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First Drive: 2012 Hyundai Veloster

In case you've missed the reports from, well, everywhere, Hyundai has been quite successful of late. Since 2008 -- about the time industry-wide auto sales jumped off a cliff - the Korean automaker has more than doubled its market share in the United States. Sales continue to set company records every month, inventories are low, and resale values are climbing. All very nice, but why does any of it matter to enthusiasts? Here's why: rising automakers with cash to burn have historically produced some fun cars. The 1964 Pontiac GTO, the 1974 Volkswagen Scirocco, the 1989 Mazda Miata, the 1990 Acura NSX, and even the 1998 Toyota Prius (for those willing to broaden their interpretation of "enthusiast's car") emerged from companies with enough money and confidence to roll the dice on something that just seemed interesting. That's why our eyes widened when we spotted the Veloster at this year's Detroit auto show. Eclectic but attractive, weird but not off-putting, efficient yet sporty. And although it has a lock on the growing premium-compact segment, it's not like anything on the market -- a first for the conservative automaker. Could this three-door, 40-mpg runabout be Hyundai's breakthrough enthusiast's car? We traveled to Portland, Oregon, to find out.

Rise of Korean style
There's been some scuttlebutt that Hyundai is fishing around for a big-name design chief. The brand's "fluidic sculpture" aesthetic, which has evolved on the Sonata, the Elantra, and the Accent, hasn't received the adulation lavished on the distinctly European-looking cars coming from its corporate kin at Kia. The Veloster should provide the Hyundai team some job security. Although its basic profile may call to mind the Honda CR-Z, it makes its own statement thanks to more than a dozen well-executed details, from its asymmetrical doors and center-exit exhaust tips to its angry yet cheerful face. It certainly draws attention. Throughout our drive from Portland and along the Oregon/Washington border, we encountered constant and at times overwhelming curiosity. At one stop, we had a middle-aged woman trying out the back seats as a Chinese tourist inquired about the price through an interpreter. Admittedly, a string of brand-new cars in colors such as electrolyte green and "26.2" yellow are going to cause some commotion, especially when set against the gray backdrop of the Pacific Northwest. But it's clear that the Veloster won't disappear in a crowd, even, we suspect, if that crowd includes competitors like the MINI Cooper, the Volkswagen Beetle, and the Fiat 500. The cool thing is that the Veloster doesn't get attention because it looks old and warmly familiar, but rather because it's so new.

The Veloster also differs from many of its competitors in that the style coexists harmoniously with the sort of functionality we've come to expect from Hyundai. The rear door opens to spacious bench seats, and it's easy to slide across the flat floor to the driver's side. There's probably enough room back there to squeeze three people, but cupholders (and no seatbelt) occupy the center position. The secret to the Veloster's roominess is that it isn't all that small of a car. This diminutive-looking jellybean actually stretches four inches longer than the Accent and sits on a wheelbase only two inches shorter than that of the Elantra. The cabin itself borrows heavily from both those cars, with familiar, ergonomically friendly controls and a long list of standard features including Bluetooth and Blue Link, Hyundai's answer to GM's OnStar service (and like OnStar, there's a subscription fee after a complimentary introductory period). Like the just-released Kia Rio, the Veloster also includes a standard seven-inch touch screen. All this family blood waters down the Veloster's distinctiveness a bit, although designers tried to mix things up with angular air-conditioning vents and a crosshatch dash pattern.

So you think you can dance?
Hyundai's fresh small-car parts bin also provides a strong mechanical starting point for the Veloster. Both the floorpan and the basic suspension design borrow from the Elantra, with the Veloster benefiting from its own tuning and the addition of an antiroll bar within the rear torsion beam. Hyundai says high-strength steel makes up more than 65 percent of the unibody and claims better torsional rigidity than the Volkswagen Scirocco, which makes sense as a benchmark when you learn that the Veloster is already on sale in Europe.

As we'd expect of such a rigid and relatively light car (curb weight ranges from about 2600 to 2800 pounds), the Veloster responds crisply to our steering inputs. That steering, while satisfyingly heavy, is not as good at listening - little road information makes it back to the steering wheel. On certain surfaces, noise from the eighteen-inch Kumho tires (seventeens come standard) resonates through the otherwise coffin-quiet cabin. The biggest surprise dynamically was how resolutely the Veloster - some eighty pounds lighter than the svelte Elantra - sticks to the road. To be honest, we're not quite sure how we feel about this. We certainly appreciated the surefootedness as we sailed past windsurfers along the gusty Columbia River. And yet, the suspension's quiet competence doesn't complement the devil-may-care styling as does, say, the squirmy, danceable back end of a Mini Cooper.

Disappointing powertrain
If Hyundai is to be congratulated for targeting Volkswagen in structural rigidity (and it is), it deserves censure for utterly ignoring VW's example when developing a dual-clutch automatic. The brand's new Ecoshift transmission, which debuts on the Veloster, provides neither the speed nor the immediacy we've come to expect from this technology. The only time it distinctly reminds us that it isn't an average torque-converter unit is, unfortunately, when the transmission slips a bit as we pull away from a stop in a gravel-covered parking lot. All this brings out the worst in the slow-revving 1.6-liter four-cylinder, which serves ably in the Accent and the Rio but underwhelms here. A sport mode with a more aggressive shift pattern and livelier throttle mapping might help matters, but none is offered. Hyundai does include an eco mode, which, to be fair, works unobtrusively. It also serves as a message that Hyundai's main focus remains fuel economy, and the combination indeed achieves an impressive 29/38 mpg city/highway EPA rating.

Hyundai got things right with the six-speed manual - smooth, precise shifts; light, easy to modulate clutch; and a bottom-hinged gas pedal positioned for fancy footwork. It also costs $1250 less and nets the so-much-more-impressive-sounding 40-mpg highway rating (offset by a slightly lower 28 mpg in the city). Banging off its rev limiter in third through some gently rolling hills, the engine finally wakes up and injects the Veloster with some verve.

Not enough, though. The problem is not so much a lack of power -- although 138 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque don't exactly set the spec sheet on fire. Rather, it's a distinct lack of energy. A Fiat 500 may not be able to get out of its own way, but it growls and yaps like it's having a grand old time. Hyundai North America CEO John Krafcik shrugs off the estimated 9.8-second 0-to-60-mph time by noting that not all sports cars need to be straight-line achievers. That's true, but they do need to sound like they're trying.

Conclusion: So good it's a bit disappointing
Hyundai's gamble on the Veloster will likely pay off big. It's hard to imagine a car so cool-looking, so practical, so efficient, and so inexpensive -- as cheap as $18,060 for one with a manual transmission -- failing to find a sizable following. And yet we walk away wanting more. Hyundai engineers, who in the last twenty years have come from tuning Mitsubishi four-cylinders to developing hybrids and dual-clutch automatic transmissions in-house, have yet to appreciate the subtleties that can transform a nice car into a great driving machine. The Veloster has good bones, and it sheds most of the bad habits that spoiled the stiff-riding, buzzy Genesis coupe that was released only two short years ago. We can't wait to see what the next two years have in store for the Veloster. We know what we want: more power. (And we hear it's coming, probably in the form of a turbocharged edition.)