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1997 Hyundai Tiburon

TIBURON, Calif. — If you still harbor doubts about Hyundai's ability to play in the big leagues, you've missed the signs.

There was last year's tough, capable Accent, the easy pick of the entry-level cars.

Then came the sophisticated Elantra compact sedan and wagon, launched on the road last February and on the race track this summer. This model is currently second-in-class-and-rising in

the Enduroseries for showroom-stock cars, despite occasionally having me behind the wheel.

(Get to the Molson Indy early tomorrow morning for what will surely be the best race of the weekend.)

Hyundai is now the world's 14thranked carmaker by sales volume. Its goal is to reach the Top 10 by the year 2000. If you know anything about South Koreans, you'll know not to stand in

front of them when they're on a mission.

The next arrow from Hyundai's quiver will be the Tiburon sport coupe, scheduled for arrival in September. Several people have reacted badly to the name.

( El tiburon is "shark" in Spanish and is also the name, minus accent, of this town northeast of San Francisco, mid-point of the press launch ride-and-drive route.)

Quebecois especially find the label less than mellifluous in French — a potential problem since Hyundai does half its Canadian business in la Belle Province.

Although the Tiburon sort of (and belatedly) replaces the Scoupe in Hyundai's lineup, it's a more serious sporting machine than that Excel-based car.

For starters, Tiburon's mechanicals are borrowed from the more modern Elantra. The wheelbase is 75 mm shorter and spring rates and shock settings differ, but the platforms are related.

The swoopy two-door hatchback body is clearly a cousin to the HCDII concept vehicle from Hyundai's California Design facility (HCD get it?), which did the showcar circuit a couple of

years ago.

Sometimes in cases like this, the production car is actually finalized first and a similar but more radical show car developed from it. The show car is then tossed out the door to get the public accustomed to the look.

Hyundai claims that with the Tiburon, the show car was a true concept vehicle; thumbs-up public reaction led to the production go-ahead.

In silhouette, the Tib has a lot of the previous-generation Toyota Celica in it, without the odd, ovoid rear-window treatment. The Korean's arched front fenders and deep, sculpted character lines in the flanks are intended to suggest muscularity. The shape of the cat's-eye projector beam headlights is repeated in the jewel-like tail lights.

One aspect of styling that Hyundai hasn't quite mastered yet is the wheel-to-body relationship. In my view, the outer edges of the wheels and tires should line up flush with the edges of the fenders; subtle fender flares would allow the wheels to extend further outward, for a still more aggressive stance.

Overall, I think the Tiburon is a good-looking car, although I must say it didn't garner many "Gee, what's that?" stares during my two days of driving in car-crazy California.

The interior subscribes to the driver-first cockpit concept, with two thirds of the dash shaped around the left-hand seat.

Large, legible instrumentation follows an oval/circular motif. Round knobs for HVAC and large pushbuttons for various minor functions are easily located.

The seats are built with Hyundai's "monoform surebond" process, wherein the upholstery is intimately attached to the underlying cushions for reduced stretching of the fabric over the life of the car.

The rear seat is, predictably, snug for passengers. A 50-50 split-folding backrest increases luggage-carrying options.

The base Tiburon's 1.8 litre, twincam, 16valve engine, from Hyundai's in-house Beta family, is shared with the Elantra. It's rated at 130 horsepower. My experience with the racing Elantra

suggests all of these horses are well and truly accounted for.

The torque peak of 122 pound-feet occurs at a high 5000 r.p.m., but the torque curve must be flat because the engine is decently flexible.

The uplevel FX model offers a bored and stroked 2 litre version of this engine. The 11 per cent increase in displacement ups power by only 8 per cent to 140 horses, and peak torque by 9

per cent to 133 poundfeet at a slightly lower 4800 r.p.m.

These disproportionately small output increments, despite the higher 10.3:1 compression ratio compared to 10.0:1 on the smaller engine, suggest either conservative ratings on the larger mill or significant room for higher tuning.

