Tiburon: Mostly for Show, Not Go

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Tiburon: Mostly for Show, Not Go

Tiburon provides just about the most fun you can have in a Hyundai car without taking your clothes off.

The aggressive styling is not for everybody (the groans were audible at the Tiburon's unveiling for European distributors). Designing sports coupes and turning a profit are a notoriously tricky business as sports coupes have the shelf life of a doughnut. After two years, sales nosedive as consumers flock to the next hot thing. Given this small window of opportunity, design gets bolder. Hence, Tiburon's sinewy, rakish looks. Some (myself included) find the bulges, fins and fake side intake scoops a bit vulgar. But twenty-somethings, especially first-time buyers, are infatuated.

The techno-look interior has all the right touches, like clever metallic-looking knobs with big fat knurls to activate the controls. Everything is within fingertips' reach and intuitive to use. Up front, dimensions are ample so you don't feel cramped.

But the rear seats are another story. As in most 2+2 hatchback coupes, the rear seats are fine for children but offer precious little headroom for adults unless you keep your chin glued to your chest. It is best to fold down the seats and use the rear area for cargo. Word is the next generation Tiburon due out later this year will offer extra rear headroom.

Tiburon's price should temper your expectations so don't expect stellar powertrain performance. Poke the twincam 2.0-liter engine to 6,000 rpm and it will crank out 153 ps while torque peaks at 19.5 kg.m at 4,800 rpm. It's just adequate and will certainly keep you out of trouble. The standard five-speed manual gearbox is fairly smooth and is the recommended choice for squeezing the last ounce of power out of the engine.

While it lacks some of the handling precision and finesse of a sports car, the Tiburon's MacPherson strut front suspension, independent dual-link design in the rear and gas-filled shocks provide a reasonably stiff and sporty setup to deal with curvy roads with minimal body roll. And put a big smile on your face. More sensitive drivers may find the suspension setup a bit too stiff and complain about the bone-jarring ride. Here's one comforting thought: Porsche consulting engineers were called in to help with the fine tuning of the Tiburon's suspension. For an automaker, that's the sign of approval if there ever was one.

While this 2+2 coupe may look like a handful, it's a very docile and easy car to drive. Your mother would feel right at home behind the wheel.

Looking at the entire package, this one somehow leaves you aching and panting for more. While it definitely looks the part of a muscle car, it doesn't take long to discover that it's all a masquerade. Instead of this poseur that's all show and no go, Hyundai should trot out a faster, better-braking and nicer-handling bad boy racer that will forever shake off its ho-hum, middle-of-the-road image. A muscle car on steroids can cast a halo effect over the entire stable of Hyundai cars.

My personal wish list starts with a turbocharged intercooled engine to give the Tiburon a kick in the pants. However, the company's experience with a blown Scoupe engine in the early '90s was apparently enough to put them off blowers for years to come.

And what about a convertible Tiburon? Despite all the pleading by Hyundai Motor America, a ragtop version was never built. "Not enough demand to justify the investment" product planning people explain.

Not enough, indeed. Introduced in 1996, Tiburon production has been on a roller coaster ride, plummeting to 35,000 in 1998 and soaring back to 65,000 last year, an all-time high. Amazingly, for every Tiburon sold at home, seven are exported. Fewer than 7,000 units were sold in Korea in 2000, showing the precariousness of the local market for niche products. Tiburon's overseas popularity is no wonder: It's significantly cheaper than the Toyota Celica or any competitor.

A base Tiburon with the 1.8-liter engine starts at under 11 million won ($9,100). Dress it up with all the conceivable bells and whistles, including the 2-liter DOHC engine, 4-speed automatic gearbox, leather interior and the price tops 17 million won. Price as tested: 16.5 million won.

Next Week: Volvo S60

by Oles Gadacz

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