What I'm Driving At: Pushing the Envelope

It's been years since I've heard anyone disparage a shoddy product by dismissing it as "Made in Japan." Ever since the resurrection of Japanese postwar industry -- one of the greatest economic miracles of our materialist age -- that phrase now stands as one of the great benedictions in the consumerist religion.These days, the very similar phrase "Made in South Korea" conjures up images of a time before Asia became industrial. Despite its status as one of the whippersnapper economies of the Pacific Rim -- it's the "next Japan," according to the business pages -- South Korea seems to have inherited Japan's cast-off reputation for delivering cheap copies of successful products that originated somewhere else.South Korean auto maker Hyundai is a case in point. Better known for its low prices than for its cutting-edge designs, the company has decided to flex its muscles in '97 and introduce a plucky little sports model that it hopes will lead, not follow, the competition. Aptly named Tiburon, which means "shark" in Spanish, the car's first challenge is to survive the feeding frenzy for consumers that characterizes the intensely competitive -- and crowded -- economy coupe segment.The Tiburon marks Hyundai's determination to stand on its own four wheels with a car that the company has designed all by itself. Heretofore, much of Hyundai's automotive technology has been licensed directly from that Japanese powerhouse Mitsubishi. But in the Tiburon, Mitsubishi's presence is virtually nil, especially in the engine room, where two versions of Hyundai's new Beta engine are available. This twin-cam, 16-valve motor displaces 1.8 liters in the base model and 2.0 liters in the Tiburon FX. Although they don't set new benchmarks for power output (at only 130 HP and 140 HP, respectively), these engines do represent an important declaration of independence for Hyundai as a free-standing automaker. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Mitsubishi Eclipse GS is one of the Tiburon's chief rivals for the affections of sporty-coupe buyers, who are known to gaze longingly upon such vehicles as the Pontiac Sunfire GT, Toyota Paseo, Honda Civic HX, and Volkswagen GTI. The Tiburon FX is certainly middle-of-the-pack in terms of engine performance, with zero-to-60 acceleration in the high eight-second range. Clearly it's no match for VW's V6-powered GTI, which boasts 172 HP; by the same token, it absolutely shames the Paseo's paltry 93 HP rating.In the price arena, however, the Tiburon packs a better punch -- an undercut, to be exact, which is to say that it's a bargain. A Tiburon FX will underprice a comparably equipped Eclipse GS by about 15 percent (i.e., $2,600 or so). That's a significant margin for the cash-strapped young and first-time buyers who make this category tick. It may not be enough, however, to close the deal. As the new kid in class, the Tiburon must not only cost less; it must also appear to cost more. In meeting this challenge,Hyundai only moderately succeeds.True, the Tiburon showcases an extruded, aerodynamic sculpting that's consistent with the standards of its class. But the car is still a far cry from the HCD-II, the surprisingly voluptuous styling exercise that inspired it. (For the last four years, Hyundai teased car-show audiences with the HCD-II, which the manufacturer touted not only as evidence of Tiburon's gestation but also as its physical role model.) In reality, though, the Tiburon is not the showgirl that early design concepts suggested. It's more of a girl-next-door who has undergone a fairly extensive makeover. The Tiburon, you see, is actually derived from Hyundai's Elantra sedan. It has exploited certain fine features of the Elantra's basic design, but it hasn't fully escaped the limitations of its family-sedan progenitor.Take handling and ride, for instance: Relatively sophisticated suspension geometry and components common to both models reduce "squat" upon hard acceleration and "dive" during braking. But retaining the cost-cutting MacPherson-strut front suspension in the Tiburon has its shortcomings, despite whatever advice Porsche contributed in its role as handling consultant. For one, struts transmit road noise and jolts directly into the car's body, and under aggressive, sport driving conditions, they can't accomplish some of the wheel movements that a more articulate, double-wishbone suspension can manage.Handling is further compromised by the 14-inch wheel-and-tire combination that comes standard on both base and FX Tiburons. The upshot is noticeable understeer and loud squalling on hard corners. (As the flexible sidewalls roll over a bit, you can hear them shout, "Enough already!") Optional 15-inch wheels help quiet the commotion somewhat, but even they look like little skateboard rollers under a car that deserves the larger wheels and tall, leggy fender wells of the HCD-II.Inside the Tiburon, the wraparound instruments and controls likewise evoke the standards of the class but don't transcend them. The car has a snug, cockpit feel, but it's also cramped. And the layout satisfies traditional expectations, but it's also a missed opportunity for Hyundai to break from tradition by presenting something dazzling, unusual, special. What I'm driving at is that the Tiburon is just the car Hyundai needs at this moment. It serves as long-awaited evidence that this auto maker has more to offer than just a set of affordable price tags for a derivative model line. In many ways, the Tiburon suggests that the phrase "Made in South Korea" may soon experience a change in meaning -- or at least in connotation. As an expression of Hyundai's capacity for flair and independent design, the Tiburon may eventually develop into the car that this company will ride into the first ranks of the world's auto makers. For the moment, however, Hyundai seems content merely to push.

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