1998 Hyundai Tiburon Road Test

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1998 Hyundai Tiburon Hatchback

(2.0L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

Something's Fishy at Hyundai

The Tiburon is a car worthy of the name Hyundai. Wait, that didn’t come out right. Rather, Hyundai is rebuilding their image these days by marketing more than just an affordable means of transportation. Hyundai now makes cars that are actually fun to drive. Take the Tiburon (Spanish for "shark") for the most recent example of brave design, quality workmanship, and change for the better.

Remember the old days, when Hyundai sold unreliable pieces of junk that even homeless people could afford to lease? It sure beat living in a cardboard box, and even if the thing broke down, it would remain pretty much waterproof. Well, Hyundai would like you to forget about the old days; hence the ad campaign proclaiming "It’s a whole new Hyundai."

While the more affluent homeless people can probably still afford them, Hyundais are slowly moving up the food chain, and the Tiburon FX we tested weighed in at a hefty $19,224. But for 1998, the base car comes with the same engine as the sporty FX, and at a much more attractive price. That is if you can live without a spoiler, fog lamps, power windows and air conditioning.

And these days, Hyundais look a lot more substantial than a simple water-resistant galvanized steel box. The Tiburon in particular has a more appealing appearance than most cars, at any price. With curves that would make Barbie jealous, a raspy exhaust note, and refreshing interior design, the Tiburon is practically a concept vehicle. And what a concept it is.

Inside, you wouldn’t guess that the car has a base price of under $20,000. Decked out in black leather, most cars give their occupants claustrophobic nervousness. But even our bigger-than-average editors found comfort in the Tib’s front seats. We neglect to mention the rear seats because no one was adventurous, or limber enough to climb back there. Basically, the rear seat is there in case you’re too lazy to stow luggage in the trunk.

Gauges are easy to read, shaped slightly elliptical: another nice touch. The cruise control is not the most user-friendly gizmo ever invented, but at least the instrument stalk is made of substantial plastic. One really annoying quirk, encountered in all new Hyundais, is the door chime. The thing sounds like a high-pitched synthesized rat squeal, if that’s possible. But since Hyundai uses that grating chime in all their cars, we can’t really fault the Tiburon.

The only fault we must complain about is the placement of cupholders, which slide out from beneath the radio on the center console. And the reason for complaint is that, so positioned, the radio volume knob is easily bumped, which can be painful to the eardrums. The Tiburon has the most sensitive volume control this side of the Camaro, mute being one notch away from full-blast.

Driving the Tiburon is a surprisingly pleasant experience, in keeping with the rest of the car. Gear shifts are smooth and short, with the exception of reverse, which can occasionally be stubbornly resistant. The engine, with a two-liter displacement good for 140 horsepower, makes a jubilant noise when revved up, one that the driver will delight in when sudden speed is demanded. Passengers will not delight, however, in the fact that the engine always sounds like that, regardless of how rev-happy the driver. But sound sometimes being an inaccurate voice for performance, enthusiasts will not be satisfied with the Tiburon’s relatively weak motor. To avoid embarrassment, just don’t try to race any American V-8s.

Being the front-wheel-drive breed of coupe, understeer is the Tiburon’s bane on twisty back roads. But steering proved tight, and the tires hug even lumpy roads thanks to a supple suspension just compliant enough around corners to keep the car from breaking loose from the pavement. In fact, even over rough pothole-ridden dirt roads, the Tiburon remained rattle-free and easy on the driver; quite remarkable for a car this size.

Against the competition, Hyundai is making a case for itself. Who wants a Saturn, or a weird-looking Ford Escort ZX2 Hot when the Tiburon looks so cool? On the other hand, for less than $19,224, you could get a less-radical Nissan 200SX SE-R, with a much more refined engine and more usable space, or even our perennial favorite Mazda Miata, which handles like nothing else in this price range, and accelerates with equal gusto.

It’s a tough sell, but Hyundai is moving in the right direction. Now if they can survive the fall of the Asian market, just long enough to live up to the exciting new image they’ve created for themselves… Hyundai will soon be synonymous with "fun ride".

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