Veloster keeps quirks, adds power and refinement

July 12, 2018 by · Comments Off on Veloster keeps quirks, adds power and refinement
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

New 2019 Hyundai Veloster R-Spec is refined and adds performance features.

By John Gilbert

   Ideas for new car designs come and go with regularity, and every once in a while, one comes out that startles the often-boring norms. If it’s successful while standing out amid the sameness, it might earn the ultimate praise and be called “quirky.”

  In 2007, Hyundai showed its new Veloster, which was certain to be quirky as soon as it hit the pavement. That came in 2011, after it was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show. It sets new standards of being quirky, with one big door on the driver’s side, and two smaller doors on the passenger side. Who ever heard of a 3-door coupe?

   Curiously, about the same time Nissan brought out its Juke, an odd-looking compact that looked like a small SUV that had partially melted. That was quirky enough to look like a sibling of the Veloster, but they both endured in their separate ways.

   As the auto world turns, things change. Nissan decided to come out with a smaller crossover called the Kicks, and it will replace the Juke, apparently.

   If that means the Veloster must soldier on alone, it can handle it. Motor Trend announced there would be no change to the 2018 Veloster, but Hyundai fooled ‘em. Behind the curtain, Hyundai had prepared an all-new Veloster to replace the original, as a 2019 model. It is somewhat more mainstream, with some of the odd bulges rounded off.

With two doors on the right, the Veloster is a 2-door coupe from the driver’s side.

   But the Veloster’s main trademark remains. If you approach it from the driver’s side, it is a compact little 2-door coupe; approach it from the passenger side, and it appears to be a compact 4-door sedan. In reality, it is both. The Veloster has a large door on the driver’s side, although you could still squeeze behind the driver’s bucket into the rear. But no need. On the passenger side, there are two doors, big enough in front, and conveniently sized for easy entrance to the rear.

    Mike O’Brien, the affable vice president for product planning for Hyundai America, calls it a “compact sporty car,” and that covers it well. It will continue the unique 2-plus-1 door design, and its center dual exhausts. It also adds all the latest safety and security items, such as blind spot alert, rear cross traffic warning, and adds the ability to execute voice commands. Wireless charging gives it a progressive feature, and it also provides attention alert, to startle you back to full focus if it senses that your senses are fading.

   Veloster used to be underpowered, with an adequate normally-aspirated 1.6-liter engine. For 2019, there is a proven 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, with Atkinson cycle valve-delay operation, as seen in the Elantra and new Kona SUV. It delivers 147 horsepower at 6,200 RPMs and 132 foot-pounds of torque at 6,000.

   Those are decent numbers, but the optional engine is a prize — a 1.6-liter turbocharged 4, producing 201 horsepower at 6,000 revs and an impressive 195 foot-pounds of torque that maintains that peak from 1,500 to 4,500 RPMs — or, from idle speed to don’t-attract-the-cops.

   Hyundai acknowledges that Veloster is a niche car, but it fits the company’s carefully timed plan to offer performance options on top of economy and quality at an affordable price. O’Brien points out that the median age of Hyundai buyers is 55, and for Veloster it is 49, helping lead into that lucrative younger-buyer element. Also, 45 percent of Veloster buyers traded their cars in for another Hyundai product.


Some of the odd bulges have been smoothed out, as the Veloster transforms into a smooth sporty coupe.

The new Veloster, however, might prove to be a destination more than a stepping stone, because along with all its features that are above its quirkiness and station, it also adds a strong dose of performance.

   Hyundai had a regional introduction for the Veloster and the Kona,  in Detroit. Part of the reason, officials said, was to show the U.S. media that this time Detroit is serious about recreating itself and eliminating its long-standing blight and boarded-up locations. So part of the programmed drive route took us through some urban areas so we could see for ourselves. By luck, I had enlisted an old friend, Frank Washington, as codriver. Frank and I have often driven together, but this time it was special, because he’s a black man who has lived in the tough areas of Detroit, and as we drove, he was able to give me a graphic tour of what new projects are happening and what historic site it might have been.

