You've got 20-grand to spend on a compact car, and the last thing you want is a dumpy, dreary, lost-in-the-crowd commuter car. The automakers have already seen you coming; and, boy, have they got just the thing-a special-edition hot-rod version of a car you might otherwise dismiss as a mere econo-car.
With regard to Honda and Hyundai, the pocket-rocket arms race in 2005 matches Honda's Civic Si against Hyundai's Tiburon SE V6. Comparably equipped, these cars are less than $26 apart in sticker prices that barely exceed $20,000. But that $26 obscures a world of difference between each manufacturer's interpretation of what it really takes to be special.
Avid aficionados and technical geeks will already have spotted my slight misstatement above, made in the service of poetic license. For 2005, Tiburon is no longer a hot-rod version of an econo-car, as indeed it was, formerly, when built using the Hyundai Elantra platform. This latest generation Tiburon is sui generis, right down to its own, exclusive chassis design.
The Tiburon is a looker. That swoopy body, sensuously sculpted and strategically punctuated with snorkels and ducts aims right at the heart, the seat of all passions. "Looking this good for 20-grand? You gotta be kidding!" is a fairly typical response from the man- and woman-in-the-street. Introverts will, of course, shudder at the potential of so much unwanted attention directed their way; but for everyone else, Tiburon is a look-at-me car in pursuit of egoists on a budget.
What makes the Tiburon SE special is its combination of 2.7-liter V6 performance (from the Tiburon GT) and an exclusive six-speed manual gearbox. The twin-cam V6 is spirited enough-it produces 172 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, with decent mid-rpm torque of 181 foot-pounds. Handling is invigorating, with four-wheel independent suspension, tasty 17-inch wheels and competent anti-lock disc brakes at each corner.
That special six-speed gearbox, on the other hand, is, well, a handful. Specifically intended to "snick, snick" into successive gears, it balks instead. It positively resists smooth changes up or down-sometimes even refuses to select a new gear altogether without two or three firm shoves.
The problem is most pronounced when the powertrain is cold, and it improves noticeably as operating temperatures rise. But it's too bad that Hyundai's centerpiece for its Tiburon "Special Edition" is, instead, the car's Achilles' Heel.
Otherwise, Tiburon is fairly typical in layout and versatility for a $20,000 sporty compact. Particularly attractive are its generous warranty and its standard-equipment front/side/head airbags. Less appealing are the cramped trunk space, four-occupant limitation and dad-burned "special" Kenwood AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system whose backlight cycles incessantly through a range of day-glo colors. Every "orange" moment arrests the eye in expectation of an emergency warning. And why an audio system in so small a cockpit requires a remote control wand is way beyond my analog-era understanding.
Tiburon is a testament to style over substance, and that's not necessarily a wrong turn. This is not to say it's a dud-performer. It's quite fun to drive, actually, if not especially awe-inspiring. And its cockpit is cozy and comfortable, particularly up front. But there's no doubt this car is eye candy first and foremost, leaving food for thought to its rivals.
4-pass., 2-door; FWD, 2.7-liter DOHC V6, 6-sp. auto; 172 hp/181 ft.-lbs.; 18 mpg/City, 26 mpg/Hwy., w/ regular; trunk: 14.7 cu. ft.; as-tested, incl. front/front-side/front-head airbags, $20,059