A blankedout flange on the left front corner of the engine (as it sits sideways in the engine bay) is destined to accommodate a variable valve timing system that isn't quite ready for prime time. Thus equipped, a Hyundai Beta might start nipping at a Honda Prelude VTEC's heels.

A five-speed manual or four-speed electronic automatic are the transmission choices.

Both Tiburon trim levels are well equipped, with dual airbags, AMFM stereo cassette, tilt steering wheel and power windows.

In addition to the bigger motor, the FX adds air conditioning, power locks and mirrors, a rear deck spoiler, alloy wheels, cruise control and the usual trim and gadget upgrades.

Four-wheel disc antilock brakes are available only on FX, and only in a package that includes leather upholstery and electronic speedsensitive power steering. Too bad; the true

sporty driver would prefer cloth, normal power steering and ABS.

Tiburon production starts this month in South Korea. A variety of preproduction prototypes was available for evaluation, over a brilliant route consisting of urban, freeway and wonderfully twisty two-lane roads, near Santa Rosa, Calif.

My first mount was an FX fivespeed with cloth seats and regular power steering. My immediate reaction was, "Hey, this thing is strong." The body felt rigid, the suspension pleasantly

firm and extremely well planted, with an almost Germanic solidness to it.

I found out later Hyundai had enlisted Porsche's assistance in developing the suspension settings. Good plan.

The steering is seamless, with the chassis supplying just a hint of steadying understeer in hard bends.

The engine is powerful and pulls well from low revs, although response to initial throttle opening isn't as crisp as it could be. Engine noise is appropriate, both in character and volume, for a sporting automobile.

My major concern with the mechanicals is transmission shift quality. Like so many Asian frontdrivers, the shift gate is weakly defined and the shifts themselves gravelly. It's light in effort, however, which seems to be the over-riding design criterion.

Maybe there's another project Hyundai could hand over to Porsche. Even to Nissan.

The otherwise comfortable and supportive driver's seat, with the tilt feature that comes with the FX, seemed a bit high off the floor. Tilting the front downwards — the only option — made the cushion too flat for proper support in hard braking.

My second tester was a base five speed. The lower seating position was helpful, but this car lacked the FX's desirable adjustable lumbar support.

There wasn't a great deal of subjective difference in performance between the two; only on long uphill stretches did I miss the FX's additional 10 horses.

The suspension settings are allegedly the same. So this car's much quicker, almost darty turnin was attributable either to the H-rated 14inch Michelins, as compared with Vrated 14-inch

Michelins on my FX test car, or to the variances in assembly that prototypes often suffer.

I moved on to an allsinging, all-dancing FX, with leather, ABS, air, power sunroof and automatic. The automatic shifted well under normal circumstances.

But when I deliberately tried to trick it, like hammering on the gas pedal just after an upshift, it often took a second or two to sort out what this lunatic behind the wheel wanted it to do.

The market's demands notwithstanding, I've never understood leather in any car. But in a sports car, in hot weather? Hot and slippery aren't always bad things, but they are when you're

trying to drive a sports car briskly.

The Tiburon will be entering a sporty coupe market that's in dire straits at the moment.

Hyundai attributes this to several contenders leaving the market altogether (e.g., Nissan NX2000) or moving so far up in price (e.g., Celica and Prelude) that the usual buyer — the young, single or DINK (dual income, no kids) professional can't afford them.

The only alternatives are sporty two-door sedans, like the Chev Cavalier, Pontiac Sunfire or Chrysler's Neon.

Tiburon pricing hasn't been established, but expect it to start in the low$16,000 range, with about a $2,000 hit for the FX and an additional two grand for the leather/ABS/electronic steering package.

That should position it slightly below the smaller, less powerful Mazda MX3 Precidia and the similarly sized and powered Eagle Talon, Tiburon's two most obvious competitors.

If the production Tiburon delivers on the promise of the prototypes, this Korean shark could be chomping its way into as many as 2,000 Canadian garages in its first year.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers invited to a test site, prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by the automaker.

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