   As it turned out, we drove only the turbo 1.6 version of the Veloster, and were impressed, especially with its coordination with the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic. With paddle shifters on the 7-speed, we were impressed with the car’s handling.

Cleanly restyled interior enhances driving pleasure with Veloster’s new features.

   We were supposed to switch to the 2.0, but instead I jumped at the chance to try the sportier “R Spec” version, with flashier appearance and Hyundai’s homebuilt 6-speed stick, that shifts as smoothly as any manual in the industry.

   Suspension has been modified, revised in the front, with multilink replacing the beam unit at the rear, which enhances all Veloster new models, but the R-Spec adds special 18-inch alloys with high-performance Michelin Pilot tires with the new suspension stiffened and steering also tightened, plus an enhanced “exhaust character” gizmo. You can set the car for normal, sport, or smart, and if you like the exhaust sound, you can pipe in “active engine sound” and either increase the volumn or eliminate it electronically through the audio system speakers.

   Fuel economy rates 28 city and 34 highway in the Ultimate 1.6-turbo, while the R-Spec offers 26/33. The 2.0 should get as good and maybe more miles per gallon, just because you wouldn’t be expected to drive it as hard.

On the 4-door side, Veloster also houses surprisingly large storage space under the hatch.

   With a length of less than an inch longer, at 166.9 inches, and less than an inch wider, at 70.9 inches, the Veloster has the same height and wheelbase, but inside it takes better advantage of what’s available. Mike Evanoff, manager of small car product planning, said that cargo space behind the second row seats is more than in the Volkswagen Beetle, Mini Cooper, Fiat 500, and Toyota C-HR — all of which might fit into the “quirky” corner of their showrooms, but none of which can match the Veloster’s performance.

   On top of that, when you select the 1.6 turbo you get the choice of 6-speed stick, automatic, or 7-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddles, while the R-Spec offers stick only.

   Perhaps the best news is the pricing of the new Veloster. The basic front-wheel-drive with the 2.0 stdarts at $18,500. Move up to the automatic and it’s $1,000 more. Moving all the way up, past the Ultimate’s impressive feature upgrades, to the top of the line Turbo R version, and it’s a mere $22,900.

Various interiors show style upgrades for 2019.

   For all that performance, and 30-plus miles per gallon, starting under $23,000 is a bargain for shoppers looking to downsize, or for a second car as an urban runabout, or for sending a kid off to college with a safe, solid vehicle.

  Among the features, Evanoff said the customers most-want the blind-spot detection/warning, but what might be most important is a sophisticated new advanced emergency braking feature, which not only warns you if you’re closing too fast on the car ahead, but will apply full braking to help you stop in time to avoid an impending accident.

   Known for building durable and trouble-free cars with great mileage, at bargain prices, the value and safety built in to the Veloster will now be augmented by a new high-performance division, also, which will be called “N Brand.” Other models will follow, and there will be aftermarket availability in the near future. The “N” comes from Namyang, which is the core development site in South Korea for all of Hyundai’s somewhat subtle performance operations.

   The punch in the Ns will come from ideas brought forth by Albert Biermann, hired away from BMW, where he had a hand in developing that company’s “M” models at all levels. Maybe it’s logical that he follows up the M with the N. And maybe it’s about time Hyundai takes so much of what it’s learned in various types of racing and pours it into a high-performance specialty division.

Spoiler adds sporty flair with center-mounted exhaust pipes that can be tuned through R-Spec audio.

   Otherwise, settling for the “normal” new Veloster is impressive to begin with. It’s been most of a decade since Hyundai stepped out of its mundane stature and developed and built its own high-tech engines, strengthened its bodies and frames with high-strength steel from its own plants, built its own transmissions, added considerable style, and steadily improved on its reputation for high quality and efficiency with cars that offer more than the modest prices might suggest. The 2019 Veloster now means you can choose to combine that reputation with the cute and quirky leader and now gain some real performance fun.

