Three is a lonely number in the auto industry. It was once used to describe coupe hatchbacks as a "three-door" because carmakers' silly aversion to the word "hatchback."
And coupes, most of which are actually hatchbacks, are rarely popular outside of the sports car segment.
But now Hyundai has put a new twist on the number 3 -- creating a sporty compact car that defies logic and description. Technically, the 2012 Hyundai Veloster is not a coupe; it comes with three working doors. Those three doors also mean that it's one opening short of a sedan; though its rear hatch, which carmakers insist is a door, when it isn't, means the Veloster could be labeled a four-door sedan.
It's also not really a sports car, as much as it is a sporty-looking car. Perhaps these aggressive looks influenced the way I thought the car might perform. It looks faster than it delivers.
The little 1.6-liter direct injection engine gives the Veloster some muscle with 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque.
That's more than enough to tool around town or cruise down the highway, but its pickup is never going to knock your socks off. In both the six-speed manual and dual clutch automatic I tested, the Veloster seemed more in a hurry to get to its fuel saving overdrive gear than provide quick acceleration.
In the manual, first and second gears run through very quickly and fifth and sixth gears offer very little acceleration when you press the accelerator all the way to the floor. If you drive the car at higher revs, its performance feels much sportier.
In the automatic, especially on the highway, the all-new dual clutch transmission tends to whine when aggressive acceleration is desired -- such as entering the highway or trying to zip past one more car before that exit. There are paddle-like shifters with the automatic that can help hold gears longer for additional pick up.
The Veloster, however, does seem to handle itself on the road pretty well. During a day of driving, the stiff, light body (the manual model tips the scales at just over 2,500 pounds) handled itself very well. The electric rack-and-pinion steering is not as firm as you'd expect in a sports car, but it holds itself well through corners and feels comfortable on the highway.
So the Veloster provides a mixed bag on the performance side.
The manual Veloster will get you 40 mpg highway and 28 mpg city. (The automatic Veloster hits 29 mpg city and 38 mpg highway.) Compact cars, no matter how many doors, need those kind of mileage numbers to even get someone's consideration nowadays -- especially with the likes of the Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze all topping 40 mpg.
A look that stands out
But the Veloster is different than all of those compact cars. It has a very distinctive look, like nothing else on the market.
The low, flat roofline gives it a unique profile, and if you opt for the $2,000-style package, the roof looks as if it's entirely made of glass. (It's part of the Panoramic sunroof.) That package also includes 18-inch wheels that look fantastic stuffed up inside its flared fenders.
The low clearance -- 5.6 inches -- gives the Veloster a mean street look. Its front face is taut and the headlights stretch back and cut into the fenders. The tiny grille and open intakes below the bumper add to that aggressive look.
The rear is equally as mean. The dual glass hatch looks better from the outside looking in than the inside looking out. (You'll see the bar that connects the pieces in your rear view mirror, though your view is not that obstructed.) And the dual chrome tipped exhaust pipes add a shiny jewel to the tail of the package.
The interior is appealing with comfortable, well-bolstered seats, and an asymmetrical dash and lots of gadgets to play with.
There's a nice feel to the front two seats, and the Veloster feels techno-friendly and spacious. There's a 7-inch, high-resolution touch screen at the top of the center stack that is bookended with long, narrow vents.
The controls below the screen are easy to use.
The Veloster also features Hyundai's Blue Link, the next step in telematics and infotainment. It's much more than Bluetooth connectivity and doesn't require a smartphone. There are three basic layers: Assurance, Essentials and Guidance.
Assurance includes safety assistance, collision help (when airbags deploy) and roadside assistance. Think Korean OnStar.
Essentials includes voice-text messaging (which requires the phone to be connected to the car via Bluetooth) and location sharing, which at the touch of a button on the mirror sends your car's location to a predetermined group of friends and your Facebook page. Guidance adds all of the navigation assistance pieces such as traffic alerts, route guidance and the price of gas at nearby locations, as well as turn-by-turn navigation.
Really, none of the ideas are new to the automotive world, but Hyundai has done a good job of packaging them. It will take a few minutes to review and learn them before getting on the road, but it's time well spent.
Pros, cons to third door
And of course, there's that third door. The second-row door is on the passenger's side. Personally, I wish it were on the driver's side, so the driver could use it to toss his computer bag into the back seat. But it's on the passenger's side to make it safer for curbside unloading and loading. Really, that makes more sense.
The plus side to this single door, which includes a hidden handle up high, is that the driver's side door is bigger.
The down side to the single door is that if someone wants to sit behind the driver, he has to slide across the back seat. It's not that big of a hassle, but something that might get old over an extended period of time.
And while the second-row door might make it easier to load a baby into a car seat -- something that is back-breaking work in a coupe -- the low roof may mean a bump or two on the back of your head.
All of that said, the back door, even though there's only one, makes the Veloster a little more interesting and useful than standard coupes. But it's still a little less useful than sedans.
On a scale of two doors to four, the Veloster is a solid three.
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Exterior: Excellent. Sharp, distinctive design makes the Veloster stand out in a crowd of sedate compact cars.
Interior: Good. Well laid out, interesting and functional, design. Third door proves very useful.
Performance: Good. Car does not perform as sporty as it looks, but still does a decent job on the road.
Pros: Unique design, loads of amenities and high gas mileage makes this a great daily driver.
Cons: People with four passengers on a regular basis may tire of sliding across the second row.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor