Perhaps the best automotive success story of the past decade, Hyundai has gone from being ridiculed to respected by automotive journalists and consumers alike. Major improvements in build quality and engineering have vaulted our (and more than a few others') opinions of Hyundai to levels unthinkable as recently as the mid 1990s. Hyundai's game plan is best exemplified by a recent statement from its President and CEO Finbarr O'Neill: "Each new Hyundai vehicle must enhance Hyundai's brand image."
For those who may not have known (or cared), Hyundai's initial attempt at a sport coupe was the 81-horsepower Scoupe. Later years saw the availability of a turbocharged engine in the Scoupe, but even that motor only wheezed out 115 ponies. In 1997, Hyundai got serious and brought the first Tiburon to market, a curvaceous, spunky coupe that offered peppy performance with handling to match. The year 2000 brought about a revamped Tiburon that acquired more standard features as well as a strange front end that looked like a third-generation Acura Integra's snout as seen in a funhouse mirror.
The latest effort from this ambitious Korean carmaker is the redesigned 2003 Hyundai Tiburon. Much has been made about the styling; in profile, the Tib almost looks like it could be a body double for a Ferrari 456 GT, due mostly to the rising beltline, scooped outside detail and sweeping roofline. Although this comparison may sound bizarre (and even sacrilegious to the Ferraristi), there's nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from one of Italy's lovely sculptures, provided it's done with discretion. The "gills" on the front fenders suit the car, as Tiburon is Spanish for shark. "Pinched waist" side sculpting and five-spoke alloy wheels wearing Michelin performance tires complete the car's head-turning looks.
Two versions of the Hyundai Tiburon are offered: a base model and the GT V6. The base car is powered by a 2.0-liter inline four with 140 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque. The same engine is used in the Elantra sedan. Go for the Hyundai Tiburon GT and a 2.7-liter V6 with 181 horses and 177 lb-ft of torque spins the front wheels. A trio of transmissions sends the power to the pavement — a five-speed manual (standard on both cars), a four-speed auto with manual shift capability (dubbed "Shiftronic" and optional on both versions) and a six-speed manual (optional only on the GT).
Unlike the previous Tiburon, which was based on the Elantra platform, the 2003 Tiburon has its own chassis that features improved structural rigidity. The new car boasts a fully independent suspension comprised of a MacPherson strut/coil spring setup at each corner with antiroll bars front and rear. As expected, the Tiburon GT has firmer spring rates, larger antiroll bars and a bigger wheel and tire combination (17-inch alloys shod with 215/45R17 Michelins). The base model doesn't skimp on the rolling stock either, as 16s with 205/55R16 Michelins come standard.
Riding a wheelbase of 99.6 inches and measuring 173 inches in length, the new Tiburon is about 2 inches longer in each category than the previous model. It's also heavier — 2,940 pounds (base model) versus 2,633 for the prior version. Compared to the lightweights of the sport coupe class, such as the 2,500-pound Toyota Celica GT-S and 2,700-pound Acura RSX Type-S, the Hyundai Tiburon GT V6 may seem plump at 3,023 pounds. But to be fair, the RSX and Celica are both powered by inline fours. Compared to other V6 sport coupes, such as the 3,053-pound Mitsubishi Eclipse GT or the 3,200-pound Dodge Stratus R/T, the Tiburon's weight is a nonissue.
With either the base or the GT, you'll get a well-equipped car; air conditioning, a power package (windows, door locks and mirrors), cruise control, keyless entry, anti-theft system, fog lamps, four-wheel disc brakes, a beefy warranty (5 years/60,000 miles on the whole vehicle and 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain) and an AM/FM/CD audio system with six speakers are all included in the $16,494 base price. Safety features include front side airbags, but traction control is not an option.
The GT adds the V6, the sport-tuned suspension, a rear spoiler, leather seating and a 360-watt Infiniti audio system (with a subwoofer thrown in for emphasis) for a list price of just $18,494. In addition to the optional UltraSports Package 2 that our car had, there is also an UltraSports Package 3 that includes everything in the former and adds a power sunroof and ABS.
After swinging open the heavy door, the driver is greeted by a simple but handsome cockpit. At first glance, it's evident that the interior designers wanted to impart a high-quality look and feel to the cabin. Everything is laid out in a straightforward fashion free of gimmickry (such as the last Tiburon's titanium-colored switches). Play with the knobs, such as those of the climate control, and the silky fluidity with which they move would do a Honda proud. Even little things (such as the way the map pockets' inside edges are smoothly finished) speak volumes about Hyundai's new "sweat the small stuff" philosophy.