Rams, Jeeps, 797-hp Challengers await 2019

July 5, 2018 by · Comments Off on Rams, Jeeps, 797-hp Challengers await 2019
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 
Discontinuing the Demon didn't mean Dodge was giving up its most-powerful image, as three hot Challengers emerge for 2019.

The Dodge Demon is gone, but long live the more potent 2019 Challenger Hellcat Redeye.

By John Gilbert

   When Dodge Charger and Challenger were powered by almost-obscenely powerful Hemi V8 engines, the curiosity was what could Dodge do next? Next, it turns out, was the definitely-obscene Hellcats with 700 horsepower in 2015. That, we figured, was the ultimate tire-screecher. Then, a year ago, Dodge brought out the overwhelmingly-obscene 2017 Demon, with still more power and torque, and a wider-platform for enhanced stability.

   Now it’s 2018, and amid rumors that companies such as Ford, and Dodge parent FCA (Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles), are considering reducing or discontinuing cars in favor of building more and more profitable trucks, we approached the “What’s New for ’19” event at the FCA Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Michigan, with even more curiosity. Turns out, a trio of crazy-powerful Challengers are coming out, and all we are lacking is new adjectives to describe them.


Barely into showrooms, the 2019 Ram 1500 shows styling differences.

Back in the real world, I heckled a few good friends at the company about when it would switch over all its factories to strictly Ram trucks and Jeeps, but they didn’t take the bait. My heckle was based on the undeniable facts measuring the year-to-date production and sales of all FCA vehicles. Updated figures for the first six months of 2018 show Ram sold 189,997 pickups through June, and 110,382 Wranglers.

   Those are by far the top sellers for FCA worldwide. Wrangler, all new in the last year and vastly improved overall, including the spectacular new Chrysler-built 2.0 turbocharged engine, increased sales by 38 percent from last year, through June. Ram’s top-selling figure, on the other hand, actually decreased in sales for the same period by 8 percent, because the completely redone 2019 Ram was not fully distributed to dealers early this calendar year.

Jeep revision complete, with Cherokee, left, and Compass moving up and Wrangler made over.

However, ranking all the rest of Dodge, Chrysler, Fiat and Jeep vehicles, the order following 1. Ram and 2. Wrangler for the first six months of this year were: 3. Grand Cherokee, 91,589, barely holding off 4. the smaller Cherokee, which showed a 31 percent increase to 91,286, and 5. the Compass, also entirely new, at 72,368 for a whopping 315-percent increase. Just shows what you can do when you do a good job of reinventing a model.

   The rest of the top dozen are 6. the Caravan (70,511), 7. Pacifica (53,910), 8. Renegade (41,906), 9. Journey (41,023), 10. Charger (34,786), 11. Challenger (30,545), and Durango (27,378).

   Ram remains the king and is certain to increase sales as 2018 continues, but after noting the 189,997 sales for six months, if we add together all the Jeeps — Wrangler, Grand Cherokee, Cherokee, Compass and Renegade — sales are a combined 407,531.

   Those are some surprising numbers, and remember, they are only for the first six months of 2018. But the Caravan, which seemed destined to be discontinued in the face of the all-new Pacifica, not only is soldiering on, it watched Pacifica sales improve by 14 percent and improved its own status to outsell its much-heralded cousin. Read more

Kona gives Hyundai high-caffeine CUV

June 13, 2018 by · Comments Off on Kona gives Hyundai high-caffeine CUV
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

New Kona fills out subcompact, high tech end of SUV fleet.

By John Gilbert

DETROIT, Michigan

    Driving in Northern Minnesota requires extra diligence because of the long winters and severe ice and snow circumstances, and while moving toward all-wheel-drive has led to enormous growth of Sport Utility Vehicles segment with AWD, the new preference seems to be for the smallest possible vehicle with the attributes of larger SUVs.

