Hyundai's surprising new shark.

by Mitch McCullough

You probably won't impress people by telling them you drive a Hyundai. Perception trails reality by several years in the car business, and Hyundai is still perceived as a company that builds small, basic transportation hatchbacks. The reality, however, is that those days are gone. Hyundai now offers a vastly improved and expanded line of cars, and this sporty new front-drive Tiburon coupe is a shining example of Hyundai's progress.

The Tiburon borrows its name from a big shark that cruises the coast of Central America. Hyundai's shark is designed to prey on the Nissan 200SX, Pontiac Sunfire, Toyota Celica and non-turbo versions of the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Eagle Talon.

Although the Tiburon doesn't quite have the biggest teeth in this class, it can swim heads up with most of its contemporaries, and we think it's a must-see if you're in the market for an inexpensive sporty coupe that's fun to drive and good to look at.

The Tiburon is a totally new car and a much more substantial vehicle than its predecessor, the Hyundai Scoupe. The Scoupe was based on the old Excel hatchback, while the Tiburon is loosely based on the new Elantra sedan. Its handling and response were a pleasant surprise for us, and while only time will tell, its construction quality appears to be on a par with other vehicles in this class.

Two models are available. The basic $13,499 Tiburon comes with a 1.8-liter engine, while the $14,899 Tiburon FX is equipped with a more powerful 2.0-liter engine. These prices put both of these well-equipped models under the Eclipse RS, Celica ST and 200SX SE-R. Among the primary competitors, only the $14,219 Sunfire GT Coupe is less expensive than the Tiburon FX.

The only visual distinction between the two Tiburon models is the rear decklid spoiler, standard on the FX, optional on the base car.

Walkaround

Forty-something baby boomers may dismiss the Tiburon as a Sunfire lookalike, but twenty-something drivers seem to have no trouble spotting this as one of the newest sport coupes on the street, craning their necks for a better look as they glide by on the freeway.

Styling is half the battle in this realm, and the Tiburon is a bold entry into what is becoming an increasingly bland world of sport coupes.

Bulging fenders and sharp creases give Hyundai's new shark an aggressive appearance. Frameless doors with flush-mounted glass and aerodynamic side mirrors help minimize interior noise. Ellipsoid projector headlights are stylish and also throw a sharply defined beam that minimizes glare to oncoming cars, though the headlights in our FX test car seemed to be aimed too low.

In addition to the bigger engine, the FX gets nicer cloth upholstery, plus full carpeting, a six-way adjustable driver's seat, a more elaborate sound system, a lid for the center console, power door locks, power outside mirrors and optional cruise control. The FX also comes with fog lamps integrated into the standard front air dam that look good, though they don't seem to lend much additional illumination.

Rumor has it that Porsche helped tune the suspension on the Tiburon, something Hyundai will neither confirm nor deny. Be that as it may, the Tiburon's unibody is commendably stiff, a key element in ride quality and handling. MacPherson struts are used for the front suspension, while the rear is a dual-link setup. The shock absorbers are gas-charged units, which resist heat buildup, and there are anti-roll bars fore and aft. All the components are aimed at delivering the agile handling qualities we expect from a sport coupe.

Both Tiburon models have disc brakes in front. The base model employs drum brakes at the rear, while the FX gets rear discs. Disc brakes resist fade better than drums, but only hard driving for extended periods reveals much difference in performance. Four-channel anti-lock brakes are optional on the FX, but only as part of an extra equipment package, the cheapest of which ($3500) includes air conditioning, a power sunroof and a CD player.

The standard tires are P195/60 Michelin XGT H4 radials mounted on 14-inch wheels (steel on the basic Tiburon, aluminum alloy on FX); 15-inch alloy wheels with 195/55 Michelins are available for either model as an option.

The Inside Story

The interior is functional and attractive. The formed foam seats are firm, supportive and comfortable, with thigh bolsters that provide good side support during hard cornering. The base model is comfortable, but the FX benefits from a driver's seat with tilt adjustment, lumbar support and fabric accents. Leather is an FX option, but a $3500 leather package seems a bit out of place in an affordably priced sport coupe, though it does include air conditioning, 15-inch alloy wheels, a CD player and other goodies.

There is ample leg, head and shoulder room up front. The wraparound contoured dash makes the driver feel like a pilot without inducing claustrophobia. Attractive curves over the top of the vents are reminiscent of the Datsun 240Z. The ventilation controls are big Lexus-like knobs that we found easy to operate when the car is moving.

Power windows are standard on both models, a nice extra. The big ovoid speed-ometer and tachometer are stylish, as well as highly legible. Slender front roof pillars contribute to excellent forward visibility, a view enhanced by bulging front fenders clearly visible from the front seats. The back seats are roomier than those in the Celica or Eclipse, although rear seat space isn't a strong point of cars in this class.

Overall, we give the interior an enthusiastic thumbs up.

The trunk is surprisingly roomy. It swallowed a king-size presentation portfolio laid flat, the passenger car equivalent of putting a sheet of plywood in the back of a pickup truck. To put capacity in perspective, the Tiburon offers more trunk space than the 200SX and Sunfire, but not as much as the Eclipse/Talon.

Ride & Drive

Although we concentrated on the FX model, we found that the basic Tiburon's 130-hp 1.8-liter engine produces decent acceleration by the standards for this class. The 10 extra horsepower generated by the 2.0-liter FX engine comes into play in the upper rpm range, and its extra torque -- 133 pounds-feet, versus 122 for the 1.8-liter version -- makes for quicker accleration and less shifting around town.

The Tiburon engines are neither the smoothest nor the quietest on the market, but fall within acceptable bounds. Hyundai worked hard to minimize friction and vibration by using lightweight parts, silicon-impregnated pistons and fluid-damped engine mounts.

Hyundai definitely did its homework on the Tiburon's chassis. It's among the stiffest in its class, which is probably why the Tiburon weighs a bit more than some of its competitors. Chassis stiffness is where agile handling starts, and we were very favorably impressed with the Tiburon's athletic responses in quick maneuvers.

Even in extreme lane-change and slalom exercises, the car felt balanced and stable, and the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is quick and accurate. The Tiburon is one of those cars that made us go out of our way to give it some exercise on favored stretches of winding back roads, something that can't be said for some of its competitors.

If there's any minus in the Tiburon's dynamic traits, it lies in the action of the five-speed manual gearbox, which feels less precise than some others in this class. In particular, low-speed downshifts into first gear can be a challenge. Making a proper upshift in hard low-speed cornering also requires a little extra care, a trait that's not at all uncommon in small front-drive hot rods such as this.

However, at higher speeds the gearbox works fine and the gearing is well suited to the engine's power characteristics. The optional four-speed automatic takes much of the sport out of this -- or any -- sport coupe. If you don't want to shift for yourself, we suggest the FX, with its more powerful engine.

Final Word

We think the Tiburon is a good buy -- inexpensive, well equipped, stylish and a lot of fun to drive. Beyond that, it represents another proof that Hyundai is very serious about upgrading the image and quality of its products.

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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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