First Drive

2019 Hyundai Veloster First Drive Review: A Gap Year That Paid Dividends

The Veloster took a model year off from production, now it’s back and better than ever.

A few years ago, I was shopping for a new car and strongly considered the then-new Hyundai Veloster. The Veloster had just been released, and the quirky, concept car looks drew me to it. The 1.6-liter 138 horsepower engine was simply too sluggish, and I ended up buying a used Volkswagen GLI. The Veloster Turbo later upped the power to 201 hp, but even with a massive boost in power, the Veloster didn’t stack up against the best hot hatchbacks in the segment.

Hyundai announced there would of the Veloster, as the company would take a break to develop an all-new model for 2019. Much like a high school student on a gap year, Hyundai took some time to reflect, and come back with a much better product.

In the time since the original Veloster debuted, Hyundai has learned a few tricks of the trade, all of which add up to make the Veloster . The old Veloster was always a bit of show and no go - the looks were controversial, but interesting, yet it didn't drive like a true hot hatch. This was fine for average drivers, but enthusiasts were left disappointed. For 2019 the Veloster is all-new, and from behind the wheel it is easy to see Hyundai has learned a big lesson from the first generation car: if you build a car that looks like a sports car, it should probably drive like one. Hyundai invited us to Austin, Texas to drive the new Veloster Turbo R-Spec and Turbo Ultimate.

I didn’t get a chance to drive the base Veloster 2.0 or 2.0 Premium, both of which come with a 2.0-liter inline-four producing 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque going out to front-wheel-drive through a six-speed automatic or six-speed manual (up 15 hp and 12 lb-ft over the first generation). Hyundai had us drive the more powerful 1.6-liter turbocharged car with 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque in base R-Spec and top-level Ultimate trims. starts at $18,500 for the base 2.0 with a manual transmission, while the Turbo R-Spec starts at $22,900. Even a nicely loaded Turbo Ultimate trim with the DCT rings in at $28,150, which keeps the Veloster relatively affordable.

Hyundai has benchmarked cars like the Fiat 500 Abarth, MiniCooper, and Volkswagen Beetle, and I would also toss in the now-dead Ford Fiesta ST. Some people may cross shop this car with the Golf GTI, but the Veloster Turbo is smaller and less expensive, so I wouldn’t call it a GTI-competitor. As with most Hyundai vehicles, all Veloster models include a seven-inch LCD display with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Standard features include: lane keep assist, forward collision assist, driver attention alert, automatic headlights with LED running lights, and Bluetooth.

Higher trim models add a wide sunroof, eight-inch display with eight-speaker Infinity audio, wireless charging pad, proximity key with push-button start, heated leather seats, automatic climate control, blind spot monitoring, and smart cruise control (on DCT models). The practicality doesn’t just stop with the massive features list, it continues on into the cargo area. The Veloster has 19.9 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats, which is more than the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 combined. 19.9 cubic feet of storage is actually greater than many small crossovers including the Jeep Renegade, Chevy Trax, and Toyota C-HR.

The interior of the new Veloster is equally spacious and appealing, even in lower trim levels. Taller drivers at the launch event had no trouble fitting in the car, though the coupe-like roof line forced occupants to dip their heads to get in the back. Once inside, Hyundai cleverly managed to add headroom and lower the roof by creating a thinner material for the seat bottoms. The base Turbo R-Spec has cloth that looks like the sort of fabric you’d get on an expensive workout shirt, mixed with yellow stitching and matching yellow accents throughout the interior. The loaded Turbo Ultimate trim has an optional light Sand Storm Grey leather interior, mixed with red accents.

The interior mimics the asymmetrical exterior by using darker trim on the driver side and lighter material on the passenger side, including different color trims pieces on each door. Unfortunately, the interior accent color is tied in to what trim level you buy, so some of the exterior combinations looked a bit strange with different interior colors - such as an orange car with yellow interior accents. The new car is only available in seven (mostly boring) colors, but Racing Red and the previously mentioned Sunset Orange looked sharp. I took out the Turbo Ultimate with the DCT first, and was deeply impressed with the transmission. Though not as good as VW’s, it is a nice effort.