    Actually, that’s where my wife, Joan, and I are at in considering a new vehicle for the wilds of the North Shore near Duluth, MN. It is difficult to make a decision, however, among the many exceptional small crossovers. And now, bursting upon the scene, is the Hyundai Kona, which meets just about every requirement we have on our list of “finalists.”

    Not the least of Kona’s assets is that I attained 33.5 miles per gallon with the optional turbo engine while negotiating the all-terrain roads of suburban Detroit.

    If you think you’re keeping up to date on the auto industry, you’re aware how rapidly SUVs are taking over, and how rapidly compact SUVs are going past midsize SUVs. However, while we weren’t paying close attention, something called “subcompact CUVs” were growing faster than even the compact SUVs in the marketplace.

   While cars of all sizes suffered in the highly competitive market over the last year, midsize SUVs grew by 9.4 percent in sales. Compact SUVs — the popular gang that includes the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rogue, Mazda CX-5, Jeep Compass, Ford Escape and others — grew 1.7 percent. Meanwhile, Subcompact CUVs grew at a 4 percent clip, more than twice as fast as compacts.

   That Subcompact CUV group, Hyundai, suggests, includes the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, Toyota C-HR, Mazda CX-3, Jeep Renegade, Subaru Crosstrek, Ford EcoSport, and Nissan Kicks, and is projected to grow another 16 percent this yearit is that segment that Hyundai has aimed the Kona.

Headlights are high, ruinning lights middle, and foglights low on the unique Kona front end.

   Named after Hawaii’s elite coffee, the Kona drives similar to how a swig of Kona’s caffeine might give you a quick uplift. Its looks are, in a word, quirky but unobtrusive. Contemporary in its collection of accent lines, contours and grooves, the Kona comes in four varieties, which are the base SE, the SEL, the Limited, and the Ultimate, ranging in price from just a shade under $20,000 to loaded form right up there at $30,000. Read more

Redone 2019 Ram moves to top of pickup class

March 21, 2018 by · Comments Off on Redone 2019 Ram moves to top of pickup class
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

New Ram features dramatic changes from grille to interior, frame, ride, handling,  powertrains, and capability for 2019.


    If there was any pressure on FCA to come up with a bold, new pickup with the latest generation of the Ram 1500, you couldn’t prove it by the truck itself, or how superbly it performs in any and all conditions. The new Ram is the 2019 model pickup, and maybe that’s appropriate, because if anything it is an advanced look at what a modern, contemporary pickup truck can be.

    It’s old news that the largest selling car in the U.S. if a truck — the Ford F-150, and that the second-largest selling car in the U.S. is also a truck — the Chevrolet Silverado. It is less-well-known that the No. 3 best-selling car in the U.S. is also a truck — the Ram, previously the Dodge Ram.

   Competition among those three is ferocious, to say the least. And with the newly revised F-150 and upcoming Silverado, there was some pressure on FCA, and Dodge, to recreate their Ram pickup carefully. It is done, now, as a 2019 model, just released for the first introductory drives by auto media on the desert highways and sand washes of Arizona. My partner and I were equally impressed, and we are experienced enough that just naming something new is not going to dazzle us. Mostly, we liked the interior room, and design, and more than anything else we repeatedly raved about how silent the Ram was inside.


At home going to the country club or the mall, the 2019 Ram is ready to work, too.

  The 2019 Ram 1500 half-ton pickup was first shown at the Detroit International Auto Show in January, and it made quite an impression. Dodge has broken various new trails in the pickup world, which is what you do when you’re No. 3 and don’t want to accept that status sitting still.

    John Opfer, exterior designer of the new Ram, reminded us that it was back in 1994 that Dodge unveiled its radical new design with the “Big Rig” Ram. To me, it took the somewhat squarish pickup front end and made it look more like a diesel train coming at you, with a massive grille and high, aggressively lunging shoulders for front fenders. That polarizing style, as well as a group of Hemi V8 engines, helped the Ram break into the tight competition between Ford and Chevy.

