Cannes, France - Bucking trends can be the best way to get ahead. Take the Hyundai Tiburon. While the main herd goes boxy in pursuit of room for carrying more goods and chattel, the third-generation, 2003 edition of Hyundai's 2+2 coupe is longer, wider, and notably sexier than its fillip-fendered predecessor. And instead of some high-thermal-efficiency fuel sipper under the hood, this road predator (tiburn is Spanish for "shark") offers a new 2.7-liter DOHC V-6 and a six-speed gearbox for extra bite (the outgoing car's 2.0-liter four and five-speed are standard). Borrowing the V-6 from the Sonata and sharing chassis parts with the Elantra keep costs in line, so the new Tiburon should roll out the door with a price only a thou or so more than last year's model, which topped out at just over $18,000. Sporting glitch-free exterior design, leather (front) seats, and a 280-watt seven-speaker stereo, the new Tiburon GT is an ideal reward for grads who earn Ivy League acceptance letters with exemplary SAT scores.
A preview drive along Monaco's Grand Corniche seemed a bit of a stretch for a penny-pinching Korean coupe, but the Tiburon behaved as if lunch in Cannes and cocktails at Le Casino were part of its everyday routine. There's a tender growl under the hood when you hit the throttle and only a touch of torque steer as the 215/45ZR-17 Michelin Pilot Sports struggle to maintain grip. Interior fundamentals are nicely executed, with Recaro-tuned seat bolsters to lock you in place, pedals perfectly arrayed for heel-and-toe footwork, and a dash full of entertaining needles and dials. (Unfortunately, U.S.-spec models miss the torque meter available in some markets.)
But don't hang a for-sale sign on your Mustang GT just yet. The Tiburon's steering is numb, the shifter sometimes loses its way en route to third, gear ratios are criminally wide, and there's enough understeer at the ragged edge of adhesion to serve a family of five. Worst of all, despite the Tiburon's 181 horses, a Toyota Celica GT-S would leave you without so much as a goodbye hug when the light turned green. (Hyundai's 0-to-60-mph rating for the Tiburon GT is 8.2 seconds.)
In terms of driving dynamics, what we have here is a lamb in shark's clothing. But, for a heavy car with a rubber-isolated front subframe, this one rides surprisingly stiff-leggedly. We hope the softer suspension calibrations planned for U.S. Tiburons will improve the ride more than they hurt the handling.
One concern for which Hyundai engineers have no handy solution is that loading passengers into the tight back seat prior to slamming the hatch shut can result in a painful whack atop unsuspecting heads. Warning stickers on the hatch seem unlikely to mollify America's famously rabid product-liability attorneys.
Hyundai recently has made progress with improved quality and reliability and more palatable exterior design. But, if anything, the new Tiburon proves that there's no express elevator from the bargain basement to the center court of respectability.