Hyundai Tiburon competes from a price standpoint with low-cost sport coupes Honda Civic Si and Scion tC, but it also stacks up favorably against the more expensive Mitsubishi Eclipse. The Eclipse is more powerful, but the Tiburon rivals its handling and is in some ways sportier.
The Tiburon SE suspension is firm, but not uncomfortable. The payoff comes in the corners, as the front-wheel-drive Tiburon SE grips the road better than the Eclipse. The Tiburon SE also stops well, having 12-inch cross-drilled front brake rotors.
From the side, Tiburon looks rakish; and the 12-spoke SE wheels look great.
Inside, the seats are comfortable and well bolstered, and the instruments are backlit in a cool blue, with sharp gunmetal accents on the instrument panel. When you look into the rearview mirror, the high spoiler reminds you that you're in a sports car.
The Tiburon SE's V6 engine makes 172 horsepower, considered modest for this class nowadays, but it makes a nice throaty sound when you rev it to its 6500 rpm redline. The engine's torque comes early in the revs, making it easy and pleasant to drive around town. The SE's six-speed gearbox is good, and the clutch is smooth, but the shift lever has too long a throw to feel tight. Heel-and-toe downshifts are challenging because of the pedal locations.
The Tiburon GS, the entry-level model that goes for less than $18,000, uses a four-cylinder engine with a five-speed gearbox.
All Tiburons are equipped with anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, a tire pressure monitor, side airbags, and a 220-watt Kenwood MP3 sound system. New for 2008, the system includes XM Satellite radio with three months of free service.
Also available are a four-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic manual control, and electronic stability control with brake assist.
Hyundai claims its warranty is America's best, with five-years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper and 10-years/100,000 miles limited powertrain. Tiburon buyers also get 24-hour roadside assistance at no charge for five years.
Hyundai Tiburon GS ($17,025); GT ($19,925); GT Limited ($22,525); SE ($22,375)
The Hyundai Tiburon has nice, rakish lines. From the side or three-quarter-rear profile, it looks like it should start rolling off downhill. A crease on each side extends precipitously, from above the rear tire and slightly higher than the door handle, to a point on the front fascia below the headlamp. A crevice down by the rocker panel accentuates the slope of the crease. It's a lot of sheetmetal shaping to make the car look forward-leaning, but in the end it works.
The 17-inch alloy wheels on the SE are handsome, a sort of starburst 12-spoke pattern; imagine six headless and armless gingerbread men, joined in a circle at the neck.
Hyundai freshened the Tiburon's appearance for 2007, with new front and rear fascia, headlights, taillights, hood, front fenders and twin exhaust tips. No additional changes have been made for 2008. We're not sure we like the latest nose and tail, which are more rounded and nubile than sleek. The Tiburon's rear isn't as big and bulbous as that of the Mitsubishi Eclipse, and the rounded trapezoidal tail lamps are graceful. The spoiler on the SE is a nice touch, high but not too high. But take away the spoiler on the other three models, and there isn't much left to draw the eyes.
From head-on, the Tiburon misses the opportunity for something dramatic. Above the bumper there's one thin slit that might add mystery but doesn't demand a second glance. The horizontal slats in the wide air intake under the front bumper are reminiscent of a 2001 Chrysler Concorde, which itself copies the look of some Ferrari grilles. A lot has been lost in the double translation to the Tiburon.
The seats are comfortable and well bolstered, with lumbar and seat bottom support. We like the available leather with its nice cloth inserts. The three spokes of the leather-wrapped steering wheel are fairly fat, but the leather feels nice in your hands. The instruments are backlit in cool blue. The speedometer is on the left and tach on the right, with temperature and fuel gauges between them, plus a digital display for the odometer and average speed. The gunmetal accents on the panel add brightness.
The center stack is squarish, with two big round climate vents over smaller ones on top of the dash. We found the air conditioning performance strong. The usual accessories run down the center, with reasonable controls without bran-teasing challenges to figure out. There are two cupholders, a small glovebox, door pockets and a small single-chamber console between the seats. Our SE had the sunroof and we opened it to the Pacific sky, which came through with a loud whoosh. There's an optional wind deflector for the sunroof, but our test model didn't have it.
