A few years ago, we put together a comparison pitting four of our favorite hot hatches against one another. Now, in 2012, we have a new generation of fast, turbocharged hatchbacks that deserve a close look. One brand, the winner from the last test—Mini—is represented here again, this time in the Mini Cooper S Coupe. Also in the race is the new Fiat 500 Abarth, which has garnered a lot of attention from the media and the public. Finally, we threw in the Hyundai Veloster Turbo, which we think is both an interesting and exciting candidate, even if it hasn’t had much time to make a name for itself.
So, let the battle begin, starting with a car that has already proven itself to be an exemplary driver’s machine in the digital pages of Winding Road.
Perhaps the most balanced vehicle of our trio is the 2012 Mini Cooper S Coupe. With its 1.6-liter, turbocharged four-pot churning out 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, it situates neatly between the 500 Abarth and the Veloster Turbo. It also bridges the gap on weight, tipping the scales at just under 2700 pounds.
The 1.6-liter turbo being employed by the Mini is a peach of a powerplant. Peak torque is spread liberally throughout the rev range, and the twin-scroll design of its turbocharger allows a quick-spooling nature that was decidedly absent from either of the competitors. The throttle response didn’t feel very crisp, regardless of whether Sport mode was engaged or not. Speaking of Sport, it’s responsible for the delightful noises that come from the Mini’s exhaust. We’ve written about the snapping and popping exhaust of our Cooper S Coupe before, and while it plays second fiddle in this comparison to the diabolical Abarth’s voice, it’s still a cool, aggressive note that really works on a small car.
Routing power to the front wheels is a six-speed manual gearbox. It’s a good enough shifter, with shortish throws and a nice feel at each gate. There’s certainly room for improvement, though. The clutch on our long-term Mini has aged well, but it’s developed a certain grabbiness over the 14,000 miles we’ve driven it. It takes a bit of practice to retrain oneself in using it.
Being a Mini, we shouldn’t be surprised by the ride and handling. It’s a breathtaking dancer, with tight, neutral handling characteristics. Body roll is kept to a minimum. The problem with Minis, though, has always been with the ride. With a sport suspension and stiff, run-flat tires, the Coupe is a jarring vehicle on rough roads. It feels un-composed, with a fair amount of secondary motion coming through on our tester.
Still, the Coupe is the Mini to have if you are interested in feedback through the chassis. Because of the car’s internal structure, weight is transferred just behind the driver. This results in a lot of info on lateral grip levels, and the overall balance of the car. Having access to all this chassis feedback is particularly important, as there’s not a ton of information coming from the steering. Relative to most cars at this price point, though, the Mini is an absolute wealth of information.
The Mini’s steering is of the typical BMW set, with a good deal of weight but not a huge degree of feedback. In standard mode, it feels particularly lifeless and uniform, but builds up weight nicely when Sport is engaged. It’s still a fast, direct, and linear system, and really suits the darty, catlike reflexes of the Cooper’s suspension setup.
Despite having the smallest cabin, the Mini feels really nicely arranged. Headroom is abundant, and despite the love-it/hate-it roof, it’s easy to get in and out and without bonking your head. Inside, there’s enough room in most directions, although you will find yourself sitting rather close to your passenger. Shoulder room might be the one thing the Cooper is short of. The lack of a back seat is an issue, but not in an obvious way. The back seats in the standard Mini hatch are essentially useless for anyone over the age of 12, but provide a high degree of storage space even when they aren’t folded down. With the Coupe, there’s a handy parcel shelf that can easily accommodate backpacks and such, along with a pass-through to the rather spacious trunk.
The Fiat 500 Abarth is an altogether different beast than its competitors. Where the Mini and Veloster are low to the ground, with high beltlines, limited visibility, and a road-scrapping seating position, the Abarth feels like it’s on stilts. The seating position is high, and the visibility is quite good.
This high seating position doesn’t feel particularly sporty, though. Furthermore, drivers over six feet, or those that are particularly long-legged, will need to balance headroom (something that’s in shockingly short supply on our sunroof-equipped tester), being able to reach the tilt-only steering wheel, and working their feet around the smallish pedal box. It’s a very unintuitive driving position, and one that doesn’t feel at all proper in a hot hatch. What’s frustrating is that it’d be reasonably easy to fix. A wider range of height adjustments for the seat and the addition of telescopic steering would result in a far more comfortable cabin for a minimal price.
