2003 Hyundai Tiburon First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2003 Hyundai Tiburon Hatchback

(2.0L 4-cyl. 4-speed Automatic)

Hyundai Almost Makes It to Automotive Nirvana

Hyundai is at a crossroads. It's firmly established as a solid company selling affordable cars carrying an epic 10-year warranty. But selling on low sticker prices and expensive-to-support guarantees isn't a formula for fat profits. Chunky bucks in the car business come from products that sell on their own merits without discounts or far-horizon service commitments. Hyundai needs a car that people would buy even if it were priced like a Honda (or, even better, a BMW) and backed by nothing more than a slightly moist handshake. Is the new third-generation 2003 Tiburon coupe that car? Is this the Hyundai buyers actually want, and for which they don't just settle?

Probably not. But it's yet another nudge closer for Hyundai to the automotive promised land.

Based (loosely) on the same platform as the compact Elantra front-drive sedan, the Tiburon has a 3.1-inch-shorter wheelbase (down to 99.6 inches) and is 4.1-inches-shorter overall (at 173 inches) than that car. Not surprisingly, the Tiburon shares the Elantra's 140-horsepower 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve four as the base powerplant backed by either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. And, like the Elantra, the Tiburon keeps its nose in the air with a MacPherson strut front suspension while the hind end stays up with struts in an independent system. But the essence of the Tiburon isn't what it shares with the Elantra, but where it differs.

From an engineering standpoint, the most exciting addition to the Tiburon is the 181-horsepower 2.7-liter DOHC 24-valve V6 from the larger Sonata sedan. Available in the Tiburon GT V6, this V6's advantage is further pushed by Hyundai by the company's backing it with a five-speed manual, four-speed automatic or, for the first time in a Hyundai, a six-speed manual transmission. The V6 and transmission combination gives the Tiburon a real advantage over other more expensive sport coupes like the Acura RSX (no V6), Toyota Celica (no V6) and Mitsubishi Eclipse (no six-speed). So attractive is the V6 that Hyundai expects up to 80 percent of Tiburon sales to be so equipped. Putting a big engine in a small car isn't particularly innovative (see every muscle car ever made) but it's also proven effective (ibid).

Also in the great muscle car tradition, Hyundai has cribbed the styling from Ferrari. Much as the '70 1/2 Camaro was a lift of the classic Berlinetta Lusso, the new Tiburon is a mini-me clone of the 456GT. From sculptured flanks to greenhouse, the Tiburon's resemblance to Ferrari's current V12-powered four-seater is unmistakable. Frankly, if you're going to steal your styling, it pays to steal from the best, and in profile and general shape, the new Tiburon is contemporary, attractive and distinct from its competition (if not from the 456GT). Considering Hyundai's history of awkwardly proportioned machines, the new Tiburon counts as a breakthrough of sorts.

But the designers at Hyundai didn't quite know when to stop. Instead of leaving the shape to speak for itself, they added surface excitement and embellishments where they're just not needed. There's not one, but two non-functional side vents in each front fender. The headlights are compound projector beam units that don't need blisters on their leading edge, too. And while there's something inherently wicked/cool about fuel doors that look like quick-fill receptacles, it seems a distraction on this car. If they'd cut the overblown details down by, say 43 percent (leaving those side vent gills — after all, tiburon is Spanish for shark — but cutting back on some of the lower body cladding, for instance) those that remain would be better appreciated.

The Tiburon GT V6's innards continue the themes established by the exterior with thickly bolstered front seats, a rear seat that's not much more than an afterthought and a hooded instrument binnacle under which lives an oversize speedometer and tach circled in silver paint. The six-speed shifter sticks straight up from a silver ring in the center console, imparting a certain appealing gravitas, and the pedals are covered in an aluminum finish. The GT V6 carries air conditioning, a CD player, cruise, power everything and even leather upholstery as standard (the stuff-that-used-to-moo is deletable).

However, as on the exterior, there are discordant elements inside, too. Hyundai's designers apparently never decided whether the dash vents should be square or round, so there's some of both. The steering wheel's airbag is big, in GM circa-1991 style, and it sometimes seems that for every switch aboard there's a block plate where another switch could go. Anyone who hasn't driven a Hyundai in five years will be startled at how much the interior materials have improved, how satisfying almost everything is to the touch and how logical the ergonomics are, even though the cockpit as a whole feels a half-generation behind Toyota or Honda.

With 177 pound-feet of torque available at just 4,000 rpm, driving the Tiburon GT V6 is quite different from piloting high-strung fours like the RSX Type-S or Celica GT-S. The character of this V6 isn't particularly sporting or eager, but it's confident, composed and produces a sweet note from the dual exhaust. It's easy to break the optional P215/45R17 Michelin tires loose (P205/55R16 Michelins on 16-inch wheels are standard) on launch, but torque steer wasn't particularly apparent in our initial drive. With an engine this friendly and flexible, the six cogs available seem almost like overkill.

Down a straight road, the Tib's ride is composed and quiet over most surfaces. It's in corners where the Tiburon's limitations become apparent. With the weight of the V6 on its nose, and rather slow, numb rack-and-pinion steering, the Tib's front wants to plow furrows like a Farmall. The four-wheel disc brakes (ABS optional) can be used to balance the chassis somewhat, but the athleticism of the RSX or Celica just isn't there. We haven't driven a four-cylinder 2003 Tiburon, but doing so may enlighten us as to the source of the GT V6's profound understeer.

That the Tiburon can be mentioned as a plausible alternative to the RSX or Celica purely on its merits as a car indicates how far Hyundai has come. Factor in that prices start at an almost absurdly cheap $15,999 and peak at just $19,997, and that long warranty, and this coupe becomes even more viable. But is this Tiburon good enough to break the Hyundai curse of miserable resale values? In early February 2002, 2-year-old 2000 Tiburon, which sold for $13,999 new, is now worth $7,429 as a dealer trade-in according to Edmunds' own True Market Value (TMV®) research . In contrast, a 2000 Honda Civic DX coupe, which carried a $12,680 sticker when new ($1,319 less than the Tib) is now worth $7,608 as a trade-in ($179 more than the Tib). Smart buyers keep that depreciation in mind when shopping for cars, and the relatively low residual value of Hyundai's limits them from being attractive lease candidates.

Our expectation is that the rising tide of Hyundai quality is lifting the resale of all its models and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The next car Hyundai introduces may be its Accord — the car that propels the manufacturer to the forefront of the automotive consciousness. The new Tiburon may not be that car, but it shows that Hyundai is capable of building it.

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