Payne review: More-refined Hyundai Veloster keeps its attitude

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The Hyundais seem like such a nice family. A full-line automaker from the wee Accent sedan to family patriarch Santa Fe SUV, the brand is well-mannered and ranks No. 1 in Kelley Blue Book’s Cost to Own awards. It's civilized, handsome and reliable.

And then there’s the mutant Veloster hatchback. I’d like to be at the family table when this thing shows up.

Like a three-headed Cerberus hound from hell, the three-door-plus hatch Veloster is a growling, spitting mutt that wants to pick on every sports car in the neighborhood. New for 2018, the compact Veloster is back for its second generation and I guess you could say it’s cleaned up a bit.

The Rottweiler-sized front maw has been tweaked and the severe cuts to the rocker panels and rear hatch have been field-dressed like wounds to Conor McGregor after a UFC cage fight. But saying the Veloster has changed is a little like saying Dennis Rodman dressed down by removing one of his lip rings. 

The Hyundai Veloster R-Spec is the most playful Veloster. With a turbo-4, black, 18-inch wheels, and a manual shifter, the car is Hyundai's answer to the Mini Cooper, VW Beetle GSR, and Honda Civic Si.

Like Mazda’s Miata, Hyundai’s “reverse halo” sporty car is at the affordable end of the lineup. This hot hatch demands attention.

The grille upgrade has gone from Rottweiler to pit bull. See the difference? Me neither. The (slightly less) rounded haunches are still there. The (slightly less) muscled rockers. The twin tailpipes (why not three?) out the back. The squashed greenhouse with the visibility of a tank turret. The huge nose sniffing the ground hunting for the scent of prey.

The Veloster comes in a base model with a 147-horse, 2.0-liter inline-4 and a $29,000 Ultimate trim with 1.6-liter turbo and more options than a Mercedes: head-up display, rain-sensing wipers, auto-headlights, smartphone app connectivity, Alexa connectivity and so on.

Nice. But if you’re in the market for a rowdy pocket rocket, I recommend the R-Spec turbo.

Hyundai is the rare brand that splits its compact offerings between hatch (Veloster) and sedan/coupe (Elantra). Most competitors — Honda Civic, for example — offer a stepladder of variations on their compact car — Sport, Si, Type-R — to satisfy more performance-oriented customers. Hyundai says the heck with that and spliced DNA to mutate a different pet. So if you’re gonna opt for Veloster quirkbox over conventional Elantra sedan, I say go all the way.

Though not as spec’d out as the Ultimate, R-Spec is still a recipe for fun: black 18-inch wheels, blind-spot detection, heated seats, wireless phone-pad charger, AppleCarPlay/Android Auto connectivity to navigate where you’re going.

And then comes the icing: a 201-horse/195 torque, 1.6-liter turbo-4 mated to a six-speed manual for just $23,785.

That’s a grand below the manual Civic Si coupe and $3,500 shy of the VW Golf GTI while offering the same performance as the Si and the hatchback utility of the Golf. It’s a steal.

A car this unique demands engagement — no autonomous features here — so the R-Spec only comes in a manual. The six-speed isn’t as precise as the V-dub or Honda (call it Ford Focus-like right down to the pull-up-ring reverse gear) but it’ll do just fine for Michigan country roads or a weekend autocross.

The pedals are nicely placed for heel-and-toe downshifting, and the meat of the torque is at low rpms (unlike my ol’ high-revving, 2006 Civic VTEC). Rowing through the gears on to Interstate 75, my pit bull sprinted past 100 mph without breathing hard. A Drive Mode switch offers 500 more revs in Sport mode and the Michelin Pilot Sports — gummy tires unique to R-Spec — provide tenacious grip in the twisties.

The driver's seat is comfortably bolstered (compared to, say, the Camaro 1LE I recently tested that hugs like a girdle) and the ride comfort noticeably improved from Veloster 1.0, which felt like it might rattle apart on Metro Detroit’s washboard roads. I expected more bark from those twin pipes out the rear, but the interior insulation is much improved. The electronic steering is firm, if numb, but the short wheelbase R-Spec is wonderfully tossable thanks to a multi-link suspension upgrade from Gen One’s torsion beam.

Aiding in that grip is front torque-vectoring which brakes the inside wheel for better rotation. I’d prefer a proper, mechanical, limited-slip differential (you’ll miss it under hard acceleration around autocross pylons) like the Civic Si, but that’s the budget sacrifice a $23,000 sticker requires.

Hyundai buyers will have to wait for the top spec, Civic Type-R-fighting Veloster N for limited slip — which will be key to reining in its expected 275 ponies.

R-Spec customers will find other corner-cutting details like a hard-plastic dash and door sills. But the carefully tailored surfaces mask the hard plastic. And the interior ergonomics are surprisingly good for such an unconventional car.

The 8-inch tablet screen is intuitive, as are the crisp dash buttons. The rear seat is accessible only via the right rear since Hyundai forgot to install a left rear door. Hyundai says this was done on purpose — you know, to give the car the dual personality of a coupe that still welcomes rear passengers.

Whatever. The curb access-only doesn’t seem so odd now that I’ve been in GM’s midsize SUV triplets — Buick Enclave, Chevy Traverse, GMC Terrain — that only allow third-row access via the curb-side middle seat. Maybe the GM models should also only come with three passenger doors.

Open the back door and Hyundai makes good on its rear-seat promise. After sliding all the way across to the left-side seat, my 6-foot-5 frame actually fit! ... though my neck wouldn’t fancy a long journey stuffed into the headliner. Even more encouraging, the hatch manages to swallow as much cargo as the Jeep Renegade or Chevy Trax SUVs despite a roofline that looks like it was sat on by Andre the Giant.

I love pocket rockets and Hyundai’s all-new Veloster is a wonderful addition to the genre. It may fall short of the Golf GTI and Civic Si in pure driving ability, but its unique wardrobe and outstanding ergonomics complement the segment’s best value play.

Heck, its fun-loving nature has even caught the attention of Hollywood, where it will be starring in Marvel’s “Antman and the Wasp” this summer alongside the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd. "The Veloster totally exemplifies the energetic, no-holds-barred attitude that accompanies this franchise,” says a Marvel Comics representative.

Totally. Dude, having a mutant in the family ain’t a bad thing at all.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Hyundai Veloster

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, four-passenger sport hatchback

Price: $19,385 base ($23,785 R-Spec and $29,160 Turbo Ultimate as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter inline-4 cylinder; 1.6-liter turbo-4

Power: 147 horsepower, 132 pound-feet torque (2.0-liter); 201 horsepower, 195 pound-feet torque (1.6-liter turbo)

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic; 7-speed automatic (with Turbo and Turbo Ultimate only)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.2 seconds (Car and Driver est., Veloster Ultimate); top speed, 135 mph 

Weight: 2,912 pounds (R-Spec); 2,987 (Turbo Ultimate automatic)

Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 27 city/34 highway/30 combined (base 2.0-liter); 26 city/33 highway/29 combined (1.6-liter R-Spec); 28 city/34 highway/30 combined (1.6-liter R-Spec)

Report card

Highs: Hatchback utility; distinctive styling

Lows: Mediocre manual shifter; limited-slip differential, plastic dash are sacrifices for affordability 

Overall: 3 stars