2003 Hyundai Tiburon - Lake Mead
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Story and photos by
Grant Yoxon

Hyundai has been listening to sports car enthusiasts who want a coupe that not only drives like a serious sports car, but looks like a serious sports car too.

Hyundai gets serious with 2003 Tiburon

Las Vegas Motor Speedway — With NASCAR teams testing on the oval and war planes lifting off every few seconds from nearby Ellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas Motor Speedway provided an ideal setting for Hyundai to preview the new — and much improved – 2003 Tiburon.

This is serious business. In the current atmosphere of international insecurity, the Red Flag exercise being conducted by NATO forces at Ellis is no mere war game. And with the racing season fast approaching, NASCAR teams are preparing for the serious business of the season opener, the Daytona 500 on February 17.

Hyundai is serious about the new Tiburon too. Mark Orlando, Hyundai Canada’s director of marketing and public relations told a group of Canadian journalists brought to Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week to test the new sports coupe, that the Tiburon, “born as a sporty gamble, has become an all out sports car… The Tiburon is a serious car.”

This statement is not wishful thinking. When first introduced in 1997, Hyundai went racing to prove their new coupe was a serious sports car.

2003 Hyundai Tiburon and Key Motorsports Tiburon
2003 Hyundai Tiburon and Key Motorsports Grand Am Cup Tiburon. Click image to enlarge

“The car that many people scoffed at in the beginning,” said Mr. Orlando, “went on to win on the Pro-Rally circuit, the Motorola Street Stock Series, Pro-Enduro and Grand Am Street Stock.”

Hyundai dominated the Canadian Pro-Enduro series in 1997, won five consecutive manufacturer’s championships in Pro-Rally and won the manufacturer’s championship in the 1998 Motorola Cup season in the Street Stock class.

But despite an envious record at the track, many potential sports car buyers still scoffed at the Tiburon. Updated in 2000, the Tiburon had more dips, bumps and curves than a Wonderland roller coaster, 10 (count ’em – 10!) different light fixtures on the front end, and a rear wing on some models that was nearly as high as the roof. It was styling that serious enthusiasts couldn’t take seriously.

Looking at the 2003 Tiburon, it is clear Hyundai decided to get serious about styling. Gone are the overtly muscular bulges. Gone are the undersized wheels and tires that betrayed the Tiburon’s sporting pretensions. Gone is the gargantuan rear wing that provoked laughter among car folk. Gone is the faux metal interior trim that mimicked higher-dollar coupes like the Audi TT.

2003 Hyundai Tiburon
US-spec Tiburon GTs, automatic (red) and 6-speed (blue). Click image to enlarge

In an example of classic understatement, Hyundai calls these features “ornamental elements.” The 2003 Tiburon — thankfully – has fewer ornamental elements. Designed in Korea, rather than California like the previous Tiburon, the new car has upswept lines, sharp creases and a less curvaceous profile. Hyundai calls this “ascending edge styling.”

The car is not entirely devoid of ornamental elements. There are gills at the rear of the front fenders and the tiny fin at the trailing edge of the roof that is actually a rear window washer nozzle. Both are designed to evoke the image of the fish for which the car is named. In Spanish, tiburon means shark.

But the imagery is more subtle than in the past and, to my mind, more in keeping with current design trends and the preferences of today’s youthful buyers.

2003 Hyundai Tiburon

2003 Hyundai Tiburon 2.7 L V6

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The interior has been similarly de-ornamented. Simple metallic trim surrounds the gear shift boot and simple white on black analogue gauges, but the emphasis here is on functionality — large easily readable instruments, vastly improved stereo controls and a comfortable and supportive eight-way manually adjustable driver’s seat.

Hyundai is also getting serious about power and handling. For the first time, a 2.7 litre V6 engine is available as standard equipment on GT and GS-R models. Base and SE models are powered by the 2.0 litre four cylinder engine from previous years.

2003 Hyundai tiburon GT
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The all aluminum 2.7 litre V6 has dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and a 10:1 compression ratio thanks to an advanced electronic knock control system. Power is rated at 181 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 177 ft-lbs of torque at 4000 rpm.

Three transmissions are available – a five-speed manual transmission, standard on base, SE and GT models, a new six-speed transmission for the GS-R and a four speed automatic transmission with ‘shiftronic’ manual shifting feature, optionally available across the line.

Suspension improvements over the previous Tiburon include a 20 mm wider wheel tread, increased castor angle (from 2.39 degrees to 3.12 degrees) and a zero camber angle. The angle and geometry of the MacPherson struts used on the front suspension were also changed from 4 degrees to 6 degrees, while camber changes on the Tiburon’s dual link rear suspension are suppressed during cornering and braking to improve handling stability.

The cars we tested were US-spec Tiburons and not exactly the same as the models that went on sale here earlier this month. For testing purposes, we drove a V6, automatic equipped GT without the sunroof standard on Canadian cars, as well as a six-speed GT that in Canada would be the GS-R with the addition of traction control and 17″ wheels and tires.

