What makes a car fun?
Does it need to be an exquisitely engineered machine, meticulously crafted in the pursuit of driving pleasure?
Or is a car already fun if it combines spiffy looks with a halfway decent driving experience?
We recently tested both types of fun cars, and both can be the perfect fit for the right buyer. We drove the updated 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata, a two-seat rear-wheel-drive roadster, and the redesigned 2019 Hyundai Veloster, a front-wheel-drive four-seat hatchback.
We’ll start with the Veloster. Even in its highest-performance variant, it’s no exquisitely honed driving machine, but it’s a sharp-looking vehicle that’s both more affordable and more functional than it looks.
The idea behind the Veloster is no longer new or novel. It was back in 2012 when Hyundai first took one of its economy cars and slapped on a lower-slung, flashier body. It also debuted an unusual configuration, with an extra-long single door on the driver’s side, for two-door style and the driver’s convenience and with two doors on the passenger side to allow for rear-seat access.
While the new Veloster is not revolutionary, it is a welcome evolution. Hyundai modernized the car’s styling with an upright front end, without losing its funky character. Its interior features more advanced infotainment and a higher-quality feel; the suspension is more sophisticated for better ride and handling; and there’s more power. What is more, the Veloster’s pricing stayed low even while advanced safety features became standard equipment; it is well-equipped even in its base form, starting at $19,430.
That means that the base Veloster is a more stylish alternative to an ordinary compact economy sedan, all at similar prices. Its driving experience doesn’t blow away ordinary economy cars, but it accelerates and handles well enough to be considered fun to drive. And while it’s not as roomy as an everyday Hyundai Elantra, it can still fit four adults and a respectable amount of cargo, thanks to its useful rear-passenger door and hatchback configuration.
In other words, if you want a car that looks sporty and drives at least decently, you will be impressed with the Veloster’s functionality and value, compared to something like a Ford Mustang or a two-door Honda Civic.
The base Veloster has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 147 horsepower, up from 132 horsepower in the first-generation Veloster. But Hyundai also serves enthusiast buyers with a turbocharged 1.6-liter engine, with 201 horsepower. New this year is an extra-zesty Veloster N model, whose 2.0-liter turbo packs 250 to 275 horsepower, depending on the model.
We spent a week in a well-equipped 275-horsepower Veloster N, which has ferocious straight-line acceleration for a small, relatively affordable car and costs close to $30,000 with all the options. It’s a performance bargain if you’re seeking speed for the dollar, undercutting such sport compacts as the Honda Civic Type R ($36,000) and Volkswagen Golf R ($40,000).
But even this top N model does not quite feel like a true sports car. Its steering doesn’t have the extra responsiveness, precision and road feel that separate great driver’s cars from merely good ones. The manual transmission lacks that extra precision, and its touchy clutch action draws your attention away from other aspects of driving.
The only way other than the Veloster N to get more performance for the money is to sacrifice its useful passenger and cargo space. If you’re willing to do that, there is no better way than with the Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Regular readers might realize this is the fourth time in two-and-a-half years that Auto Drive has reviewed a Miata. Mazda regularly provides Miatas to automotive journalists because it’s rightly proud of this vehicle, which has survived the trend toward most cars getting bigger and heavier — losing the intimacy between driver and driving.
What’s more, the updated 2019 MX-5 Miata is better than ever, as Mazda has added some much-desired extra horsepower. The car has always been so light that it stays quick, but jumping from 155 horsepower to 181 gives it even more straight-line kick.
The main appeal to the MX-5 is the way it makes driving truly special. You never hop into your Miata and hum placidly along, with your car fading into the background. Even many modern sports cars only come alive when you’re trying to push them hard.
Low to the ground, available with a choice of two open roofs (a manual soft top and a power-operated partially retractable hardtop, found on our tested RF model) and with delightfully quick responses, the MX-5 Miata makes every drive an experience, especially with the standard manual transmission. It always feels like you’re going faster than you are, and that you can do anything you want.
It is not the feeling that everyone wants from their sports car, but it is not one that anyone does better — at any price.
And MX-5 Miata prices have stayed reasonable. They start at $26,650, which is an incredible deal for any convertible, much less a brilliantly engineered performance machine like this one.
Of course, there are tradeoffs. You can seat only two people, and neither of them should be terribly wide or tall. It takes agility to scramble in and out of the low seats; there’s only a small trunk and there’s no rear seat.
Buyers who crave a true performance car, instead of something just fun-like such as the Hyundai Veloster, may be willing to make those sacrifices. For those who aren’t ready to go that far, the Veloster is among the best blends of pizzazz, functionality and decent driving enjoyment among today’s affordable small cars.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.