   On the 2019 model, Opfer says, “We have a modern iteration of the Big Rig.”

   I don’t think so, although it’s understandable Ram might be reluctant to give up its big, bold trademark image. It seems to me that while Ford and Chevy, and maybe Tundra and Titan, have been getting more and more aggressive in styling perhaps because of the Ram, so the new Ram backs off a bit. Instead of the familiar massive stacked grille, the new one has a refined look with the grille more of a horizontal oval, split by a stylish horizontal bar, which stops in the middle to allow imbedding the letters “RAM.” A nice touch is that fitted right into the small gap at the bottom of the “A” is the forward camera, which works within a system for forward-collision warning, which converts to braking assist if a collision appears imminent.

   If the new Ram looks sleeker, don’t believe for a second that it is anything but huge. as Jim Morrison, the head of Ram Brand, explained. “This is the largest truck in the segment, with a 4-inch increase in length,” Morrison said. “That allows us to have a larger interior, which is 3 inches longer in the rear seat alone, which can now recline. Not only is Ram growing, but it also has the highest loyalty rating among pickups. We are attracting new customers, and keeping them.” Read more

XC40 is new, stylish, agile — and still Volvo-safe

March 1, 2018 by · Comments Off on XC40 is new, stylish, agile — and still Volvo-safe
Filed under: New car introductions, Autos 

Rain in Texas Hill Country caused the rivers to rise, and the Volvo XC40 never flinched.


  With snow up to our knees in Duluth, Minnesota, after a mid-February blizzard, I had two choices. I could (A) keep reviewing a half-dozen different SUVs, trucks, and AWD sedans that I have been driving to handle the snow and ice, or (B) I could escape to Austin, Texas, for the introductory media drive of the all-new Volvo XC40.

    I chose “B.”

    It was  not just to avoid the latest mid-February storm, because to go, I had to miss some really good sectional high school hockey playoff games. However, I have been waiting for about three years for Volvo to create the XC40 and to get my hands on one, and seeing it on display at the Detroit and Chicago Auto Shows, I couldn’t resist.

    Regular readers of my automotive reviews, in the Duluth Reader, or on the website, know that my preference in SUVs is to go for the smallest one that’s big enough. Anything larger is wasted weight to haul around. Volvo has an exceptional XC90 SUV, which won Truck of the Year and outperforms larger SUVs. Volvo also has the XC60, which is a more compact midsize SUV with the same drivetrain — a sophisticated 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine either turbocharged or both supercharged and turbocharged for amazing power, while still delivering impressive fuel economy. Both also feature Volvo’s long-standing tradition of building the safest vehicles on the road.

Fresh design varies from Volvo tradition, inside and out, pushing the XC40 to the forefront of contemporary style.

   The XC40 comes along considerably more compact, and it shares in all those assets including the balanced handling and the vault-like safety structure, and the turbo 4, but it’s far from simply another downsizing exercise.

    “Usually a new vehicle is based on an existing one,” said Anders Gunnarson, Volvo’s senior design manager. “But the XC40 started fresh. It is a cousin of the XC90 andXC60, but we wanted to give it its own identity. You can see the similarities, but also the differences. The XC40 is based on our new CMA — Compact Modular Architecture.

   “Our objective was to give it three main things — expressive design, smart technology, and ingenious storage. It has true SUV proportions, with short, compact overhangs front and rear. As designers, we get inspired by things other than cars, and we chose the materials and colors for the interior carefully.

Thinner redesigned seats retain Volvo standard for support and comfort.

Clean R-Design interior adds dose of color.

We drove the “Momentum” and the “R Design” models around downtown Austin, then out west of the city into the famous Texas Hill Country, where challenging winding roads become more challenging because Texans apparently don’t think enough of shoulders to put them on the outside of their 2-lanes. Volvo also makes an upscale “Inscription” model.

