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1999 Hyundai Tiburon coupe

Once upon a time, a working girl looking for a sexy, spirited yet affordable sports coupe had a whack of choices.

Once upon a time, a working girl looking for a sexy, spirited yet affordable sports coupe had a whack of choices.

These days, the playing field isn't just level, it's downright concave. Too many cars are just too darn expensive for those of us with a need for speed and a sexy silhouette.

But peeling to our rescue is the Hyundai Tiburon, with the lines and spirit of a sprightly racehorse, all for a mere $20,000.

I'd heard the glowing reports but was wary. When Hyundai Auto Canada asked me whether I'd like the Tiburon for a week or two weeks, I replied that I'd be happy with just one week.

And wasn't I pleasantly surprised when I got into a 1999 Tiburon FX.

Inside, all was sensibly spread out, with controls easily and logically placed. Comfy too, with thoughtfully contoured bucket seats.

Visibility was, dare I say, even better than my beloved Mazda MX3 Precidia, the benchmark by which I measure all sporty coupes.

I had to have a little talk with the five-speed manual gearbox, which felt vague. From time to time I had to reassure myself by looking down that I was in the right gear.

Of course, the real test came when I decided to take my friend Patrick for a drive to Oakville.

Patrick is the kind of friend no single girl should be without. Honest but gracious, he'll tell you straight whether or not you should be baring your midriff, or trading in your Precidia for a Tiburon.

Tearing west along the QEW from downtown T.O., we were both impressed by the Tiburon's bravura performance. But with all 140 ponies chomping at the bit, it was a bit noisy inside — we had to raise our voices once we got up to (ahem) the speed limit.

Tucking into corners, this baby meant business, although the steering was a bit heavier than I would like, with the steering wheel itself covered in some kind of slippery material.

Once in the heart of suburbia, the panorama of tract housing sent Patrick into a cold sweat. Having spent too much of his childhood in a drab suburb at the other end of the province, he has never gotten over it.

Acting quickly, I hooked a right onto the Ford Drive exit, where we drove along back roads for a spell.

The Tiburon's suspension left a little to be desired, as the ride on country roads was too bumpy for my tush, and even though Patrick was happy to be relieved of non-stop subdivisions, he echoed my sentiment.

The rest of the afternoon was predictable: A smart lunch at Booker's Cafe, a stroll along Lakeshore, and a tour of Bronte and Trafalgar Roads, where Oakville's picturesque manses made Patrick happy he'd come after all.

Melonie Sibbitt, communications coordinator at Hyundai, told me that Tiburon sales in Canada are up eight per cent over last year. This year's model comes with a larger engine (2.0 L) and

more horsepower (140) than previous years.

And, according to American sales stats, it's popular with us working girls. Last year, 57 per cent of Tiburon sales were to women.

I'm not surprised. The Tiburon proved to be a good performer in the city as well as the suburbs, the power assisted rack-and-pinion steering made it easy to nip in and out of rush hour traffic and nab those impossible parking spots.

The owner's manual is well-written; I particularly liked the chapter on do-it-yourself maintenance, with recommendations on what to check regularly, followed by diagrams and descriptions.

Perhaps most notably, this is a slick and sexy car, with a snugly bulging profile. The word Tiburon is Spanish for shark, and it does indeed bear a resemblance to its namesake.

There are those who will accuse me of having a soft spot for cars named after big fish; after all, I did learn to drive on a 1966 Barracuda, and it is fondly ensconced in my heart.

However, a week of driving the Tiburon convinced me that hope is on the horizon for sports coupe fans on a budget. This Korean cutie offers gutsy good looks, performance and value.

The 1999 Tiburon FX two-door coupe I drove had the base sport package, including rear spoiler, fog lights, an upgraded AM/FM cassette stereo system and 15-inch alloy wheels.

Toss in the Cape Blue metallic paint job, and you've got to love it at a retail price of $21,180.

I'm not going to trade in my Precidia for a Tiburon just yet. But, right now, it's the only vehicle on the market that deserves to be ranked in the same class.

Heaven may not be looking after the working girl, but thank goodness Hyundai is.



PRICING INFORMATION:

1999 Hyundai Tiburon FX

Base price $19,895

Sport package $800

(Includes: rear spoiler, fog lights, 15-inch alloy wheels,

upgraded AM/FM cassette stereo system)

Metallic paint $125

Delivery $360

Air tax $100

Price as tested $21,280



Freelance Toronto writer Krystyna Lagowski's column

appears in Wheels every other Saturday.

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