With aggressive side bolstering that makes them look like aftermarket sport seats, the comfort and support of the front buckets is top notch. But not everyone cared for the seating position, which one staffer likened to "sitting on the floor, looking up at the world," an impression due, no doubt, to the combination of the high beltline and low-set seats. In back...the word comfort doesn't really apply here; gaining access requires gymnastics that involve tilting one's head to avoid smacking the noggin on the roof. And once you're seated, there isn't much room back there for things like heads and legs. One editor even cautioned against putting your friends back there, lest you fall from their good graces afterwards. Folding down that split rear seat yields 14.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity.
Though the Hyundai Tiburon is by no means a slug, it is still one of the slowest cars in its class, which is testament to just how fast the current crop of sport coupes is. The GT put up respectable acceleration numbers (0 to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds, quarter-mile in 16.0 seconds at 86.4 mph) at the track, and there's a satisfying midrange pull that hits once the tach needle swings by 3,000 rpm. But by comparison, the Acura RSX Type-S, which was the quickest car in our recent Sport Coupe comparison test, hit 60 in 6.7 seconds and covered the quarter in 15.2 ticks at 92.7 mph. Compensating for the lack of blistering acceleration is the Tib's user-friendly interface. Running through the well-spaced gates of the six-speed manual gearbox was a breeze; unlike the six-cog unit in the Celica GT-S, it doesn't take any "getting used to" before smooth gear shifts can be made. A light clutch with progressive take-up helps in the cause.
When challenged to twisty canyon roads, the Tiburon's handling is comfortably competent. The steering has a solid heft and a precise action, and thanks to the sticky tires and well-planted attitude, the Hyundai Tiburon is fun to drive. Some of our editors thought the Tib felt heavy when driven in a sporting fashion, while others pointed out that it was more nimble around the bends than the popular Mitsubishi Eclipse GT. Indeed, its performance through the slalom, at 66 mph, even beat the RSX Type-S that won our recent Sport Coupe Comparison.
The ride, however, was universally criticized for being too harsh over severely broken pavement. For those who dwell in sunny California and other temperate regions of the country where pockmarked pavement is thankfully rare, this isn't a huge concern. But those who live in the Snow Belt regions, where many streets resemble the topography of a war-torn country, will want to take this dynamic demerit into account when comparing cars.
Without the benefit of antilock brakes, our Hyundai Tiburon produced a varying set of stopping distances (from the standard 60 mph) as our test pilot tried his best to get the most out the binders without locking 'em up. The top effort produced a respectable 130-foot distance, but others ranged up to 156 feet (this was on the first attempt, where he did lock them up). This points out another reason why ABS is such a great advance in safety; even a professional test driver can have trouble bringing a car to short stops consistently without this technology. In addition to allowing one to maintain steering control, ABS also provides consistent stopping performance by removing the variable of driver skill. We could only wonder what the braking distances would have been had our Tiburon been equipped with ABS (which can only be had by opting for the $1,748 UltraSports Package 3 that includes the UltraSports Package 2 items indicated above plus a sunroof and the antilock brakes).
When the smoke had cleared and we all gathered round to hash out our opinions of the new 2003 Hyundai Tiburon sport coupe, one word that kept surfacing was value. Here you have a handsome car (and, let's be honest, looks count for a lot in this segment) that is well-equipped and stickers for less than 20 grand. Factoring in the car's satisfying performance, high level of fit and finish and a strong warranty, we'd bet that Hyundai's new shark will have no problem taking a healthy bite out of the sport coupe market.
System Score: 9
Components: This Infinity-branded system represents a quantum leap for Hyundai. After several years of listening to really mediocre stereo offerings from Hyundai, and from its sister company Kia, we were unexpectedly blown away by the stereo in the Tiburon. This is a great little system that really puts out the sound.
Working with a system rated at 360 watts of beefy power, the relatively small cabin of this two-door coupe really accentuates the sound. And the system is well appointed. It begins with a user-friendly head unit that is loaded with features. Highlights include a large, round detented knob for volume, built-in EQ curves for Classic, Jazz and Rock, and pop-out rotary dials with center detent for balance-fade and bass-treble. In addition, the topography of the head unit, laid out in a double-sized DIN opening, makes it a snap to use. Buttons are large and widely spaced, and the overall ergonomic feel of the radio is very solid. We did have one minor complaint: a rocker-panel for radio seek-scan, where a rotary dial would have been much preferred, but other than it's a solid head unit.
As good as the electronics are in this system, it's the Infinity speakers that really make it happen. Speaker locations and sizes include a pair of dome tweeters next to the A-pillars, a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers in the lower quadrant of the front doors and an impressive duo of 6-by-9-inch full-range speakers in the side panels beside the rear seat. As if that weren't enough, the piece de resistance in this system is a 10-inch Infinity subwoofer, hidden in the trunk and tucked into the driver-side rear quarter-panel. All-in-all, the speaker array in this vehicle is most impressive.
