South Korea’s Hyundai Motors has been making remarkable strides in the U.S., its sales soaring as its products improve.

The latest example is the 2003 Tiburon GT V-6 sports coupe.

Although not up to Japanese competitors’ standards in all aspects, it is a powerful package, priced thousands less than the competition, and it suggests that Toyota, Mitsubishi and others interested in hanging on to their share of the youth performance market best start looking over their shoulders.

The Tiburon has been evolving for years and for 2003 almost gets the lean, mean profile its name–Spanish for “shark”–demands. Only the softly rounded nose harks back to the pudgy lines that made previous models look as though they traced their lineage to the guppy.

Tiburon this year also gets an all-aluminum 2.7-liter V-6 engine with 181 horsepower and 171 pounds-feet of torque and a six-speed manual, a combination that lets the GT V-6 swim with the big fish.

A dedicated platform would help put it out in front, but Hyundai still sells on price and to keep it low as possible for the Tiburon the company told its engineers to stretch and pull the Elantra sedan platform to fit the body of the sporty coupe.

That makes it a heavy car for its type, acknowledged David Ossenmacher, product planning director for Fountain Valley-based Hyundai Motor America.

“This is not a [Porsche] Boxster-killer, but a fun-to-drive sporty coupe,” he said at a recent Tiburon preview at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway–calling into question the wisdom of launching the car on a race track, where its inadequacies were easy to spot.

The big V-6 adds a little too much weight to the front end, so the car tends to under-steer in tight turns, and the steering itself–while no problem in normal driving–seemed a bit slow for racetrack work

Although it is not likely to win many races without an assist from aftermarket additives (and, believe it or not, there is a growing aftermarket for Hyundai performance parts), in everyday use the Tiburon can keep up with the rest of them.

In the hills and valleys around Las Vegas, on freeway and on twisty, narrow state and U.S. park roads, the Tiburon proved easy to handle and satisfying to drive, with crisp steering responses, powerful acceleration, little body roll and a nice balance between engine and six-speed transmission. The only difficulty was keeping speeds below the limits set in the parks.

Just as the stylish and well-received Santa Fe sport-utility has broadened Hyundai’s appeal among grown-ups who can afford pricier SUVs, the Tiburon is intended to boost Hyundai’s profile in the important youth–and youthful–market.

Tiburon’s two previous generations had a decidedly female audience–about 55% of 2001 Tiburon buyers were women–but the new model is expected to attract a heavily male audience. Hyundai expects the V-6 models to account for about 75% of sales, and for males to bu y about 65% of those six-cylinder models.

That’s critical, said Larry Ashley, marketing director for Corona-based APC Inc., a manufacturer of aftermarket styling equipment for youth market brands such as Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi and, yes, Hyundai. “The performance scene is dominated by males, and the more young male buyers you have, the more visibility and credibility you get,” he said. “We think the new Tiburon is going to be a home run” for Hyundai.

Indeed, the car maker expects to sell 28,000 of its 2003 model Tiburon, a 46% gain from 2001 model sales–there is no ’02 Tiburon because Hyundai wanted to get a jump on the competition with the newest model-year designation.

Hyundai also expects buyers to be younger, with an average age of 32 versus 37 for the ’01 version, and wealthier, with an average household income of $65,000 versus $55,000 last year.

Hyundai has priced the Tiburon GT V-6 to appeal to the budget-conscious and equipped it to appeal to th performance enthusiast.

The base model–including sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch alloys, leather seating, anti-lock brakes, a 360-watt sound system and a five-speed manual transmission–carries a $17,999 sticker, plus Hyundai’s $495 destination charge.

An $18,249 “tuner” version bumps up to the six-speed manual and adds a rear spoiler and sporty aluminum pedals for gas, brake and clutch, but eliminates the leather upholstery.

The priciest package, at $19,997, adds a moon roof and restores the leather.The “starter” Tiburon, with a 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower inline-4, 16-inch tires and wheels and five-speed manual (no six-speed available), is $15,999.

Hyundai also has a four-speed automatic available with both engines in various packages.

Although the cabins aren’t made for the very tall or the very wide, the Tiburon is a comfortable car with grippy front seats (forget the rears–they’re good for gym bags, CD holders or skateboards, but not much else) and well-placed controls.

And while the exterior styling is the best ever from Hyundai , a few details are a bit overdone. The faux rivets and locking ring on the gas cap might work on the forthcoming Ford GT40, for instance, but they don’t belong on a street-going coupe. And the wasp-waist indents in the bodywork just behind the doors is more sculpture than the package needs.

Final words: A competitive car for the youth market from a company that still is looking to make its mark. Unfortunately, “I’ve got a new Honda” still is far more pleasing than “I’ve got a new Hyundai” to most in the target audience. The ’03 Tiburon can help, but its going to take a few more years of fine-tuning for Hyundai to overcome the image handicap.