2012 Hyundai Veloster
Power: 138 hp, 123 lb-ft
Engine: 1.6-liter 4 cylinder
Fuel consumption: 28 city/40 hwy
Price as tested: $23,325

It took courage for Hyundai to build the Veloster. The little hatchback is aimed at young drivers, and history has proven that their fickle tastes can kill even the most valiant effort.

Take the Toyota Echo, for example, precursor to the current Yaris. The Echo was a replacement for the long-running Tercel, and it was intended to be cool enough to attract teens and 20-somethings. But when the car launched in 2000, middle-aged people snapped it up. They appreciated its frugality as much as its high seating position and tall roof, which made it easy to get in and out of.

Several years later, Toyota launched Scion, an entire brand focusing on being young and hip. But the Echo effect happened all over again with two of its three models: the xB crossover and, to a lesser extent, the smaller xA hatchback.

Hyundai, on the other hand, has so far appealed to young drivers purely by offering more for less, loading its cars with amenities and generous warranties at prices that undercut the competition.

The Korean company continues to do that, but now it is focused on boosting its brand image, as well. It wants to be “in” with the cool kids.

That’s where the Veloster comes in. You can tell it was styled to make an impression, whether you like its looks or not.

A couple of groups of young adults at a trendy event Hyundai hosted in Manhattan weren’t super impressed with the tricked-out Velosters on display. But in talking with them, I could tell they weren’t turned off by them, either.

The cars had flashy paint jobs, huge rims, and massive flat-screen TVs in their trunks. The event was one of Hyundai’s so-called Re:Mix Labs, which promotes a music project and documentary film.

The effort proves Hyundai hopes to catch the attention of hipsters. But the company is going about things in an interesting way—without being too heavy handed. For example, the documentary, titled Re:Generation, follows five DJs who collaborate with influential artists from other genres to create newly imagined musical mash-ups. The Veloster doesn’t appear anywhere in the film, but production staff used the hatchbacks behind the scenes to cart equipment and run errands. Find out more about the Re:Generation project here.

Several young ladies at the Re:Mix Lab in New York said they’d have no qualms driving the Veloster. And none of the half-dozen young partygoers thought driving a Hyundai would be a hit to their image.

That alone proves Hyundai has already distanced itself from its previous reputation of being a brand that puts out cheap, undesirable cars.

Hyundai put one door on the driver’s side of the Veloster because consumers in focus groups said they liked walking up to sporty coupe more than a frumpy four-door. But it added a rear door on the occupant side to address concerns that came up over getting in and out of the rear seat.

The asymmetry seems strange, but hipsters at the Re:Mix Lab immediately got the concept and liked it. In practice, the passenger-side rear door works well, too—or at least better than something like the rear-hinged half door on the passenger side of a Mini Clubman.

On a test drive up the Hudson River from Hoboken, N.J., the Veloster reaffirmed several things we’ve come to expect from Hyundais of late: the interior layout, fit, and finish are impeccable. Controls are finely crafted and well placed. And there is a sense of quality about the cabin.

Front seats were comfortable enough, and there was decent legroom in the back. Rear headroom was tight, though, with my head barely clearing the glass of the rear hatchback.

One downside is that the interior feels claustrophobic because of the small windows. You can hardly see out the rear side windows when sitting in the back. The cargo hold is decent—not cavernous, but it will hold a few duffles and a large laundry bag, at least.

In terms of driving dynamics, the Veloster was just O.K. Fuel economy is good, but the engine is underpowered and not quite as refined as a four-cylinder from Honda or Toyota. Steering is sharp and made the car feel sporty and nimble. The suspension felt stiff. It could use some fine-tuning to make it more compliant.

The interior didn’t seem to get too noisy when driving on the highway, but it wasn’t as quiet as, say, a Chevrolet Cruze. This is to be expected, because having the cargo area connected to the passenger compartment, as happens with hatchbacks, lets in more road noise.

We drove a couple of different models, including one with the optional dual-clutch transmission and a tech package and style package, which added things like 18-inch wheels, a sunroof, and navigation system. All of those options bring the suggested retail price to $23,325. That’s only $380 less than a Honda Civic Si Coupe with navigation system, which comes only with a manual six-speed transmission, but blows the Velsoter away in terms of performance. A Scion tC with the optional automatic transmission, upgraded stereo and navigation system costs $542 less than the top-of-the-line Veloster.

Neither of those competing cars have the passenger-side rear door like the Veloster does. Still, the Veloster isn’t an overwhelming bargain as are other Hyundai vehicles.

Last month, Hyundai unveiled a new version of the Veloster at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It has a more powerful turbocharged engine and aggressive front-end styling. We like the look of the base model better, but we’d probably spring for the turbo, because we prefer snappy acceleration.

The Veloster looks like a good candidate to attract young drivers. Scion’s tC, another sporty looking hatchback that is a direct competitor to the Veloster, has remained immune to the old-fogey bug, a terminal illness to young drivers. So at least that bodes well for it making inroads among America’s youth.

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