Performance: We couldn't believe how good this vehicle sounded when we first turned it on. Surely someone was playing a joke on us. This couldn't be a Hyundai, home of the meager power amp and the funky light-show radio that looked like they came out of a boombox, could it? But it was a Hyundai, yes it was, and it sounded as good as anything we've heard in this segment. Right on down the line, from bass to treble to mids, this system performed admirably. Our listening notes read, "Clear, tight bass response among the best we've heard in this segment," and, "Superb lifelikeness and realism." Another welcome feature: The gain limiting on the amplifier was excellent, meaning this system produced almost no distortion at full gain.
Best Feature: Ten-inch Infinity sub in the trunk.
Worst Feature: Funky rocker panel for seek-scan.
Conclusion: They don't get much better than this in the Tiburon's segment. If you crave good sound, this is one to strongly consider. Scott Memmer
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says: Not having much of an idea of what a Ferrari 456 looks like, I just smile and nod gamely when the inevitable comparisons are made to its appearance when talking about the 2003 Hyundai Tiburon. All I can tell you is that it looks good, with harmonious lines and a sleek profile. It's certainly preferable to the bland Acura RSX and too-edgy Toyota Celica GT-S.
However, the Tiburon falls short of those two cars when it comes to driving experience. It lacks tossability and willingness to scamper when asked to behave like a sport coupe. Much of the problem seems to lie in its weight, a liability while cornering. Somewhat lazy handling characteristics may hamper its performance potential when compared to the Acura RSX Type-S or Toyota Celica GT-S. But the Tib is certainly preferable to the Mercury Cougar (now receiving its last rites) and the Mitsubishi Eclipse (a vehicle which proves that a car with mass appeal doesn't necessarily translate into a good product). With its plain but well-crafted interior, the Hyundai makes a compelling case toward taking a chance on a relatively obscure nameplate. But, oh, don't plan on transporting any of your friends; the back seat is torture, utter torture.
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says: The Tiburon is going to be a popular car. It's affordable, respectably quick (in GT trim) and attractively styled. While I was driving our red test car, a curbside father and his young son watched me intently. The man then gave me an enthusiastic "thumbs up" as I motored past. I suspect he might not have been so willing to give props had he known this was a $20,000 Korean car rather than what he might've thought was a $270,000 Italian exotic. Still, I can't deny that the car looks great. But if I were shopping in this market, the Tiburon wouldn't be my first choice. I prefer sport coupes that are light and nimble; the Tiburon is simply too heavy. While it's easy to drive, its excess flab diminishes its ability to accelerate quickly and handle sharply. I'd take an Acura RSX Type-S or a Toyota Celica GT-S. They are more enjoyable to drive fast and would be more rewarding to own. If you dislike their somewhat high-strung nature, however, the more relaxed Tiburon should serve you well. Of the touring-oriented coupes currently on sale (including the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Dodge Stratus coupe and Toyota Camry Solara), the Hyundai is the best of the bunch.
I am proud to own the vehicle and would not have changed my choice. I think Hyundai has done a wonderful job showing that they can make good cars. It is up to the consumer to get over their "It's a Hyundai" fear. I actually find the interior well thought out. Everything is within easy reach. Yes it is a bit bland, but that'll leave the aftermarket open for flashy stuff if you want it. Although I find the suspension a bit harsh, it's not the car's fault, I like it the way it is. It's the blasted roads that need to be fixed...grin. Jeff M, May 16, 2002
I loved it from the moment I saw it. When I test drove it, I knew I had to drive it home that day! The styling is superb, and I like the overall feel of the car (especially) the low-slung cockpit seating and short-throw shifter. Fit and finish are what I've found on my previous Hyundai vehicles...excellent. The only improvement I can think of would be a bit more power for those who feel they need it, though personally I find it to be more than adequate. RScott, May 19, 2002
I've had this car for just over a week now and I can say that it's more than I hoped it would be. I'm very happy with this car. I get a lot of good looks from people and I [am] completely satisfied with the ride it gives me. I recommend this vehicle to anyone looking to have a good time for small bucks. The sound system is incredible; I set off a bunch of car alarms with my subwoofer :) The best (thing about the GT) is smoking all the souped up Civics; they give it that dirty "it's a Hyundai" look until I [surge] ahead. I wish it got a little better gas mileage and had a remote trunk release, but other than that this car is great! jedisebs, May 14, 2002
Only had it a couple of days, but love it already. Fun to drive, love the V6 with six-speed; it's much quicker than the 2001 model. I traded a 2001 Tiburon five-speed which was 14 months old and had 24K miles, and never had a problem with the 2001. Look forward to same with 2003. I do think they should offer more exterior color options. vito, February 27, 2002
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