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Aaron Gold
2007 Hyundai Tiburon test drive

In the past few years Hyundai has made great strides in building interiors that look, work and feel like those of Toyota or Honda. The Tiburon is the last of the old-school Hyundais, before they adapted the if-you-can-beat-'em-join-em philosophy, and it hasn't changed much for 2007. Still, everything works respectably well, and Hyundai has even gone to the cost (about $50 per car, I'm told) of installing cool-looking blue instrument lighting. They've also added some gun-metal-color trim bits to spruce the place up. The Tiburon gives one the low-slung seating position that a sports car ought to have. What it doesn't do is scream "cheap sports-car knock off". Tiburon buyers won't feel like they've been cheated. The back seat's pretty useless, but the hatchback design makes the Tiburon a much more convenient cargo-hauler than coupes like the Honda Civic and Pontiac G5.

The base model Tiburon GS comes with a cloth interior, while the GT gets upgraded trim. The highlight of the range is the sporty SE, which gets black cloth seats with red leather bolsters. Now we're talking!

On the Road: SE is surprisingly accomplished

Purists will tell you there's only so much you can do with front-wheel-drive; the best-possible handling and control requires rear- or all-wheel-drive, which is why serious sports cars like the Nissan 350Z, Mazda RX-8, and Audi RS4 use one of those two setups.

Still, with some skillful engineering, one can do a lot while still maintaining a margin of safety and predictable behavior in panic maneuvers. The Tiburon, particularly the top-of-the-line SE model, comes pretty darn close to the edge, which is all the more remarkable considering the age of the Tiburon design. All versions get a stiffer body, and the SE model gets markedly stiffer suspension settings, a six-speed manual transmission (other Tibs offer a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic), and bigger brakes with cool-looking cross-drilled rotors. The SE also has an electronic stability control system which helps keep the car on its chosen path should the driver get in over his or her head. To those who speak the language of handling: Yes, the SE will allow some very mild oversteer (fishtailing), but you really have to ham-first it in the curves to make that happen. Drive smoothly and you'll be amazed at how well the Tib SE sticks to the road and how quickly you can make progress through sharp turns. Quite amazing for a relatively unsophisticated design -- and all the more amazing when you consider how inexpensive the car is.

Journey's End: Realistic expectations

Rather than pitch the Tiburon against rear-drive sports cars like the Nissan 350Z and Mazda RX-8, Hyundai is wisely promoting it as a competitor to front-drivers like the Scion tC, Honda Civic Si and Mitsubishi Eclipse, pointing out that the Tib can be had with V6 power at the same price (around $20k) as these 4-cylinder rivals. Power-wise the Hyundai's 2.7 liter V6 (172 hp and 181 lb-ft of torque) doesn't compete with the sophisticated V6s in cars like the 305Z, but its a good match against four-cylinders like the Scion tC (160 hp/163 lb-ft) and Honda Civic Si (197 hp/139 lb-ft). The Tib V6's torque makes it feel more powerful, though fuel economy isn't as good.

The base-model Tuburon GS' 138 hp four-cylinder engine is a better match against less-sporting coupes like the Honda Civic LX/EX, Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5. Fuel economy is well down from the Civic, but the GS delivers a lot of features -- including power windows, locks and mirrors, A/C, side airbags, antilock brakes, CD/MP3 player and keyless entry -- for just over $17K. The GT ups the ante with V6 power and automatic climate control for around $20K, on par with cars like the Honda Civic Si and Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged.

But for enthusiasts, the SE is the car to have. Forget about getting laughed off the track -- the Tiburon SE is serious in its looks, serious in performance and is a seriously good deal. Buy a Tib, dust off a few Nissans and Hondas at a local autocross event, then compare notes on what you paid. Tiburon owners will have the last laugh.

Aaron Gold

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