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If you’re one of the few who still think a snappy little sport coupe is more fun to drive than a small sport-utility vehicle, I have two observations.

No. 1: You’re absolutely right.

No. 2: You owe it to yourself to check out the Hyundai Tiburon.

OK, Hyundai probably isn’t the first brand name that pops into your head when you’re thinking about cars in this class.

Despite such commendable offerings as the midsize Sonata and the small Elantra sedan, Hyundai is still struggling to emerge from the shadow of the old Excel, a cheap-as-possible basic transportation device that was better than a Yugo, but only just.

Put the word Hyundai in front of an obscure name like Tiburon and you wind up with an interest factor that’s about as compelling as the prospect of a January vacation in North Dakota.

But let’s give Hyundai’s product planners a little credit here. Tiburon is Spanish for “shark,” and the name makes as much sense as a good many of the other handles emerging from the auto world’s moniker mills these days.

So maybe the car doesn’t have the menacing presence or the gracefully savage power of some of the real automotive sharks — the Lamborghini Diablo, for example, or the new Corvette.

Compared to the great whites of the sports car world, the Tiburon is a guppy. Nevertheless, when it’s swimming with cars in its own price and power class, this little Korean newcomer has a fun-to-drive factor that’s as good as any and better than most.

Most of this comes from a chassis and suspension — derived from the Elantra — designed to deliver the kind of quick response and accurate steering that give the driver an enhanced sense of connection and control.

Hyundai quietly sought some outside help in developing the suspension — some say from Lotus Engineering, which the company will neither confirm nor deny — but so what? It works.

There’s not much body roll in brisk cornering maneuvers, which promotes prompt recovery in rapid direction changes, the key trait separating sporty cars from devices designed merely to get you there.

Of course, power figures in there, too, and the Tiburon has enough to keep boredom at bay.

The standard engine is a 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder, with a 140-horsepower, 2.0-liter four offered in the fancier FX version, our test subject.

As you’d expect, a little power always helps in a car with sporty aspirations, but the basic engine does a respectable job, provided you don’t hold it back with an automatic transmission, which will add long seconds to your 0-to-60 m.p.h. progress and $800 to the bottom line.

My tester was equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission, not the best in terms of precision, with its rather long shift throws, though not the worst, either.

More important, its gearing is beautifully matched to the engine’s power characteristics, yielding getaways that are favorably compa rable to the quickest in this class — the Chrysler Neons — and an electronically limited top speed of 123 m.p.h.

The Tiburon would be even quicker if it were a bit lighter. Neon coupe weigh-ins start at 2,470 pounds, and Saturn coupes are even lighter.

Spotting the competition 100 or 200 pounds might not mean much in vehicles like sport-utilities, which are mostly ponderous to begin with. But mass becomes critical when you’re hauling it with small engines.

Nevertheless, the Tiburon’s excellent chassis and good weight distribution (for a front-wheel-drive) mask its mass in most handling exercises, and its fuel economy ratings — 22 m.p.g. city, 31 highway — don’t seem to suffer too much. So let’s attribute its apparent pudginess to chassis rigidity.

Stiff ride a plus

The only downside here is ride quality, which is a bit stiffer than most of the coupes in this class, though to folks who appreciate sports car handling that trait will be a plu

Styling is another important sport coupe trait and, like its namesake, the Tiburon is both bold and sleek.

If you wanted to be hard-nosed, you could say there’s a little more front-end overhang than is absolutely necessary, and the overall design is a little derivative.

The front end has a lot of Pontiac Sunfire in it, for example, while the rear is reminiscent of a previous generation of the Toyota Celica.

Taken as a whole, it seems to work pretty well, and it definitely attracted the right kind of attention during my travels — that is, from buoyant youngsters looking for a different kind of self-expression than they’d get from, say, a Jeep.

The interior treatment also produces a bit of deja vu, reminding me in particular of the previous generation of the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Eagle Talon.

Nevertheless, it’s a design that reinforces the exterior styling and the character of the car: very sporty, with a cockpit-style instrument panel and comfortable bucket seats augmented by hefty torso bolsters.

And since the Tiburon is a hatchback, there’s also a fair degree of utility, at least by small-car standards. The rear lift-over is relatively low, and the split rear seat backs can be folded forward to accommodate cargo.

That’s good, because the rear seats are otherwise pretty much useless, at least by adult seating standards.

Chrysler’s Neon and Ford’s Escort ZX2 are really the only small coupes that offer anything that could reasonably be called four-passenger seating.

Then again, if your regular driving chores include more than two, you probably need a sedan.

So what’s not to like here? Not much.

Leaving Excel behind

Hyundai still has a little way to go on the fit-and-finish front — the ZX2 is probably the best of the bunch on that score. But the Tiburon indicates Hyundai has come a long, long way from the bad old days of the primitive little Excel.

The seams on my test car were reasonably uniform, and the body panels matched up well — not an easy feat, considering all the character creases in the doors and fenders.

Paint quality was only average. And how well the car holds up in terms of squeaks and rattles is something owners will have to discover for themselves. My low-mileage tester was free of any untoward noises.

Besides its surprising dynamics and aggressive styling, the Tiburon also stacks up quite well in the price-value department.

The basic car starts at just under $14,000, and that includes civilizing features such as power windows and an AM-FM-cassette audio.

The FX starts at $14,899, including destination, and it strikes me as a much more desirable package. Besides the extra power of the 2.0-liter engine, it includes 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, a slightly sportier suspension package, power mirrors, a rear window washer-wiper-defogger, a rear spoiler and disc brakes on all four wheels.

Unfor tunately, air conditioning isn’t baked into the deal.

In my test car, it was part of a $1,583 package that also included cruise control and an upgraded version of the audio system. Carpeted floor mats ($75) and mud flaps ($60) inflated the bottom line to $16,617.

At that price, the Tiburon doesn’t look quite so attractive. You could strap yourself into a loaded ZX2 for less.

But if you add only the air conditioning — about $900 and necessary, given this car’s glass area — the Tiburon FX is a very endearing little shark.

It looks good, it has all the right moves, and it proves that Hyundai — yes, Hyundai — offers something more than mere transportation.


Rating: three wheels

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-drive, subcompact hatchback coupe

Key competitors: Chevrolet Cavalier, Dodge/Plymouth Neon, Ford Escort ZX2, Nissan 200SX SE-R, Pontiac Sunfire, Saturn SC2

Base price: $13,914

Price as tested: $16,617

Standard equipment: Dual air bags, AM-FM-cassette audio, power windows, tilt steering, reading lights, cargo cover


(manufacturer’s data)

Engine 140-h.p., 2.0-liter 4-cyl.

EPA fuel econ. 22 m.p.g. city, 31 hwy.

Curb weight 2,566 pounds

Wheelbase 97.4 inches

Length 170.9 inches

Width 68.1 inches

Height 51.7 inches

Where assembled Korea

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