Review by Peter Bleakney and Mike Schlee, photos by Dave Johannesson, Peter Bleakney, and Mike Schlee

These are good days for car enthusiasts who favour the front-drive turbocharged hot hatch experience. The go-to rides are the wonderfully well-rounded VW GTI, the AJAC class-winning Ford Focus ST, the perennially frisky Mini Cooper S and the raw and scrappy Mazdaspeed3. But what if you want something just a little odd, a bit weird, a car whose styling suggests the owner doesn’t run with the pack? You know, the kind of guy or gal who puts Red Bull on their Cap’n Crunch, has a hidden tattoo and whose iPod sports an equal mix of opera and thrash-metal.

Three turbos
Three turbos
Three turbos. Click image to enlarge

We’ve assembled three funky FWD funsters for this comparo – the 160-hp Fiat 500 Abarth, the 201-hp Hyundai Veloster Turbo and the 200-hp VW Beetle Turbo. Would have been nice to score a Mini Cooper S Coupe which arguably out-weirds them all, but the logistics just didn’t work out.

Also unavailable for this comparo was Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony (away on paternity leave), so we conscripted my good friend, car nut and drummer/singer/guitarist/photographer Dave Johannesson.

While quite similar in layout and concept, this left-of-centre trio is markedly diverse once tires meet the road. The Fiat is considerably smaller than the others, bordering on micro-car dimensions – no matter how much we might moan about back seat room, hey, it is what it is, a clever and stylish remake of a tiny European icon.

The other redux here is Beetle version 3.0, introduced last year to replace the 1997-2011 New Beetle, and whose profile more closely apes that of the original Bug. It’s a much better car in every way.

The Veloster Turbo is not a remake of anything (at least from this planet) and finds some of its roots in the humble Accent. Fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, this Hyundai, not surprisingly, leads in the value-per-buck race.

Ah, yes… pricing: as might be expected, the VW Beetle Turbo Sportline was the most expensive with an as-tested price of $33,855 (includes freight and A/C tax) which was about 4 grand more than the Abarth and $6,711 over the Veloster Turbo. -PB

3rd Place: 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo

2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo
2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo
2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo
2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo
2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo
2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo. Click image to enlarge

Another Comparison Test and another close finish; this time, though, it wasn’t for first place. No, we had a runaway winner there. Where the battle really lay, was for second place. While the Beetle took the comparison by nearly 10 points over the 2nd place finishing 500 Abarth, the 3rd place Veloster was less than two points behind the Fiat. When the dust had settled, we discovered the Veloster Turbo was refined, but not that sporty, the 500 Abarth was sporty, but not that refined and the Beetle was a combination of both. But I am getting ahead of myself; let’s discuss the Veloster Turbo first.

In the world of oddball hatchbacks, nothing comes close to looking more unusual than the Veloster. To say a Veloster Turbo gets lost in a sea of cars is to say you have officially lost your sight. The Turbo looks like someone told the designers to ensure every inch of the vehicle is different; for better or worse. This reflects in the overall appearance of the vehicle where styling elements clash with one another. The sweet gun-turret headlights are let down by the gaping mouth grille and it seems impossible that the highly detailed, mesmerizing rear taillights can be attached to the same rear end that houses those massive circular red reflectors.

The cool, squatted down coupe profile garners a lot of attention on the road but eats into headroom all around. Drivers nearing six feet tall will rub their heads into the sunroof cover but can gain a few millimetres if the sunroof cover is retracted. The rear seats in the Veloster offered the most legroom by far, but offered little head room. Fun fact: when the roof of the hatch is opened, the roof for rear passengers goes with it. Social Editor Mike Schlee could stick his entire head out of the hatch opening when seated in the back seat (see attached picture). There is a warning label on the trunk of the Veloster to ensure you do not accidentally decapitate your rear seat passengers when closing the hatch.

But we survived with our heads intact and still attached, and where the Veloster Turbo really faltered was when it came to spirited driving, even with its decent six-speed manual transmission. It was ranked the least fun to drive by all three testers and their score cards were full of comments like “very numb steering”, “confidence-killing rear-end Hyundai wiggle over bumps”, “no traction under power”, and “odd power delivery from the engine”. On the back roads, it always feels like the engine was down on power and delayed in its delivery. But get on the highway and the 1.6L suddenly felt more robust than the 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque it was rated at. The highway is where the Veloster Turbo feels at home and was considered the equal of the Beetle Turbo when it came to freeway cruising.

The Veloster Turbo had the most features and content out of this threesome and the lowest as-tested price. If this comparison were to determine the most funky and affordable vehicle, the Veloster Turbo would have won. But this comparison was about being funky and fun, and sadly, the Veloster could not match up, even with a hefty price advantage. If you are less concerned about a sporty drive and more interested in funky looks, great features, and good value, save yourself some money and buy a regular Veloster. -MS

Pricing: 2013 Hyundai Veloster Turbo
Base price: $25,999
Options: None
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,495
Price as tested: $27,594

2nd Place: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth. Click image to enlarge

Let’s be clear right from the start, the Fiat 500 Abarth is not a great car. It is noisy, rough-riding, cramped, and features a bizarre driving position. The agricultural engine note makes a Subaru sound refined, and the shifter is a poorly positioned rubbery mess. But—and this is a big “Sir-Mix-A-Lot but”—it gets under your skin and charms the pants off you. The fact that Fiat is currently using Charlie Sheen as the spokesperson for the 500 Abarth is one of those marketing matches made in heaven where the product really does reflect the spokesperson (okay, maybe the 500 Abarth hasn’t locked anyone in a hotel closet yet, but you get the idea).

