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First Drive: 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo

The standard, 138-hp Hyundai Veloster overpromises and underdelivers. Its tame, unexceptional dynamics contrast with the wild styling and the curious three-door package. Yet even as we abandoned our hope for a Korean revelation during our first drive of that car last October, we remained optimistic that Hyundai would take a mulligan with the upcoming turbocharged model.

New engine, same suspension

Even before turning a single wheel in the Veloster Turbo, however, our expectations met harsh reality again this summer when product planners at Hyundai's U.S. headquarters revealed that the damping, the spring rates, and the bushings were all left unchanged for the Turbo. We had been hoping for a more mature setup -- something with the suppleness and sophistication of a Volkswagen GTI. Instead, the Turbo suffers the same busy, stiff-legged ride over cracks and heaves as the base car.

Hyundai did address the Veloster's lackluster steering with a rack that is imperceptibly quicker and a power-assist calibration that is noticeably heavier. It's a significant step in the right direction, although there's still room for improvement in on-center responsiveness and feel. Weight remains commendably low at less than 2900 pounds and the car corners with good body control and a sense of stability. If the pavement is sufficiently smooth, you can find joy in stringing together a series of bends, but the Veloster lacks the composure of its competitors in the most demanding conditions. Thus, piloting the Veloster Turbo is nowhere near as visceral as the best hot hatches.

It's a similar story with the 1.6-liter four-cylinder. Despite a resume that includes a twin-scroll turbocharger, dual variable valve timing, direct injection, and 201 hp and 195 pound-feet of torque (on regular gas), this overachiever lacks the personality we expected. Power delivery is more linear than in the similar-sized engines in the Nissan Juke and the MINI Cooper S, but the Veloster is much less lively. Fuel economy for the manual-transmission car is rated at 26/38 mpg city/highway, a very impressive number but one that's telling about the Turbo's character. Rather than a boisterous driver's car, Hyundai has built yet another 38-mpg small car.

The optional six-speed automatic gains a sport mode in the Turbo that's supposed to speed up shifts. We say supposed to because it requires an unusually deep push on the accelerator to elicit a downshift. In fact, the sport mode's most noticeable change over the standard programming is the unnecessary and annoying act of locking the transmission out of top gear. Drivers seeking earlier downshifts and later upshifts will instead need to use the manual shift mode via the steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Or they can stick with the standard six-speed manual.

Louder looks and matte gray paint

Aesthetically, the Veloster Turbo is even more extroverted than the base car, with a gaping grille in place of the base car's convoluted fascia. Styling flourishes like LED accents in the headlights, new tail pipes for the center-exiting exhaust, 18-inch wheels with chrome accents, and a printed graphic on the headliner increase the attitude. Others, like the oversized circular reflectors in the lower rear fascia that could have been sourced from Home Depot, are less successful. Of all the design tweaks, though, our favorite is the matte gray paint, a $1000 option that's unique on a vehicle this affordable. (Just don't drive it through an automated car wash.) Heated, leather-trimmed seats, an eight-speaker stereo, push-button start, and a seven-inch touch screen are standard. As per Hyundai convention, the 2013 Veloster Turbo offers excellent infotainment with clear graphics and intuitive controls for iPhone integration, Bluetooth pairing, and Pandora Internet radio. Options are limited to a single package that adds navigation, a backup camera and rear parking sensors, a panoramic sunroof, a 115-volt power outlet, and automatic headlights for $2500. The automatic transmission adds another $1000 to the price.

Not the car we were hoping for

Even with a turbocharger, the Veloster's best attributes remain its value, fuel economy, and infotainment features. As with the base Veloster, you're more likely to experience emotions looking at the Turbo than driving it. When it comes to rational, practical automobiles, Hyundai can hang with the best, but in trying to capture passion and character, the Koreans are designing when they need to be engineering.

Hyundai Veloster Turbo

Price: $22,725
Engine: 1.6L turbo I-4, 201 hp, 195 lb-ft
Transmissions: Six-speed automatic, six-speed manual
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA Mileage: 26/38 mpg (city/highway; manual)