The results from a numerical investigation of inertial viscoelastic flow past a circular cylinder are presented which illustrate the significant effect that dilute concentrations of polymer additives have on complex flows. In particular, effects of polymer extensibility are studied as well as the role of viscoelasticity during three-dimensional cylinder wake transition. Simulations at two distinct Reynolds numbers (Re = 100 and Re = 300) revealed dramatic differences based on the choice of the polymer extensibility (L2 in the FENE-P model), as well as a stabilizing tendency of viscoelasticity. For the Re = 100 case, attention was focused on the effects of increasing polymer extensibility, which included a lengthening of the recirculation region immediately behind the cylinder and a sharp increase in average drag when compared to both the low extensibility and Newtonian cases. For Re = 300, a suppression of the three-dimensional Newtonian mode B instability was observed. This effect is more pronounced for higher polymer extensibilities where all three-dimensional structure is eliminated, and mechanisms for this stabilization are described in the context of roll-up instability inhibition in a viscoelastic shear layer. © 2010 Cambridge University Press.