Fire up the Abarth and a shockingly loud, purposeful snarl emanates from the tailpipes. Take it for a jaunt through some open backroads and the playful steering and eager-to-rotate rear-end are a ton o’ fun. But not a ‘look at me I’m a champion driver’ ton of fun, but rather the ‘OMG, this car is trying to kill me’ kind of fun found in Porsche 911s of yore. Okay, it is not that bad, but mid-corner emergency braking will definitely grab your attention in the Abarth.

On the highway, the 500 Abath drones about its business and that playful steering found on country roads becomes darty steering on the freeway. The short wheelbase and firm suspension make the 500 Abarth jump over every expansion joint as you rumble down the road in top gear. Being the smallest and lightest vehicle, it should come as no surprise that the Abarth achieved the best fuel consumption average at 8.6 L/100 km during our testing, beating the Veloster Turbo’s average of 9.0 L/100 km and decimating the Beetle Turbo’s 10.0 L/100 km.

But the small size does not do the Fiat 500 Abarth any favours when it comes to interior comfort. The rear seat is cramped and features no headroom, and despite a nice wide door opening, the 500’s narrow dimensions limit the size of items that can be transported in the hatch, especially compared to the cavernous Veloster. During our cargo test, a board that barely fit in the 500 Abarth—width- and depth-wise—had inches of clearance on all sides when stored in the Beetle or Veloster.

So how did the 500 Abarth claim second over the Veloster Tubo? Well, besides its charming personality and sporty disposition, it was aesthetics. Someone looking for a vehicle that stands out from the crowd is obviously conscious about its looks. The Abarth is not only distinct in silhouette, but it also looks great. The treatment Fiat prescribes for the 500 when transforming it into the Abarth is masterful. The upgraded rims, dual exhaust, lower body treatment, Abarth badges, and optional stripes take the 500 from a cute little runabout to a pint-sized terror. Inside, the 500 has had never an issue with style thanks to an infusion of Italian flair, and the Abarth is no different. If you want the unrelenting wild child of turbo compacts, here is your car. –MS

Pricing: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
Base price: $23,955
Options: $800 (Premium Leather), $1,200 (Power Sunroof), $175 (ATC Air Conditioning), $150 (Security Alarm), $295 (SIRIUS Satellite Radio), $495 (TomTom Navigation), $995 (17-Inch Hyper Black Wheels)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,500
Price as tested: $29,705

1st Place – VW Beetle Turbo

2013 VW Beetle Turbo
2013 VW Beetle Turbo
2013 VW Beetle Turbo
2013 VW Beetle Turbo
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
2013 VW Beetle Turbo. Click image to enlarge

Perhaps Dave summed it up perfectly when getting out of the VW. “This car is in a different league. It feels twice as expensive as the others.”

And so another pricey Volkswagen wins another shootout. Keep those forum posts and letters coming!

This is clearly a case of getting what you pay for. Personal styling preferences and “chick-car” status notwithstanding, it is no great surprise the Beetle Turbo wins out. It shares most of its bits with the GTI, a car I consider pretty much unparalleled when it comes to combining driving fun, refinement, quality, comfort, and utility.

While this 2.0L direct-injection turbo-four has a fairly modest 200-hp rating, it sure feels strong, and the six-speed twin-clutch DSG transmission is a paragon of smoothness. Upshifts and downshifts are immediate and seamless, and playing with the paddle shifters is a joy. Gotta’ love the little farty-woofs on upshifts.

Attacking the bends in our back-road test loop, the Beetle was the most composed and had the best steering. No muss, fuss, or aberrant chassis issues here. Point the car into a bend and it confidently carves a graceful arc, not to be upset by mid-corner bumps. It was highly entertaining watching from behind as the Fiat darted about nervously and the Veloster’s dramatic arse-end created some drama of its own for Mike as he hammered it through a tight and bumpy right-hander. Through all this the Beetle’s ride remains quiet and supple. Conversely, the Veloster crashes and shudders and the Fiat, bless its entertaining little heart, does its very best to send you off course with its pugilistic combination pitches, bobs, torque-steer, and tramlining.

The Beetle was the only car in this trio whose stability control could not be defeated, which will be an issue for hot shoes who want to track this car. But I suspect there will be precious few of those. I would be more concerned about needing to get wheel-spin when trying to get moving in deep snow or on glare ice.

The V-Dub’s interior is an interesting mix of the retro and new. While the non-turbo Beetle’s dash expanse is painted body colour, giving it a cheery and old-time feel, the Turbo gets faux carbon-fibre, which to us looked a bit overdone. Some of the surfaces and plastic bits are not of the highest quality, but where it really counts VW got it right—the seats, steering wheel, shifter, armrests and wonderfully clear instruments. Compared to the previous-gen New Beetle, the back seats are a revelation, although headroom will still be an issue for taller folks.

The back seats don’t fold completely flat, but again, much better cargo space than in the “old” New Beetle. Surprisingly, the Veloster was the champ in this department. Not surprisingly, the Fiat was the chimp.

Upright and relatively thin A-pillars give the Beetle decent forward visibility, and it aced the highway portion of our test—its dead-eye tracking and relaxed long legs making this the ride you’d want for an extended journey.

When VW launched this Beetle last year, they expected it to attract more of the male demographic. Maybe. The Turbo Beetle certainly gets some more attitude with its nice 18-inch alloys and rear spoiler, and you sure can’t argue with the driving experience, but are hot-shoe drivers going to buy this over the GTI?

Maybe if they put Red Bull on their Cap’n Crunch. -PB

Pricing: 2012 Volkswagen Beetle Sportline
Base price: $30,425
Options: $1,290 (Technology Package), $675 (Connectivity Package)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,365
Price as tested: $33,855

Connect with