Pros: Great fuel economy, packed with features, daring styling, unconventional third door eases back-seat access.

Cons: Short on power, automated manual transmission is slow on the uptake.

Introduction

In the traditionally boring world of economy hatchbacks, the 2012 Hyundai Veloster is a breath of fresh air. It's got Hyundai's signature "fluidic sculpture" design language, which sets it apart from just about everything under $20,000 except Hyundai's own Elantra sedan. It boasts a single conventionally hinged backdoor on the passenger side that makes life easier for rear passengers. It's packed with technology, including a standard 7-inch touchscreen. And its fuel economy is among the best you'll find in anything outside of a hybrid.

So why aren't we telling all our friends to buy Velosters? Two words: power shortage. The standard 1.6-liter engine has a pleasant character, but it's not what anyone would call strong. You may find that the Veloster's got plenty of sauce for your daily driving needs, but we expected more based on how cool this Hyundai looks.

If you agree with us on the power front, wait till 2013, when a turbocharged Veloster is slated to debut. But if you're fine with the Veloster as-is, then by all means, find yourself a 2012 model and enjoy it. It's got more personality than most affordable hatchbacks put together, and that's enough to earn it our overall recommendation, regardless of what's under the hood.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Hyundai Veloster is offered in one well-equipped trim level. Standard niceties include 17-inch alloy wheels, LED exterior accent lights, air-conditioning, cruise control, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, a trip computer, a height-adjustable driver seat and a six-speaker audio system with a 7-inch touchscreen, Pandora internet-radio capability and iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

There are two options packages. The Style package adds 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, a panoramic sunroof, an eight-speaker audio system with a 450-watt amplifier, leatherette seat and door trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and alloy pedals. The Tech package tacks on rear parking sensors, different 18-inch alloys with painted inserts, automatic headlights, keyless entry with push-button start and a navigation system with a rearview camera.

In keeping with the Veloster's sporting theme, the front seats have more lateral bolstering than you'll find in a typical economy hatchback. What's most notable about the Veloster's cabin, though, is the stylishly futuristic dashboard, which we think more than makes up for the mediocre materials used to construct it. The tilt-telescopic steering wheel offers plenty of adjustability for most body types, and the clean, simple gauges behind it are treated to Hyundai's trademark deep hoods and blue trim. Despite the dashboard's edgy style, most controls are easily deciphered at a glance. We especially like the efficiently laid-out climate controls.

The Veloster's back seat is accessed via an unusual third door on the passenger side. Let us explain. We've seen third doors on compact hatchbacks and coupes before, but they've been of the reverse-opening "suicide" variety, requiring the front passenger door to be opened first. The Veloster's third door, however, opens conventionally using its own exterior handle, so rear passengers are free to come and go as they please. As for rear passenger space, it's quite good except for the headroom, which is inadequate for folks with longer torsos.

Trunk space is 15.5 cubic feet by default and 34.7 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded down.

Technology

With its standard 7-inch touchscreen, the Veloster is a technological powerhouse by economy-hatchback standards. Heck, even the BMW 5 Series doesn't get a standard display that's this nice. All the expected connectivity features are standard as well, and you can unexpectedly enjoy tunes from Pandora if you've got an iPhone. The optional navigation system isn't a knockout in terms of graphics or performance-it would help if Hyundai gave it a hard drive-but we think it's quite nice for the price.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive Veloster is powered by a 1.6-liter inline-4 rated at 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual, but the Veloster also offers a novel dual-clutch automated manual transmission with paddle shifters. We'd recommend the precise-shifting conventional manual if you don't mind doing your own clutch work. The automated gearbox feels like it needs more factory testing, as dual-clutch units are usually more responsive than this.

In any case, the Veloster is frankly a little weak-kneed when you give it the whip. The little 1.6 doesn't ever feel quick, and you really have to work it hard when you're merging or passing on the highway. Help is on the way for 2013 in the form of an optional turbocharger that will bump the 1.6's output over 200 horsepower. But we might just be jaded by all the high-powered machinery that's available these days, so give the 2012 Veloster a shot and see if it works for you.

Fuel economy is an impressive 27 mpg city/37 mpg highway with the stick-shift and 27/35 mpg with the dual-clutch automatic.

Safety

The 2012 Hyundai Veloster comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front-side, full-length side-curtain).

Neither the government nor the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has crash-tested the Veloster as of this writing.

Driving Impressions

The Veloster's steering may feel artificial, but it responds quickly to inputs, so the result is reasonably sporty. On winding roads, the Veloster is fairly entertaining-it's a featherweight hatchback with a firm suspension, and that's usually a recipe for decent athleticism. Crumbling urban pavement presents more of a problem, as that firm suspension can get unsettled over bumps. But, overall, the Veloster's driving dynamics are just fine for this class. All we'd ask for is a little more get-up-and-go.

Other Cars to Consider

FIAT 500 - The 500 has a power shortage of its own unless you pony up for the pricey turbocharged Abarth. Nonetheless, it's got plenty of Italian style if you're looking for a little more sophistication.

Chevrolet Sonic LTZ - No motivation issues here, as the turbocharged Sonic LTZ has plenty of zest for squirting through traffic. It's a surprisingly comfortable car on the highway, too.

Honda CR-Z - Honda's odd hybrid-powered coupe only has two seats, but it gets better overall fuel economy than the Veloster, and we like its sporty six-speed shifter and spaceship-like interior.

AutoTrader Recommends

We could go without the navigation system, but we do think the Veloster looks better with 18-inch rims. So the sweet spot, in our opinion, is the stick-shift Veloster with the Style package.

In November 2012, Kia and Hyundai adjusted the fuel economy ratings on some 2011-2013 models. This article has been modified to reflect the accurate EPA ratings.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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