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Hyundai Tiburon: From Eh to Excellent

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author photo by Aaron Gold October 2016

I still remember seeing one of the early commercials for Hyundai's new 2-door Scoupe, which showed a slick little coupe racing through the curves. The announcer spoke for 27 of the commercial's 30 seconds before saying the car's name, "The new Scoupe from Hyundai."

Hyundai? I thought.

As if on cue, the announcer answered, "Yes, Hyundai."

This was a time when Hyundai was primarily known for the Excel, a badly built Mitsubishi clone priced to appeal to those who couldn't afford a monthly bus pass. It wouldn't be far off to say the Scoupe was the early '90s answer to the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. It had the same platform and powertrain as the Excel, with a marginally better-looking coupe body. Hyundai hired Lotus to fine-tune the suspension, and they later added a 115-horsepower turbocharged engine, which happened to their first homegrown mill. The Hyundai Scoupe went on to do credible (if not exactly successful) battle against cars like the Geo Storm, Toyota Paseo and Nissan NX. (If you have 11 minutes to listen to the dulcet tones of John Davidson, check out this 1992 MotorWeek econo-coupe comparison.)

Right around the time the Scoupe was getting turbocharged, Hyundai showed the spectacular HCD-1 concept car, a promised presage of the Scoupe's eventual successor. But when the first-gen Tiburon showed up in showrooms in 1997, it wasn't nearly as sexy as the HCD-1. In fact, it was rather frumpy and lumpy, with its greenhouse inspired by the 1989 Toyota Celica, its body-side creases inspired by a soda bottle and its overall proportions inspired by a bad dream in which the monster gets the girl. Performance was decent, but the Tiburon and other home-designed Hyundais had us longing for the simple, if not terribly well screwed together, design of the Excel.

Hyundai face-lifted the Tiburon in 1999, and though few thought such a thing was possible, they managed to make the car look even sillier. They trashed the aero headlights, one of the few parts of the car that wasn't too terribly offensive, and replaced them with round headlights, a questionable design on the 1994 Acura Integra from which they were ripped off. As the piece de rediculous, Hyundai arched the front edge of the hood over the headlights, and with a panel gap so wide that you could change the air filter without actually opening the hood, the Tiburon looked like it was arching its eyebrows in surprise, as it might well do if it caught a glimpse of itself in a mirror.

The second-generation Tiburon came along in 2001. This time, the styling was inspired by the 1993 Toyota Supra, and Hyundai was wise enough to leave it largely alone. They added a Mustang-style D-shaped dish to the fender and door, and meeting odds roughly akin to being struck by lightning, Hyundai managed to improve upon the design they were copying. The second-generation Tiburon now offered an optional V6 engine, and there was a GT model with a 6-speed manual transmission. Hyundai's chassis engineering still needed some work; a hard ride, heavy controls and torque steer kept it out of the best-in-class category, but the Tiburon was a bargain, and there was good fun to be had on a curvy road.

Hyundai face-lifted the Tiburon for 2007, and lightning struck twice. Subtle tweaks to the front, rear and sheet metal actually improved the car's looks. Inside, the Tiburon had the last of Hyundai's plastic-craptastic cabins, but the addition of gunmetal trim and cool blue lighting (which lives on in today's Veloster) showed they were trying their best.

The real surprise was the Tiburon SE, which gained the sharper suspension tuning from the European version of the car. The ride was still hard, but the chassis was good, and the Tiburon offered a V6 engine and a 6-speed manual for the same price as its 4-cylinder competition. Though still a bit crude, the Hyundai Tiburon generated a lot of grip and would even oversteer if you ham-fisted it just right. At the press launch, Hyundai turned us loose on the twisty back roads north of Los Angeles, including Decker Canyon Road and The Snake on Mulholland. Pushing the car, I thought back to that original commercial: Hyundai?

Yes, Hyundai.

Of course, we all know how the story ends. Hyundai discontinued the Tiburon after 2009, replacing it with the rear-drive Genesis Coupe, a serious sports car with styling that finally fulfilled the promise of the long-ago HCD-1. Like the Tiburon, the Genesis Coupe never received the respect it so richly deserved. I always thought Hyundai should have kept the Tiburon name, as the Genesis Coupe was the logical progression of the car's late-in-life improvement. But they axed it, and the Tiburon will probably be remembered for the way it spent most of its life, as a cheap, funny-looking coupe. That's a shame, because as Hyundai enthusiasts (few and far between as they are) know, the Tiburon did eventually evolve into a pretty decent car. If you want to buy one, they're still out there.

Hyundai Tiburon

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