Who doesn’t have fond memories of his first car? Maybe not your high-school, hand-me-down jalopy, but that first new vehicle you actually bought. The one without seat stains or mysterious rattles, and that had a little sex appeal.
In my college years, that car was most often the Honda Civic. Now it’s more likely to be a Hyundai or Kia.
Your daughter or son may already have an eye on the Hyundai Veloster. Take in the name: someone who has velocity -- just this side of hip without pretension.
Prices starting at just over $18,000 don’t hurt. And stuffed with everything, it tops out at $23,310.
At first glance it’s a two-door wagon, a burst of exaggerated, optimistic design. The long, narrow side windows capture the energy of the Nike swoop, the bulges around the wheels are exuberant. Hood intakes, creases around the nose, magnum-sized headlamps -- the only thing the designers didn’t throw in was a kitchen sink.
It’s a mess, but a happy one, not unlike a college dorm room. The subtext? Good things happen inside here.
With color choices from “electrolyte” green, “Vitamin C” orange and a vibrant red, you can pretty much match your iPod Nano. Avoid the “personalized” graphics on the exterior skin though. You might as well hang a “dork” sign around your neck.
There are practical touches like the clever side door on the passenger side, which makes for an easier entry to the back seats. It’s almost camouflaged, with the door handle secreted in dark paneling. (The driver’s side door is a bit longer.) And the rear hatch makes for efficient storage.
The 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine is a modest thing, with 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. It’s no high-revving screamer, but it gives the Veloster a good little push down the road. (We’ll see a turbo-charged version later.)
The engine’s small size and direct-injection combine with a standard six-speed manual for 40 miles per gallon on the freeway -- the target number of many cars today. Springing around town nets 28 mpg.
The Honda CR-Z hybrid, a sharply stylized competitor, has fewer horses and can’t hit 40 mpg on the highway. It gets figures of 37 and 31 respectively with the manual. The Toyota Scion tC also fits into the category of youth-oriented economy cars, and has a larger, 180-hp engine and similar price.
The Veloster’s other available transmission is a double-clutch automated system, which shifts for you or can be controlled by behind-the-wheel paddles. This type of equipment was formerly found only on high-end sports cars, showing how quickly technology trickles down these days. Today’s Ferrari is tomorrow’s college-kid runabout.
My test car came with the automated system. It clicks quickly through gears -- too quickly perhaps -- ensuring the best gas mileage. But you can always downshift on the fly when you need a bit of extra kick. It won’t outrun a Porsche, but you probably don’t want your kid gunning down the street anyhow.
The highway quickly shows up the Veloster’s faults. Under hard acceleration the engine is loud, with road vibrations setting the seats atremble. It rides far better than the economy cars of yore, but nobody will mistake it for an Audi.
Testing the Veloster on rain-washed streets, the front-wheel-drive carried me through deep puddles capably. Stability and traction control are standard, as are six airbags. Steering is true, an element that Hyundai is improving all the time.
Seats are cloth, though you can opt for “leatherette” bolsters and a red-and-black combination. The plastic dashboard has a nice weave, so it doesn’t look like a single hunk of boring polymer. (Unlike the latest Honda Civic.) You can get an optional panoramic roof, too. Overall it’s upmarket and attractive.
I suspect that most enticing to young buyers from Generation Gadget will be the electronics. A seven-inch touch-screen is standard; it operates everything from the Bluetooth to the stereo, which is set up to control an iPod and even shows album covers. The optional navigation system includes a rearview camera.
Overprotective parental types can also take heart. An optional subscription service called Blue Link functions like an electronic tether, sending out a text alert if the car breaks a selected “geo-fence.” Similarly, it will alert you of speeding and past-curfew driving. (Your kids will surely thank you for all that monitoring later.)
At the end of my drive, I couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous. I had a Honda Civic in college and was inordinately proud of the six-CD changer I’d had installed. A car like the Veloster makes that 90s-era Civic look Neolithic.
The 2012 Veloster at a Glance
Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 138 horsepower and 123
pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed manual or automated six-speed dual-
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 8 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 28 city; 40 highway (manual); 29;
Price as tested: $22,550.
Best features: Eye-candy design; Gadget-rich interior.
Worst feature: Relative noise, especially under hard
Target buyer: Your college kid.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)