It's a coupe Jim, but not as we know it
Over the years, Hyundai has built some fairly useful coupes.
They were generic, reliable, inoffensive and cheap. But even rampant Koreaphobes had to admit that the brand was starting to get some street cred by building them, with the previous Tiburon being such a good looker that those who would never have even looked at the brand previously were happy to be seen in one.
The offer of a creamy 2.7-litre V6 when every other affordable coupe only offered fours counted well for the Tiburon, which had a crisp turn of performance and high levels of refinement while showing up with the kind of solid, well-constructed quality we tend to take for granted from the Korean brand these days.
It has to be said that the solid quality bit is the only thing the just-launched Veloster has in common with its predecessor.
It doesn't get a shark's name because it doesn't look like one, and with a single four-cylinder normally aspirated 1.6-litre 103-kilowatt engine with a double-clutch two-pedal transmission, it can't hope to keep up with the previous car.
But that's not what the Veloster is all about, even if its name suggests it might be. This is a bit of shop-window car. It's an undeniably clever, innovative and polarisingly inventive wee hatch-cum-coupe that I'm sure Hyundai built simply because it darn well could. I say that because Hyundai already has a new conventional coupe in the form of the Genesis, which picks up the baton passed on by the Tiburon.
With great reviews for the Genesis coming from the United States, it's good to know that we'll eventually get it too, at about facelift time.
In the meantime, the Veloster fronts up with two doors on one side and one on the other. It's something that's been done before, of course, in the new Mini Clubman, or station wagon. In an amazing lack of planning, however, the Oxford, England-built Mini offered the extra door on one side only, with no thought of changing its position to cater for the huge number of owners that drive on the left, like its home market punters do. Clubman passengers therefore had to disembark from the rear seat into traffic, rather than onto the pavement.
This is simply because the car's fuel filler tube and tank were on the left, so only those driving on the right side of the highway could enjoy what was on the surface a darn good idea.
The Veloster, as you've guessed by now, offers left and right-hand-drive versions of its asymmetrically arranged doors, so drivers can pick up or drop off their charges safely onto the sidewalk in any market.
Rather than looking like add-ons, the odd access system looks as natural as they come. That's because unless Picasso had a go at drawing one, you can't see both sides of the Veloster at the same time.
On the single door side, the nicely proportioned body, with its striking roofline, looks like a conventional coupe. On the double door side it looks like a conventional coupe, too, because the car has the most convincingly disguised extra door handle yet, hidden in the sharply returned rear side door glass. You really don't notice it unless you're told it's there.
I know this because my adult daughter tried to gain access from the kerbside by tilting the front passenger seat and clambering in behind it, as she would a conventional three-door hatch or coupe. Presented with the extra door, and the handle with which to open it, she found access easy, although being tall she had to watch her head on the sloping roofline.
Once you're inside, the cabin is a nice place to be, with quality cloth-clad seating in the base car and leather in the posher Elite model, with useful room for four, or five if the rear occupants are slimmer than average.
Up front, the car is pleasingly roomy, and though the dash is slavishly symmetrical, it works well, with everything in its place and every switch easy to learn without reference to the handbook - and this includes the car's CD/radio sound system and the way it works with your iPod, MP3 and USB stick, along with Bluetooth.
Considering the care taken with the doors, the load area shows some lack of thought, with a very high load lip, though the volume's quite good. Rear visibility to the side is not good, though the hatch's two-pane window means that the view straight back isn't too bad.
In addition to the Elite's bigger alloy wheels, heated mirrors and leather bits, another good reason to opt for this car over the standard model is the full- length tinted glass roof, which when unshaded can warm up the car's interior to a surprising level when it's left parked in cold conditions. It also adds to the cabin's ambience when driving along - the $4000 price difference with the other extras thrown in make the Elite's $43,990 seem acceptable.
Until the 139kW turbocharged version comes along, every Veloster has to make do with the 103kW 1.6-litre petrol engine, which is a shame because the car's chassis can take and employ a lot more power.
But it's still a crisp and very easy powertrain to operate, with that automated two-pedal manual operating like an automatic when you want it to, and able to be shifted via the steering wheel paddles when the opportunity arises. Driven that way, the engine belies its size and catalogued power numbers, and when it starts to spring up under the bonnet of Hyundai's small to mid-sized sedans and hatches, I wager it'll become a bit of a star.
On Canterbury's back-country foothills and the routes through the Waimakariri and Rakaia gorges, the Veloster is a barrel of fun.
Despite being comfortably compliant over bumps and surface changes, the Hyundai's suspension offers good body control, reliable reactions to steering and throttle input and slices brilliantly through corners. It's a fine combination of talent, and while it's not as incisive as hard-edged coupes such as the Volkswagen Scirroco and Renault Megane, for day-to-day running the Veloster is a well-judged compromise.
The terms quirky, overdesigned and underpowered have been applied to the Veloster by pundits since its launch, but the penny really dropped for me.
The car effectively creates its own segment, becoming a desirable hatchback with a little bit of stylistic cut-through rather than a coupe as we normally see one. I'd rate the car alongside the Citroen DS3 and the New Mini, two of the style council's current must-haves, if I read it right.
It's a show-off car, encapsulating just how far Hyundai has come in recent years, and why shouldn't it?
The good thing is that it works. The doors are amusing and surprisingly practical. The aggressively scooped and slotted frontal treatment is striking and effective, while the chassis and drivetrain punch well beyond their weight and the quality of the car's execution and finish is absolutely unimpeachable.
Drivetrain: Transverse FWD 1591cc DOHC fuel-injected 16-valve four, with six-speed electronic two-paddle automated manual transmission.
Performance: 103kW at 6300rpm, 167NM at 4850rpm, Max 205kmh, 0-100kmh 10.3secs, Max 6.4 litres per 100km, 145g/km CO2.
Chassis: Front struts, rear multilink; power-assisted steering; 17 or 18-inch alloy wheels.
Safety: Seven airbags; disc brakes all round, ESP, ABS standard; 5-star EuroNCAP rating.
Dimensions: L 4220mm, W 1790mm, H 1399mm, W/base 2650mm, Weight 1279kg, Fuel 50L.
Pricing: Veloster Standard $39,990, Elite $43,990.
Hot: Terrific powertrain; good spec levels; safety rating; confident statement; quirky practicality.
Not: Quirky practicality; not very quick; noisy stereo start- up; turbo not here yet; no manual option.
Verdict: Among small coupes nothing is as original as this nor better value, though turbo will be a good choice.