Hyundai’s never been one to reinvent the wheel, instead offering bargain-basement versions of established automobiles.

But so far, they’ve never been as good.

The Korean automaker is nothing if not determined, and it finally has turned out something of value: a super little coupe geared for young drivers that has loads of style and personality, plus a decent level of ability.

New for ’97, the Tiburon (which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but in Spanish means shark) first appeared in 1993 as an auto-show eyepopper, the HCD-ll. The concept car was roundly lauded as a huge step stylistically for Hyundai, which also makes chunky Excels and undistinguished Sonatas.

Fortunately, the Tiburon hangs onto many of the styling cues of the HCD-ll, looking sharp and determined, with slanting snake-eye headlights, deeply carved flanks and attractive interior.

In the same mold as the original pocket rocket, the late Honda CRX, and today’s Mazda MX-3 and Toyota Paseo, the Tiburon is a streamlined projectile meant to exude an exotic, sporting aura well beyond its bargain-basement price tag.

It’s targeted directly at drivers in their 20s without a lot to spend but with a keen yearning for fast curves and slow profiling.

On the road, the Tiburon . . . Wait a minute. I can’t just let that name go by unchallenged. How could Hyundai come out with such a cool little car and saddle it with such a dorky handle? It sounds more like a sport-utility vehicle than a sports coupe.

What if Madonna was named Petunia? Or Sting was Oswald? Or Corvette was Cucamonga? Would they have been as successful? I think not.

Well, enough of that.

On the road, the Tiburon shows off surprising cornering prowess and ride sophistication. For that, thank Porsche, which turned its renowned chassis experts loose on the Tiburon for tweaking, tuning and balancing.

The result is handling that is flat and stable, without the frustrating understeer that hampers so many low-priced sporty cars. Steering is quick and direct, and the brakes are right on the job.

During a quick run up South Mountain to Dobbins Lookout, the Tiburon straightened out the sharp curves and easily scaled the mountain grades of the ascent. A nervous passenger quickly realized that the little car could handle the stress and that, no, we would not go hurtling off into the abyss.

With 130 horsepower, the lightweight Tiburon has enough pull for most chores but lacks the spark to lift it out of economy-car territory.

Though it was not parked in my corral, there is a higher-end model called the FX, which has 10 more horses and stronger torque that, according to what I’ve read, raises the car’s performance level considerably.

Under acceleration, the engine in our test model was much too noisy, booming constantly even under mild throttle. What seemed sporty at first quickly became annoying.

The Tiburon’s interior presents another surprise: a high level of style and qualit y. Despite its price and diminutive dimensions, the Hyundai is attractive and sophisticated inside, with supportive seats, nicely sculpted dashboard and door panels, and oval gauges that are tasteful and unique.

Space inside was reasonably roomy, though the back seat is strictly for kids or really small adults. This tall driver found a certain degree of comfort, though leg room is definitely limited.

Overall, the Tiburon offers a lot of sporty car, with good looks and decent performance, for what these days amounts to chump change. This is what Hyundai set out to do in the first place, a decade ago, with its original Excel.

Hopefully, the lessons learned in designing and building the Tiburon will extend across the Korean automaker’s range of vehicles.

Except for that name.

1997 Hyundai Tiburon

Vehicle type: Four-passenger, two-door coupe, front-wheel-drive. Base price: $13,499. Price as tested: $15,419. Engine: 1.8-lit er inline four, 130 horsepower at 6,000 rpm; 122 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 2,566 pounds. Length: 170.9 inches. Wheelbase: 97.4 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags. EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway. Highs: Great styling. Sporty performance. Low price. Lows: Boomy engine. Dumb name.

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