches, respectively - trounce the other two cars. Rear seat headroom suffers slightly, but passengers squeezed through the third door are treated to 54 inches of shoulder room, along with 31.7 inches of legroom - the latter only a half-inch shy of the best-in-group Juke.
But wait, there's more. In typical Hyundai fashion, the Veloster Turbo comes pretty well equipped right out of the gate. A 450-watt, 8-speaker sound system? Standard. An infotainment system, complete with a 7-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, and USB inputs? Standard. Leather seating with heated front seats? It's also standard, as are push-button door locks and ignition. There's little else to possibly throw at the car, apart from the aforementioned paint, tires, and a $2500 premium package that adds navigation and a panoramic sunroof.
2012 Nissan Juke SL FWD
Yes, we're pitting the Juke against two small hatchbacks, and we're doing so with a straight face. Nissan's ad copywriters may consider the Juke a crossover (or a "sport cross," as they phrase it), but its physical dimensions suggest it's really a small hatchback, albeit one with substantial ground clearance. Not only is the Juke built atop the same B-car platform as Nissan's Cube, but also its wheelbase, overall length, width, and track all trail both the Beetle and Veloster.
Based in part off the 2009 Qazana concept, the Juke's exterior design is an unusual recipe, concocted of one part Baja buggy, one part hatchback, and a dozen parts peyote. The wedge-shaped turn signals are certainly odd, but they grow even more unusual at night: from behind the wheel, they appear as two tangerine orbs floating in a sea of darkness.
Though different, the Juke's contorted styling - along with its slender footprint - does crimp interior space. Front passengers will likely feel a little pinched: there's only 53.6 inches of shoulder room, and thanks to the scalloped shape of the front door panels, it's nearly impossible to slide a hand or arm between the door and the seat rail to adjust the seat. The Veloster not only trumps the Juke in terms of passenger volume, but also boasts five additional cubic feet of cargo space (15.5 cubic feet vs. 10.5) with the rear seats up. Rear-seat passengers will ultimately be rewarded with a little more head and legroom than in either the Beetle or Veloster, but will be forced to contort through tight, oddly-shaped door openings.
At $24,335, this Juke SL is the least expensive model in our trio, but you can hardly tell by looking at it. Nissan's cabin is full of smooth plastic surfaces, and accented by a contrasting center console inspired by a motorcycle's fuel tank. Top-tier SL models gain a Rockford Fosgate audio system, navigation, leather seating with heated front cushions, and a rear-view camera. The LCD-based HVAC controls, which allow the driver to alter both climate and car settings, isn't a must-have feature, but it does come off as surprisingly high tech - especially for a car in this price range.
It's worth playing with those very controls to try the "sport" powertrain settings. Nissan's turbocharged, direct-injection 1.6-liter I-4 delivers 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, but the sport function alters how it's sent to the front wheels. The throttle pedal becomes a hair trigger, and after suffering what feels like endless turbo lag, the Juke suddenly jolts forward once boost builds. Power comes quickly, and snaps the little Nissan forward in a startling manner. Of the three cars, it's arguably the most visceral when rocketing in a straight-line, despite having less power on tap than either the Volkswagen or the Hyundai.
We enjoyed pitching the Juke into corners and threading it through congested city streets, but ultimately found it a bit dynamically lacking. The Dakar-inspired stance also induces more body roll than the Beetle and Veloster, and the steering - though quick - feels numb and a bit too boosted, even in its heaviest (Sport) setting. "The Juke would likely be a better driver if the center of gravity were lowered," noted Floraday. "I have fun tossing the Juke around, but it's not quite the same amount of fun you have while driving either the Veloster or Beetle."
Opinions in our group were split: some suggested Nissan's suspension tuning is "just right," while associate editor David Zenlea insists it errs on the side of choppy. Ride quality is generally pleasant, though the rear end grows skittish over broken surfaces. Nissan does have a more refined multi-link suspension arrangement than the simplistic torsion beam rear axle found in our tester, but offers it only on all-wheel-drive Jukes.
2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo
Does a Volkswagen GTI presented in a different wrapper still taste as sweet? After spending some time with the Beetle Turbo, we're inclined to answer that with a resounding "almost."
The Beetle Turbo is perhaps the ultimate expression of Volkswagen's attempt to lend the new New Beetle an air of masculinity it lacked from square one. Inspired in part by the 2005 Ragster concept, the Beetle's new roofline looks lower and less rounded than before, as if it were chopped by hot rodders. Squint, and you just might see some hints of the original Porsche 930 Turbo, including the black rocker molding and two-tone whale tail rear spoiler.
Inside, the Beetle is all - well, Beetle. The bud vase is no more, but retro cues are still abundant. The rectangular dash accent, trimmed in faux carbon fiber on Turbo models, recalls early air-cooled Bug dashboards, down to the secondary glove box. Body colored accents on the door panels amplify the flashback, as do the dangling grab handles mounted on the B-pillars. The squashed windshield and side window openings lend the car a chopped-top feel, but there's still ample head, leg, and shoulder room for front passengers. With a steering column and seats that are nearly infinitely adjustable, it's easy for drivers of all shapes and sizes to find a comfortable driving position.
At 200 hp and 206 lb-ft, the Beetle Turbo's direct injection, 2.0-liter I-4 is about as virile as it is when bolted into a GTI. The strong, linear torque delivery - something we love about the GTI, or virtually any Volkswagen fitted with the 2.0T - remains unchanged. In corners, however, it's obvious the Beetle isn't quite a GTI. Toss the Turbobug into a corner, and its body rolls far more than we'd like. We're also a bit flummoxed by the lack of a traction control switch - this is an enthusiast-oriented model, right? Why must the traction nannies cut throttle during hard acceleration out of lumpy apexes?
On the plus side, the Beetle Turbo does manage to offer the most compliant suspension arrangements in our group. Potholes, frost heaves, expansion joints, and other gaps in tarmac are largely swallowed whole and smoothed with ease. Then again, we said the exact same thing about the GTI. Add in the fact the GTI is less expensive and roomier than the Beetle Turbo, and the Bug's business case starts to vaporize.
"I hate that Volkswagen is trying to slip us a cheapened GTI for essentially the same price as a GTI," says Zenlea, "even though a cheapened GTI is still really darn good."
"The real issue is the amount of equipment you get for the price," writes Floraday. "If we were choosing a winner based on powertrain and ride alone, the Beetle would win by a mile."
Cult of Personality Mixed With Bang for the Buck?
Alas, we're not judging these cars in a vacuum. All three strive to deliver style and performance at an affordable price. All three succeed, but in slightly different ways. Those who grew up with vintage Type 1s and Super Beetles will likely have a soft spot for the Beetle Turbo. Those who prefer the heightened stature and seating position of an SUV will likely prefer the Juke.
Ultimately, we prefer the Hyundai Veloster Turbo. It hails from Korea, but it's something of a Swiss army knife: it's a sports coupe, a practical runabout, and an econobox all in one. It's engaging, entertaining, well equipped, versatile, affordable, and efficient -- and so much so, we kept coming back for more. "The Veloster is a good compromise between design, usability, and quirkiness, " opines Floraday. "In addition to looking good, it offers huge value, and feels almost fully loaded. The only downside is ride quality, but the car drives well enough to satisfy most consumers."
Its funky three-door configuration may not be all that sensible in a two- or four-door world, but as a whole, the Veloster Turbo certainly is.