Grant Yoxon
The author driving the 2003 Tiburon on the slalom course. Click image to enlarge

No, we didn’t take the cars out on the oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR might have objected. But we did test the cars on the speedway road course and on a slalom set up outside the stadium, followed by a three-hour drive through the spectacular scenery of Nevada’s Valley of Fire.

My first impression is that the 2003 Tiburon is a vastly improved car, displaying excellent handling characteristics on both the low speed slalom and at high speed over the road course. Lateral transition was smooth, while steering changes were quick and precise. Braking was firm, with little if any fade, even after repeated hard braking left smoke pouring from the wheels. The 2.7 litre engine, derived from the V6 found in the Santa Fe, powered the car quickly off the line and revved freely through the gears.

2003 Hyundai Tiburon
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Quickly navigating the slalom course with an automatic-equipped car was compromised by a transmission that was reluctant to shift manually into first gear when needed. Best times were recorded with the six-speed manual, a slick, firm-shifting transmission.

Neither four cylinder cars nor cars equipped with the five speed manual transmission were available for testing.

Efforts to reduce noise and vibration have paid off as the Tiburon provides a quiet, comfortable ride on the highway. The suspension is still firm and drivers and passengers will feel expansion joints and road ridges. The Tiburon does not isolate passengers from the imperfections of the road, but softens them while maintaining a close connection with the surface on which it rides.

At idle, the V6 is so quiet, it is barely audible. Yet under hard acceleration and rapid downshifting, the engine makes its presence known through a tuned dual exhaust system that reduces unwanted noise and vibration while preserving the sound sports car enthusiasts want to hear.

2003 Hyundai Tiburon
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Both I and my driving partner were impressed with the quality of the materials used to construct the Tiburon interior. From the solid feeling steering wheel, to the driver-oriented controls on the centre stack to the Recaro-like sport seats, it is one of the best interiors Hyundai has produced.

One gripe – the power window switches are placed behind assist grip handles that integrate with the armrest, making the switches difficult to access and the armrest a bit low for comfort.

Interior space has grown providing more shoulder room, a result of a 50 mm increase in length, 55 mm increase in wheelbase, a 30 mm increase in width and a much needed but minimal 15 mm increase in height. It is the driver and passenger who benefit most from the greater space as rear seating is still limited and on cars equipped with the power sun roof, head room is still tight for tall drivers.

Standard features are plentiful. Even base models are equipped with power windows, locks and heated mirrors, six speaker AM/FM/CD, front fog lamps, variable intermittent windshield wipers, rear window wiper and washer, 50/50 split folding rear seat, overhead map lamp with sunglass storage compartment, tilt steering and gas strut supported hood.

SE and GT models receive a rear spoiler, luggage net, power sun roof, cruise control, keyless entry with alarm system and air conditioning. Leather seating is optional on the SE and standard on the GT and GS-R. The top-of-the-line GS-R includes a 7-speaker JBL AM/FM/Cassette and CD sound system as well as performance and safety enhancements like 17″ wheels and tires, ABS brakes with traction control and the six-speed manual transmission.

2003 Hyundai Tiburon
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Speaking of safety, Hyundai continues to package desirable safety features with higher-priced trim levels. ABS brakes are only available on V6 cars – the GT and GS-R. Traction control is standard on the GS-R, but not available on other models. Similarly, if you want side air bags, you must buy the fully-optioned GS-R. Safety should not be packaged. It should be available, at least optionally, no matter what model you buy.

While Hyundai has yet to take needs of safety conscious buyers seriously, it has been listening to sports car enthusiasts who want a coupe that not only drives like a serious sports car, but looks like a serious sports car too.

Technical Data: 2003 Hyundai Tiburon

MSRP price $19,995 (Base)
  $22,395 (SE)
  $25,795 (GT)
  $28,795 (GS-R)
Type Two-door, four-seat sports coupe
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.7 L 6-cyl. V-type DOHC 24-valve
  2.0 L 4-cyl. inline DOHC 16-valve
Horsepower 181 @ 6000 rpm (V6)
  140 @ 6000 rpm (I4)
Torque 177 ft-lbs @ 4000 rpm (V-6)
  133 ft-lbs @ 4800 rpm (I4)
Transmission 5-speed manual (Base, SE, GT)
  6-speed manual (GS-R)
  4-speed auto (optional)
Tires P205/55R-16 Michelin (Base, SE)
  P215/45R-17 Michelin (GT, GS-R)
Curb weight 1280 kg/2822 lbs (Base, SE)
  1,333 kg/2,939 lbs (GT, GS-R)
Wheelbase 2530 mm/99.6 in
Length 4395 mm/173 in
Width 1760 mm/69.3 in
Height 1330 mm/52.4 in
Cargo Capacity 418 litres/14.8 cu. ft.
Fuel consumption (L/100km) Base, SE manual: 10.2 (city) 7.0 (Highway)
  Base, SE auto: 10.1 (city) 7.2 (highway)
  GT manual: 12.2 (city) 8.2 (highway)
  GT auto: 12.0 (city) 8.3 (highway)
  GS-R manual: 12.9 (city) 8.2 (highway)
  GS-R auto: 12.0 (city) 8.3 (highway)
Warranty 3 yr/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yr/100,000 km

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