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Hyundai Veloster is filled with value but low on power

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Hyundai Motor Co. recently put on sale its all-new Veloster three-door coupe, and without pledging any affinity for their music, the car is a rolling Jonas Brothers concert.

It features plenty of sanitized, youthful appeal and positive energy, with nary a hint of danger or bite. It's ostensibly designed for those looking to express themselves in a more spirited, edgy way than they can with Hyundai's other excellent yet docile compact offerings, the Accent and Elantra.

The Veloster certainly looks the part. Its aggressive stance features wide shoulders around the rear wheels, accented by dual center-mounted exhaust tips below the rear bumper. Up front, fake engine vents on the hood hint at power lying in wait beneath.

But unfortunately, it's going to be a long wait. Hyundai built this car with an eye on a 40-mile-per-gallon fuel economy rating and a competitive price tag, both of which the South Korean-made Veloster has. But the sacrificial lamb in that equation was horsepower and acceleration.

This Hyundai lacks both, and its original presentation belies a placid demeanor the Disney marketing machine behind Kevin, Joe and Nick can probably relate to.

If you're OK with that, you'll be OK with the Veloster.

The underpowered heart of this Hyundai is a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder unit that makes 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. It's the same unit the company uses in its smaller and lighter Accent.

Though outmatched by the heavier Veloster's weight, the engine does have a bit of tech going for it in its direct injection system. This fuel-saving trick and the Veloster's standard six-speed manual transmission help the car hit 28 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway. During 225 miles of more city than freeway driving, I averaged 25.5 mpg.

Hyundai also offers a rarity in this class; a six-speed, dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters. Velosters with this $1,250 optional gearbox are rated 29 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway.

And the tricks don't stop there. Although the Veloster has the proportions of a two-door coupe, Hyundai managed to tuck behind the passenger door a third door. It's a real, front-hinged door too, and it provides access to the Veloster's two rear seats. Hyundai says they chose to put it on the right side of the car for better curbside access.

Regardless of which door you choose, an outstanding interior awaits.

Fit and finish inside the Veloster are impressive. With a base price a hair over $18,000, there is little else you can get with this content and quality.

All four seats are comfortable and nicely bolstered. Rear headroom and legroom is a little tight for the 6-foot-plus crowd, but is entirely suitable for shorter trips. The rear seats are split 60/40 and even with them up, the Veloster has plenty of trunk space.

The only ergonomic complaint is that the hatchback's low hinge impedes rear visibility. But like on a Prius, the panel below it and above it are glass, which helps mitigate the issue.

Standard features on the Veloster include Bluetooth connectivity, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, a trip computer, power windows, heated mirrors and keyless entry. Safety on all Velosters comes in the form of four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, six air bags, stability control and a tire pressure monitoring system.

The best feature is a 7-inch touch screen at the center of the dashboard. The screen controls the six-speaker audio system with iPod and USB integration.

Veloster owners can also use the integrated RCA hookup to connect to the screen a gaming console or DVD player (only when the car is in park). Gimmicky? Perhaps, but keep in mind the Veloster's target buyer was reared on MTV's "Pimp My Ride," where they stuffed a video screen on every flat surface except the gas pedal.

My Boston Red test car also had on it the $2,000 Tech Package. This adds to the screen a high-resolution navigation system and backup camera. It also includes 18-inch alloy wheels with body-color inserts and a push-button start.

On top of that was the $2,000 Style Package. It adds a panoramic sunroof; fog lights; an eight-speaker, 450-watt sound system with subwoofer; alloy pedals; and faux-leather seat bolsters. That panoramic roof works well with the aforementioned glass hatch to give even the back seats a welcoming, open feel.

Throw in some $95 floor mats (is undercoating next?) and this loaded, manual-transmission Veloster went out the door for $22,155.

All this value comes into context when you get the Veloster on the road.

In city and canyon driving, the car moves about with agility. The suspension is nicely balanced, though on the firm side, and body roll is minimal.

The manual shifter has a light feel to it and the clutch pedal is plenty forgiving; this would be an excellent transmission to learn how to drive a manual, if anyone is doing that these days.

But get the car on the open road or in the passing lane and the engine just looks at you and shrugs. I don't think I've spent this much time with my foot flat on the floor since my last middle school dance.

Peak power comes at a lofty 6,300 rpm, mighty close to the Veloster's redline. Count on at least two downshifts when passing to get anything usable.

The Veloster's zero-to-60 time is in the neighborhood of 8.8 seconds, according to Motor Trend. That's 1.2 seconds slower than it takes a manual-equipped Scion tC, the Veloster's closest competitor, to hit the same speed. You can thank the tC's extra 42 horsepower and 50 pound-feet of torque.

Aside from the dearth of power, the only other oversight on the Veloster is the over-boosted electric-power steering system. Hyundai says it's "sport-tuned," but in reality it just fights driver input with too much synthetic resistance.

For some Veloster shoppers, the lack of might won't be an issue. If horsepower rates on your list of priorities just below a rear-seat mounted toaster, you'll find little fault with the Veloster as is. It's unique, practical and a well-made bargain.

But for those who want their car's bite to back up its bark, you're going to be disappointed. Fuel-efficient, economical and powerful; you can only have two of the three. Hyundai went with the first two.

Maybe that will change next summer, when Hyundai says it will drop a turbocharged engine in the Veloster. Wait — a little bit longer.

Which, incidentally, is the name of a Jonas Brothers album.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

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