If you happen to fit into the Abarth, then you’ll be in for a wild ride. It’s the least powerful of our three testers, pumping out 160 horsepower from its turbocharged, 1.4-liter engine, but it’s also the lightest, tipping the scales at a scant 2512 pounds. Moreover, its 170 pound-feet of torque ensure plenty of off-the-line power. The power band isn’t hugely broad, with peak torque available over a relatively small portion of the rev range (2500 to 4000 rpm). There’s also a fair amount of turbo lag, which gives the 500 Abarth a certain old-school tuner-car vibe. This is certainly not a bad thing in our opinion.
Keep the 500 on the boil, and you’ll be treated to one of the best sounding exhausts we’ve tested all year. The deep, burbling, bass note seems completely out of place coming from a diminutive Italian hatch. It forcibly reminds us of the old Dodge Neon SRT-4 and its bigger 2.4-liter turbo. It’s a loud, unapologetic sound from idle all the way to redline, with a sweet crescendo that builds above 4000 rpm. In Sport, upshifts in the high reaches of the rev range deliver a delicious pop from the twin exhausts.
Tossing the Abarth through corners is quite unlike the other vehicles because of its dimensions. At 58.7 inches, it’s 3.6 inches taller than the Veloster (55.1) and 4.4 inches taller than the Mini (54.3). It’s also considerably narrower, at 64.1 inches (not including mirrors) while the Hyundai is seven inches wider (71.1) and the Mini is 2.2 inches wider (66.3).
The result of its narrow, tall body is that it feels decidedly less planted through corners. Roll comes on quicker, but still feels manageable and informative. There’s just a feeling of awkwardness when pushing the Abarth through corners that doesn’t do driver confidence many favors. We imagine, with time, that we’d be able to adjust to the 500s dimensions, and feel more comfortable driving it hard.
Of course, things could be much worse. The suspension on the Fiat does an excellent job of keeping the driver informed of what’s going on, while also trying to compensate for the lack of poise created by those pesky laws of physics. It handles mid-corner imperfections well, exhibiting a balanced, neutral handling character. Fore and aft damping is quite good, with both traits coming on progressively.
The steering, yet another electric system, is a bit lighter than we’d prefer. Feedback is there, but it feels muddled and aloof on center. In the bends, there’s a bit more chatter from the tiller, but it’s still not hugely informative. The weight builds in a linear manner, but there’s still not a great deal of heft in the little Fiat. In some ways, it reminds us of the Mini, giving it a quick dartiness, like an automotive mosquito.
The gearbox, for reasons that are beyond our comprehension, is a five-speed manual. In function, the trans is actually a lot of fun. Like the lagging turbo, the long throws of the Fiat’s gearbox remind us of older performance cars. There’s a satisfying feeling when the longish lever hits each gate, while the clutch offers a fair level of feedback and a broad, easy-to-learn catchpoint.
The problem comes on the freeway. The lack of a sixth gear means the Abarth’s engine is sitting at 3000 rpm at 70 miles per hour, and 3500 rpm at 80. While the droning isn’t as bad as we’d thought it’d be, we can’t imagine fuel economy is going to benefit from these high rpms. The befuddling thing is that Fiat/Chrysler have mated this engine with a six-speed manual on the Dodge Dart. While there may be practical issues of fitting the gearbox and ancillaries on the 500 body, we can’t really believe they are so great as to prevent the engineers from improving the Abarth’s driving experience.
For a turbocharged hot hatch, the Veloster Turbo is surprisingly quiet. At idle, it was nearly silent, and as we ran it through the gears, there just wasn’t a lot going on, sonically. It is essentially the opposite of the raucous Abarth, and, while it does help create a more comfortable living space inside the cabin, it doesn’t do a lot to aid driver involvement.
But just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean it’s dull to drive, or that it lacks the thrust and gusto of the competition. The Veloster’s turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine produces 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. That’s 20 more horsepower than the Mini, and 41 more than the Fiat. We could feel it too. The Hyundai comes to life nicely off the line, then does a pretty good slingshot impression (yet it’s still pretty nondramatic) once the turbo builds up pressure (which doesn’t take long under full throttle). Torque peaks at a low 1750 rpm, and the horsepower carries the car strong through the top end of the rev range. The car can be driven pretty smoothly, too, as there’s a good amount of travel in the gas pedal, making it easy to modulate the amount of power you’re demanding from the engine.
