Iplay a little game with test cars: I drive them for a day and try to guess the as-tested price before I look at the sticker. Seeing as how the 2012 Veloster is a Hyundai—a company that is to cars what Vizio is to flatscreen TVs—I knew to adjust my guess downward. But not enough, it turns out. Fully loaded, with navigation and rear-view camera, panoramic sunroof, killer alloy wheels and a tank of gas (not to mention the little hatchback’s veritable thimble-full of style), the Veloster goes out the door at $21,300, which was about $2,000 less than I figured and somewhere between a grand or two below a comparably equipped Honda CR-Z or Toyota Scion tC.
I had but one thought: Isengard.
In 2010 Hyundai cracked open the throttles on its new steel mills at Dangjin, Korea, about 90 minutes west of Seoul. It’s a strangely beautiful facility, with a blue-striped smoke stacks and series of silvery domes containing the vast piles of iron ore (apparently, wind and rain can spirit away up to five percent of a mill’s ore left in the open). High-tech and hyper-clean, the mills at Dangjin might look a little like Emerald City at twilight.
2012 Hyundai Veloster M/T
- Base price: $17,300
- Price, as tested: $21,300
- Powertrain: Naturally aspirated direct-injection 1.6-liter DOHC inline four cylinder with variable valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; front wheel drive
- Horsepower/torque: 138 hp at 6,300 rpm/123 pound-feet at 4,850 rpm
- Length/weight: 166.1 inches/2,600 pounds
- Wheelbase: 104.3 inches, 0-60 mph>9 seconds
- EPA fuel economy: 28/40 mpg, city/highway
- •Cargo capacity: 15.5 cubic feet (behind second row seats)
Unless you are Honda or Toyota or Ford or GM, in which case Dangjin looks like the forge of misery, Sauroman’s bleak furnace. Hyundai Motor is currently the only global auto maker to own its own steel operation and because it does, it enjoys below-market prices on steel, which is its biggest material cost. To be sure, other car makers have favorable relationships with steelmakers; but the Hyundai chaebol (roughly, “family conglomerate” though mafia also has a ring to it) has come as close as anyone to recreating the vertical integration of Ford’s River Rouge operation, which famously received ore, coal, wood, and rubber at one end and spit out finished Model A’s at the other.
Fascinating? Let me count the ways. To begin, Hyundai’s $5.5 billion investment in a captive steel operation is a testament to the enduring relevance of the material itself. In an effort to meet increasingly tough fuel economy requirements, auto makers are looking to lighten up vehicle body structures. Typically, this means increasing the use of expensive, high-strength steel. Hyundai itself has committed to raising the percentage of high-strength steel used in its body structures to over 50 percent of mass by 2015 (to compare, a current Mercedes-Benz E-class body structure comprises 73 percent HSS).
But some companies, facing the daunting prospect of 45+ mpg CAFE requirements, have concluded that steel can’t get the job done and are looking to build unit-bodies out of yet more expensive alloys of aluminum, as Ferrari does, or carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), like McLaren. Using CFRP is another animal in terms of mass production.
Hyundai’s executive engineering staff seems to think steel still has headroom. And for them it might because, with its own mills, Hyundai Motor can order highly engineered steel for specific applications—call it designer steel, optimized for weight and other properties—instead of making due with off-the-shelf stock. Imagine building a house if all you had were 6×6 timbers.
If all this iron-mongering meant only a lower price for the cars, it wouldn’t be worth the ink. But savings on the big-iron bill are being translated into more content, and that’s where these cars get scary. The Veloster—a three-door (one on the left, two on the right) hatchback with a direct-injection 1.6-liter and choice of six-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic—comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, LED headlight accents, Bluetooth, XM satellite radio, a 7-inch color touch screen with a Pandora app (that syncs up to your iPhone), and more. It also comes with Hyundai’s nifty BlueLink system. Nervous parents will like the system’s geo-fencing feature that reports when the car has gone beyond a specified perimeter. It will also narc the kids out for speeding, driving beyond a certain hour of the day and other infractions. A 90-day free trial is included with the car.
That is a landslide of content for a car with a base price of $17,300. You can imagine why other car makers might look at Dangjin with something like Hobbit-ish dread.
The Veloster, meanwhile, is a kick in the pants, starting with its cleverly executed third door on the left side. Unlike previous efforts at three-door coupes, including the Mini Clubman and Mazda RX8, the door opens independently of the front and swings wide enough to make ingress/egress easy. Veloster’s packaging of a decent and accessible rear seat and trunk under the rear-canted roof is the stuff of rabbits, hats and Atlantic City magicians. The front compartment is likewise plenty spacious and comfortable. The full-length sunroof (bundled with the $2,000 Style Package option) breathes light into the cabin of what is, by the tape measure, a pretty dinky car.
The car is wildly over-styled in places, particularly the kisser, which has the gall to plagiarize the Aston Martin One-77. But given the 18- to 34-year-old, first-car audience, timeless restraint is not the design vibe to shoot for. The car’s wraparound canopy, liposuctioned lower door panels and bluff backside all say, let’s hook up. The Veloster is seriously snouty, a consequence of it being a front-drive car with a transverse-mounted engine (the Veloster is very much a mechanical clone of the new Elantra, complete with torsion-beam rear suspension).
How’s it drive? Well, define “drive.” The cabin noise management is excellent. The aero guys did a particularly nice job of managing wind noise around the mirrors. The ride quality is also quite good on the relatively big 18-inch Kumo tires. The cabin aesthetic and interior materials are first rate. So if by “drive,” you mean “accommodate” or “manage the quotidian of car-based existence,” the answer is, It drives fine, just swell.
If you mean corners and accelerates, well, then the Veloster is a bit thin. The electric steering is acceptably directional, if you know what I mean, but it isn’t filled with the tiller-joy. The brave little 1.6-liter four works hard, delivering 138 horsepower and a rather zingy 123 pound-feet of torque. Feel free to cane this engine like you’re an angry Singapore cop. Slap the six-speeder around. It won’t mind.
Alas, the Veloster’s bratty, hot-spit design over-promises performance. I’m pretty sure the 208-hp turbo version, debuting at the Detroit auto show next week, will fix that.
How much will that car cost? Your guess is as good as mine.