South Korea's Hyundai Motors has been making remarkable strides in the United States, its sales soaring as its products improve.
The latest example is the 2003 Tiburon GT V-6 sports coupe.
Although not up to Japanese competitors' standards in all aspects, it is a powerful package, priced thousands less than the competition, and it suggests that Toyota, Mitsubishi and others interested in hanging on to their share of the youth performance market best start looking over their shoulders.
The Tiburon has been evolving for years and for 2003 almost gets the lean, mean profile its name -- Spanish for "shark" -- demands. Only the softly rounded nose harks back to the pudgy lines that made previous models look as though they traced their lineage to the guppy.
Tiburon this year also gets an all-aluminum 2.7-liter V-6 engine with 181 horsepower and 171 pounds-feet of torque and a six-speed manual, a combination that lets the GT V-6 swim with the big fish.
A dedicated platform would help put it out in front, but Hyundai still sells on price and to keep it low as possible for the Tiburon the company told its engineers to stretch and pull the Elantra sedan platform to fit the body of the sporty coupe.
That makes it a heavy car for its type, acknowledged David Ossenmacher, product planning director for Hyundai Motor America.
"This is not a (Porsche) Boxster-killer, but a fun-to-drive sporty coupe," he said at a recent Tiburon preview at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Just as the stylish and well-received Santa Fe sport-utility has broadened Hyundai's appeal among grown-ups who can afford pricier SUVs, the Tiburon is intended to boost Hyundai's profile.
Tiburon's two previous generations had a decidedly female audience -- about 55 percent of 2001 Tiburon buyers were women -- but the new model is expected to attract a heavily male audience. Hyundai expects the V-6 models to account for about 75 percent of sales, and for males to buy about 65 percent of those six-cylinder models.
That's critical, said Larry Ashley, marketing director for Corona-based APC Inc., a manufacturer of aftermarket styling equipment for youth market brands such as Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi and, yes, Hyundai. "The performance scene is dominated by males, and the more young male buyers you have, the more visibility and credibility you get," he said. "We think the new Tiburon is going to be a home run" for Hyundai.
Indeed, the car maker expects to sell 28,000 of its 2003 model Tiburon, a 46 percent gain from 2001 model sales -- there is no '02 Tiburon because Hyundai wanted to get a jump on the competition with the newest model-year designation.
Hyundai also expects buyers to be younger, with an average age of 32 versus 37 for the '01 version, and wealthier, with an average household income of $65,000 versus $55,000 last year.
Hyundai has priced the Tiburon GT V-6 to appeal to the budget-conscious and equipped it to appeal to the performance enthusiast.
The base model -- including sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch alloys, leather seating, anti-lock brakes, a 360-watt sound system and a five-speed manual transmission -- carries a $17,999 sticker, plus Hyundai's $495 destination charge.
An $18,249 "tuner" version bumps up to the six-speed manual and adds a rear spoiler and sporty aluminum pedals for gas, brake and clutch, but eliminates the leather upholstery.
The priciest package, at $19,997, adds a moon roof and restores the leather. The "starter" Tiburon, with a 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower inline-4, 16-inch tires and wheels and five-speed manual (no six-speed available), is $15,999.
Hyundai also has a four-speed automatic available with both engines in various packages.
Although the cabins aren't made for the very tall or the very wide, the Tiburon is a comfortable car with grippy front seats (forget the rears -- they're good for gym bags, CD holders or skateboards, but not much else) and well-placed controls.
And while the exterior styling is the best ever from Hyundai, a few details are a bit overdone. The faux rivets and locking ring on the gas cap might work on the forthcoming Ford GT40, for instance, but they don't belong on a street-going coupe. And the wasp-waist indents in the bodywork just behind the doors is more sculpture than the package needs.
Final words: A competitive car for the youth market from a company that still is looking to make its mark. Unfortunately, "I've got a new Honda" still is far more pleasing than "I've got a new Hyundai" to most in the target audience. The '03 Tiburon can help, but its going to take a few more years of fine-tuning for Hyundai to overcome the image handicap.
In a nutshell
Front-engine, compact sports coupe. Models include base four-cylinder and several levels of the GT V-6.
Cost and Equipment
Pricing: Base model, $16,494-$18,841; GT V-6, $18,494-$20,492 (prices include $495 delivery fee). Standard equipment: Base model includes 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower engine with five-speed manual transmission; front and rear disc brakes; P205/55R16 tires and alloy wheels; rack-and-pinion steering; independent front and rear suspension; front and front side air bags; air conditioning; power windows, side mirrors and door locks; cruise control, cloth seating with front buckets and 60/40-split rear bench; six-speaker AM-FM stereo with CD player; tilt steering wheel; fog lamps; five-year, 60,000-mile basic warranty with roadside assistance and 10-year, 100,000-mile power train warranty. The GT adds 181-horsepower V-6 engine, leather seating, seven-speaker 360-watt Infinity stereo and CD system; 215/45R17 tires and alloy wheels. Options: Four-speed automatic, power sun roof, anti-lock braking system on all models; six-speed manual and rear spoiler on only GT models.
Base: 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower inline-4 with 133 pounds-feet of torque. GT: 2.7-liter 181-horsepower aluminum V-6 with 177 pounds-feet of torque.
Wheelbase: 99.6 inches Overall length: 173.0 inches Overall width: 69.3 inches Height: 52.3 inches.
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