We like the six-speed manual transmission that comes with the Hyundai. It might not be quite as tactile as that in the Mini, but it works just fine. The throws are rather light, and it is easy to row through the gears quickly. The clutch uptake can be a bit tricky at first, especially after getting out of more forgiving vehicles, but we got used to it pretty quickly. Once we did, we found ourselves making magic happen as we flicked the shifter from gate to gate in fast, smooth motions. Another advantage to the Veloster Turbo is that if you find yourself in a situation where downshifting, then shifting again, could cost valuable time, there’s enough thrust low in the rev range to just leave the transmission in the higher gear and compensate with a bit more boot to the right pedal.
The steering in the Veloster turbo is just right for enthusiastic driving. It is responsive and precise, without much play in the tiller. Just aim the wheel where you want the car to go, and it faithfully follows your intended line. The steering provides a good amount of feedback, too, but not so much that it tries to jerk itself out of your hand. It’s just a little vibration to keep you informed about what is going on between the wheels and the road. Overall, it feels good to use, if a bit artificial in its weight and motion. It’s less sporty than the feel in the Mini, but it’s nothing you’d find us complaining about as we took it down our favorite winding roads.
There’s a little more weight and size to fight against with the Veloster Turbo than our other two vehicles. Really, though, the Veloster handles quite well. It’s suspension is a good balance between stiff and pliant, so it remains pretty well composed in the corners, but also won’t be too upset when those corners happen to have some rough spots. It’s not as flat as the Mini, but it certainly doesn’t roll as much as the tall Fiat 500.
The cherry on top of the Veloster’s do-it-all attitude is that its interior space is so livable. Not only does it offer a second row of seating, there is a third door on the passenger side that allows easier access to the back seat. The interior is quite comfortable, and the Turbo comes fairly well equipped for its base price. It features leather seating, heated front seats, proximity key push-button start, and a nice seven-inch touchscreen display. Also, as we mentioned earlier, this is a quiet vehicle. Not only are the motor and exhaust hushed, there is very little tire or suspension chatter, and low wind noise. It was easy to carry on a conversation in the Veloster Turbo, and we didn’t find ourselves becoming fatigued after longer drives.
Depending on what you want from a car, you’ve probably already made up your mind about which of these three sporty hatchbacks you’d want in your garage. Each is a great vehicle in its own ways, and we’d feel pretty lucky to be in the market for any one of them.
Out of our trio, we think the Fiat 500 Abarth is the best looking. The Abarth graphics on the side, the scorpion logo, and the white wheels all do a lot to set this car apart on the road. We definitely got the most looks while driving around town. It is also, by far, the best sounding of the cars we tested. Its raw, loud exhaust note turns heads, and it’s truly impressive that this little Fiat is capable of producing such a hair-raising song. It keeps us involved as we climb the rev ladder, that much is certain. Also, visibility is best in the Fiat, making it easier to spot all the admirers.
The Veloster Turbo is the most powerful of the three, and the fact that it carries a little extra weight doesn’t seem to matter all that much. This car feels fast, and we like it. It is also going to be the easiest to live with, with good second-row access, mature, quiet road behavior, and the most comfortable interior of the three.
The Mini Cooper S Coupe is the most athletic of the trio, as well as the most involving. It feels the most eager to be thrown into a corner, and it provides a lot of feedback through the suspension. Its cabin is very driver-focused, and it made us feel the most like a jet pilot when we got behind the wheel. The six-speed transmission also feels the best suited to confident, sporty driving.
But, if we’re going to pick an overall winner for this comparison, it only makes sense that we’d choose the most well-rounded vehicle of the three: the Hyundai Veloster Turbo. It does the best job of blending entertaining driving dynamics with comfort and practicality. It may not be as involving as the Mini, but it comes pretty damned close to being as much fun while still offering the extra seating and better composure over rough roads. It’s not as beautiful as the Abarth, but its looks are fresh and youthful, and still draw attention, most of it not the unwanted kind. We wouldn’t hesitate taking the Hyundai on an extended road trip to search out some amazing roads, but we’d also be okay taking a client or two on a tour of the town or driving our grandmother out to dinner. It is in no way a punishing vehicle, and it doesn’t sacrifice speed and maneuverability to afford this comfort.
All these cars will have their own happy buyers and diehard fans, and for good reason, too. The Hyundai Veloster Turbo, though is a well balanced crowd-pleaser--especially if that crowd includes people like us.