    All of the XC40s can be bought with all-wheel drive, a $2,000 option on the front-wheel-drive base versions. All of the initial test cars had that impressive feature, which helps it snake around corners, and, presumably, would be an enormous benefit to those trying to scale the cliffs of Duluth in the snowstorms I left behind.

   The powertrain is another example of Volvo engineering, with a 4-cylinder engine measuring just under 2.0 liters (1.969 cubic centimeters, actually). The now-familiar aluminum Volvo 4 has direct injection and is boosted by a turbocharger in the XC40, and its power ratings are impressive: 248 horsepower at 5,500 RPMs, and 258 foot-pounds of torque with that peak ranging from 1,800-4,800 RPMs. Miraculous, what these engineers can do with a strong design, turbocharging, direct injection, and computers coordinating it all.

    An 8-speed automatic transmission is standard, and it does a very good job in the Momentum, which starts at $35,200 with all-wheel drive, although you simply put the gear lever into “D” for drive and let it go. In the sportier R Design, we had a separate sport-manual gate we could shift into for manual operation, plus it had steering wheel paddles, which convert the power and transmission from impressive SUV category to sport-sedan-like pep and fun.


The Momentum version of the XC40 comes with contrasting roof, which accentuates design.

The Momentum had 19-inch wheels, although 18-inch are the standard size on the base front-wheel-drive XC40. The R-Design my co-driver and I drove had 20-inch alloys. Designers love 20-inch wheels, because they like to draw their designs with large wheel openings, then they feel compelled to fill those openings with larger wheels than anyone needs.

    Without a doubt, larger wheels — which have thinner tire sidewalls to duplicate the smaller wheels with thicker sidewalls — make your vehicle corner shaper and have more sporty precision around curvy roads. However, they also offer less cushioning from the narrower sidewalls, and can translate into harsh feeling on rough roadways.

    I thought both XC40s we drove handled very well. MacPherson struts in front and a 4-link rear suspension with stabilizer bar kept us on the road no matter how we challenged it. And while we didn’t have anything resembling snow, we had steady rain threatening to turn into thunderstorms in, I hesitate to say, 72-degree temperature.

    Naturally, the engineering technology came from the XC90 by way of the XC60, but one thing that prevents the lighter, more agile, and sportier looking XC40 in the mid-$30,000-and-up range is that Volvo officials have deduced that while customers want SUVs, and have made the compact-crossover SUV segment the fastest growing in the industry, customers also want all the creature comforts they can find in the larger SUVs.


Enlarged navigation screen, clever stowage niches for computers and connectivity dominate the interior

Added to all those lane-departure and alerts to help you avoid accidents and physical intrusion if you still seem headed for one, the XC40 adds some specific interior tricks. Storage cubicles seem to be everywhere, and you could fit an iPad or a small laptop in form-fitted slots in the doors, and in storage drawers under the front bucket seats. There also is a build-in charge pad at the front of the console for your cellular phone.

   Open the hatch and there is a roomy storage area, and it also has ingenius features such as a rear floor that folds up to offer security for grocery bags, and there are special hooks designed to hold more bags in isolation. A hidden compartment under the rear floor panel also is standard.

R-Design adds sport features for 2.0 turbo 4, which is the perfect urban runabout, too

   Standard equipment includes LED lights, digital gauges, leather seats, lane departure warning, and off-road mitigation, which actually will do its best to prevent you from drifting off the highway.

   Those bucket seats, by the way, continue Volvo’s tradition of making simply the best, most comfortable, and most supportive seats in the industry. These are smaller and lighter, but just as comfortable.

   Optional also is a Harmon Kardon audio upgrade which has 13 speakers and enough power to light Austin and parts of Dallas. Sitting in the rear seat, the separation and clarity of this audio system is exceptional.

   After proving to myself that the XC40 lived up to the lofty standards I had set for it, all I could envision was the chance to get one for a week’s test drive in the Great White North of Minnesota. Preferably while there’s still snow to be churned through.


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