The seven-speed unit shifts quickly under acceleration, but didn’t feel jerky around town. With the adaptive cruise control the car did exhibit a bit of jerkiness, and the system is not capable of bringing the car to a full stop in traffic. The DCT is a perfectly acceptable choice, but I came away adoring the six-speed manual transmission. The manual on the first generation Veloster felt lackluster, like it belonged in a base Accent rather than a hot hatchback. Hyundai has greatly improved the feel of the manual transmission with the help of B&M racing, and it is a now a joy to row through the gears.

The gear lever itself is finished in a bare metal, which felt extremely nice in hand. The throws are short and the lever slots in with a nice feel. Even though it sacrifices the adaptive cruise control and one or two miles per gallon overall, the manual easily makes up for these losses by shaving $1,500 off the price of the Veloster. My only issue with the manual was the clutch placement, which had me hitting the top of the footwell each time I moved my foot to the dead pedal (a problem shared with the Fiat 500). For drivers who don’t need the latest and greatest in car safety technology, I'd suggest selecting the manual-only R-Spec and calling it a day.

The manual has another big advantage over its DCT counterpart: its tires. Hyundai made the interesting decision to equip manual turbo models with Michelin Pilot Super Sport 4 Summer performance tires, while DCT cars are saddled with All-Seasons. This can be fixed at the dealership, but I felt more stability through the corners on the summer rubber. The new Veloster handles better thanks to a new multi-link rear suspension, replacing the old torsion beam. Steering was once a crutch of the Veloster – it felt completely vague and disconnected. Now, the Veloster can dance with the best in the sporty compact segment. Hyundai loves adding adjustable steering to its cars, and sometimes it can feel disingenuous – not so with the Veloster.

When the car is put into sport mode, the steering tenses up and becomes more responsive to slight inputs. I’ve driven other Hyundai models where the steering gets heavier without an appreciable increase in feedback, but the Veloster is different. I kept the car in sport mode most of the time, because the default steering mode felt a bit numb. DCT models also receive a smart mode, which switches between normal and sport depending on your driving. The Veloster also has an independently controlled active engine sound system. These systems have become common as cars have become more and more quiet inside.

The Veloster’s system has three modes –minimized, normal, and enhanced – each of which adds sound through the speakers to make the car sound louder. Pumping sound through the speakers can sometimes feel gimmicky, but Hyundai executed it well. From the cabin, the 1.6-liter engine sounded throaty, and never grew tiresome as the day went on. In sport mode, the optional head-up display shows a tachometer to help you keep the car in sweet spot for torque. The Veloster doesn’t love to hit redline, and pulls timing hard if you hit the limiter. Just shift at around 5,000 rpm and you’ll be fine.

In terms of speed, the Veloster felt quick, with a low torque curve starting at just 1,500 rpm and topping out at 4,500 rpm. Hyundai didn’t quote 0-60 mph times, but the Veloster felt at least as quick as a Fiesta ST, though not as fast as a Golf GTI. The old Veloster exhibited so much wheel spin on a hard launch; it would trigger the windshield wipers. The new car can manage torque to keep wheel spin to a minimum, even during hard acceleration. The torque management felt like turbo lag at first, but the Veloster simply puts down its power well in first gear in both manual and DCT cars.

Though the DCT car can shift faster at the precise moment, the manual car is appreciably more fun. Driving the manual required more attentiveness - making sure to shift at the perfect rpm to avoid hitting the fuel cutoff. The Veloster’s gap year has truly paid dividends. By skipping a model year to focus on itself, the Veloster is now ready for the future. Buyers who value style over driving pleasure have always been content with the Veloster, but now driving enthusiasts will enjoy it as well. The show finally matches the go, and it only took Hyundai a year off to make it happen. Later this year we will get to see the new Veloster N, which should put Hyundai’s quirky hatchback in the spotlight for enthusiasts.

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