The rear seats offer 29.9 inches of legroom, which isn't much but isn't bad for a two-plus-two coupe. The Eclipse has 29.2 inches.
We had a couple of problems, namely our right toe making contact with some low-hanging thing under the dash, every time we moved our right foot from the brake to the throttle. And there's a horrendous blind spot behind the right C-pillar, when you look over your shoulder in that direction.
The nicest thing about driving the Hyundai Tiburon SE might be its throaty, hollow exhaust note. It's really fun to run up through the six-speed gearbox and enjoy the sounds. A lot of hot sports cars don't sound so hot, but the SE does a great job of delivering that sensual enjoyment, so good you forget there's just 172 horsepower. The redline on the tach is 6500, but the V6 will rev to 7000 before the rev limiter cuts the engine, and it sounds so good you often want to take it that far.
And when you look into the rearview mirror, you see the high spoiler to remind you that the Tiburon is at least trying to be cool. It does block visibility out the rear, which might be inconvenient because if you're always revving the engine to redline, you might want to keep an eye out for the cops.
The aluminum double-overhead-cam V6 is mounted transversely. It makes 181 pound-feet of torque, which isn't a ton, but it's all there at a low 3800 rpm, and that means a lot. Cruising along at 75 mph in sixth gear, 3500 rpm, you can mash the throttle without downshifting, and the SE accelerates well; of course, it'll squirt away better if you downshift to fifth. Just don't expect neck-snapping acceleration from the 172 horsepower, which has to pull the Tiburon's 2986 pounds. Torque steer from the front-wheel drive is noticeable, a tug on the steering wheel when cornering and accelerating at the same time.
The gearbox, from German manufacturer ZF, is good, but the shifts aren't so sharp because the lever has a long throw and the linkage isn't as tight as it might be. However, the clutch action is smooth, especially on the upshifts, and that compensates a bit for the long throw. So overall, the upshifts work.
We can't say the same for the downshifts, at least not with heel-and-toe downshifting, because the gas pedal is quite a bit lower than the brake pedal. So you can't fit the toe of your foot on the brake pedal and easily blip the throttle at the same time. As serious as Hyundai was about the track-tuned suspension, it's surprising they missed something simple like the pedal position for sporty downshifting.
The ratios are fine; sixth gear is a tall overdrive designed to deliver better fuel mileage. It's basically an extra gear on top, because the ratio of fifth gear (0.86:1) is almost the same as the fifth gear (0.84:1) in the five-speed gearbox on the GS model.
EPA estimated highway mileage is the same as for other Tiburons, at 24 mpg, but city mileage with the six-speed drops for 17 mpg to 16. (The more frugal four-cylinder, five-speed GS manages 20/28 mpg, city/highway.)
We got a chance to test out the brakes, pushing the Tiburon SE hard on a downhill run to the Pacific Ocean through Malibu's canyons. The SE's larger rotors (12-inch diameter front, compared to 11-inch on the other Tiburons) are cross-drilled for cooling, the first time Hyundai has tried this technology that's not uncommon to high-performance cars. The brakes are good and solid for a car in this class.
Grip is quite good for this price range. Compared to the other models, the Tiburon SE springs are 13 percent stiffer in front and 10 percent stiffer in the rear. Strut valving is also specific to the SE, and overall roll stiffness is increased by 32 percent. This all feels pretty firm on a choppy freeway, but not unbearably so, and it's reasonably comfortable over mere ripples. The SE handles corners well for the class. The Tiburon SE has its limits when driven aggressively through switchback curves, but handles the situation well. It does a better job than its main competitor, the Mitsubishi Eclipse.
The 2008 Hyundai Tiburon is a stylish four-seat sports car that can be bought for $18,000 to $23,000. Its competition is the Mitsubishi Eclipse, which starts at about $2000 more. The Tiburon comes with either a four-cylinder or V6 engine; even with the V6, the power is modest but the exhaust note is sporty. The transmission, suspension, brakes and bucket seats are all good. If you want a new sports car but don't want to spend a lot, the Tiburon is worth considering.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Santa Monica, California.