Hyundai has been on a sales tear (they sold 346,235 vehicle during 2001, up an almost insane 42 percent over 2000) but it still hasn’t found that “alpha car” that takes it beyond bargain shoppers and into the profitable mainstream. But they’re getting close. And the new 2003 Tiburon sport coupe is the latest evidence.
Hyundai may not be a Korean Honda yet, but they can see the promised land from where they’re standing. In the automotive world, they occupy the Golan Heights.
Looking deep into its parts bin, Hyundai started with the front-drive Elantra sedan’s basic chassis and transmogrified it into a new platform (known within Hyundai as the GK) for this, the third generation Tiburon. Then they looked over at the larger Sonata sedan and plucked out its V-6 as the optional engine for the new Tib. Finding nothing suitable in their own inventory, they then cribbed the styling from the Ferrari 456.
The Tiburon’s 99.6-inch wheelbase and 173.0-inch overall length plop it squarely in the small sport coupe conventional wisdom. Toyota’s Celica and Acura’s RSX both have slightly longer wheelbases but are slightly shorter overall, while the Mitsubishi Eclipse is slightly longer in both dimensions.
2003 Hyundai Tiburon
In specification, the Tiburon’s all-independent suspension is relatively conventional with MacPherson struts both front and rear. Also aboard are such expected elements as rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS optional. There’s not much innovation there, but no mysteries to be worked out either.
Base Tiburons (which Hyundai expects could be as little as 20-percent of production) are powered by the Elantra’s 140-horsepower, 2.0-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission on hand to compensate for those pesky drops in torque production endemic to internal combustion engines as crank speed increases (Ain’t science a bitch?). In a world where high-revving fours with variable valve timing are increasingly common, the Tiburon’s four seems quaint in a picaresque, antiquing-in-New England, early-Nineties sort of way.
The V-6 is obviously the more attractive powerplant and most Tibs will be GT V-6 versions. Producing 181 horsepower, the 2.7-liter DOHC 24-valve engine is available with a five-speed manual, four-speed automatic or a new six-speed manual transmission and it’s sweet, but not really sporting, and its character stands in stark contrast to its four-cylinder competition.
The Tiburon’s six pumps out a commendable 177 lb-ft of torque at just 4000 rpm, revs smoothly and seamlessly and produces a good sound from the dual exhaust, but it runs out of breath just after hitting its horsepower peak of 6000 rpm. At 6000 rpm, the RSX Type-S and Celica GT-S are just getting started. The RSX Type-S’s 2.0-liter i-VTEC four makes 200 horsepower while wailing at 7400 rpm but can only muster a peak 142 lb-ft of twist a 6000 rpm. The Celica GT-S’ 1.8-liter VVTL-i peaks at 180 horses while screaming at 7600 rpm and can only twist out a mere 130 lb-ft at an almost ludicrous 6800 rpm. On a race track, the Hyundai’s V-6 would get spanked by either the Toyota or Acura powerplants. But in daily driving, where hitting redline is a misadventure and trawling through parking lots a daily reality, the Tiburon GT V-6’s powerplant is a better companion.
2003 Hyundai Tiburon
On launch, it’s easy to break traction of the optional P215/45R17 Michelin tires (P205/5516 Michelins), torque steer is moderate and throttle action is linearly progressive. The six-speed shifts well, even though the engine’s powerband is friendly enough to keep all six cogs from being the absolute necessity they are with RSX and Celica.
Even though the Tiburon V-6 is an all-aluminum design, it’s still a substantial chunk of weight in the car’s nose. That weight makes itself known on a race track where the car’s acute understeer leaves the nose plowing through corners with sharecropping determination. The steering itself is rather heavy and uncommunicative, but precise and composed. Some understeer can be moderated using brakes, but not all of it.
Ripped from the best
Hyundais have never been beautiful cars and often they’ve been awkward ones. But with its proportions mimicking the Ferrari 456GT, the new Tiburon was bound to be easily the best-looking Hyundai ever. It may not be a particularly original shape or design theme, but it’s undeniably handsome.
Having said that, Hyundai’s designers haven’t completely overcome their tendency to over-detail their cars. Tiburon is Spanish for shark, so the inclusion of twin gill-like, non-functional air extractors in each front fender are excusable as thematic plucks. But do the headlights really need to be that busy? Does the bottom edge of the car need to be so heavily sculpted? And can’t a fuel filler door sometimes just be a fuel filler door? Such details are just distractions from what is an overall fine-looking machine.
Inside the Tiburon’s design is more confused. All the dash controls are straightforward and easy to use, but Hyundai can’t quite decide if the vents and controls should be round or square. The instrumentation is easy to read under its hooded binnacle, but the silver paint that encircles the dials is kind of cheesy. More successful is the silver ring around the shifter and the shifter itself, which sticks straight up through the center console and right at the driver’s hand. There are also an amazing number of switch panel block-off plates on the dash and overhead console that controls the optional sunroof. What sort of options, exactly, could fill up the seven full empty switch bays seen in some Tiburon GT V-6s?
2003 Hyundai Tiburon
Up front the seats are thickly bolstered and position the driver perfectly in front of the equally thickly airbagged, leather-wrapped steering wheel and aluminum-faced pedals. Leather upholstery is standard on the GT V-6, though the same model is also available covered in cloth – meaning that leather is kinda/sorta standard, but not really standard, if you know what we mean. The notional rear seat serves best as a place to throw gym bags and lose stray socks.
Mentioned in a great breath
With prices starting at just $15,999 and peaking at just $19,997 with the V-6, leather and everything, the Tiburon will continue to sell on keen pricing. Throw in the 10-year/100,000 mile warranty with which all Hyundais are backed and for many buyers the value will be too obvious to dismiss out of hand.
The Tiburon isn’t quite up to the levels of much more expensive competitors like the RSX, Celica and Eclipse, but that it’s a viable against those three at all is probably Hyundai’s greatest achievement with this car. This may not be Hyundai’s Civic, 2002 or TC, but it shows that Hyundai is perfectly capable of producing one.
Hyundai Tiburon GT V-6
Price: $17,999 plus $495 destination; as tested: $20,492
Engine: 2.7-liter DOHC V-6
Transmission: five-speed manual, six-speed manual or four-speed auto optional; front wheel drive
Wheelbase: 99.6 inches
Length: 173 inches
Width: 69.3 inches
Height: 52.3 inches
Curb weight: 3015 lb (five-speed); 3023 (six-speed); 3041 (automatic)
EPA City/Hwy (mpg): 19/26, 18/26, 20/26
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags
Major standard features: Leather seats, premium audio system, 17-inch alloy wheels, power windows & mirrors, keyless remote with alarm
Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles