For the first half of the Hyundai Motor Company's fifty years, it made cars for people who didn't much care about cars.
One car, in particular, can be credited with signaling a change in Hyundai's goals and image. At its debut roughly twenty years ago, it became the first Hyundai to turn heads on the freeway, and to win widespread acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.
Before then, if you wanted something interesting to look at and exciting to drive, you wouldn't have spent much time picking through your local Hyundai dealer's lot.
Sure, the underwhelming Hyundai "Scoupe" listed at under $10,000. You could save $2-$3k against competitors like the Geo Storm, Nissan NX, and Saturn SC. But against its low price, equipment, and roominess was the Scoupe's lack of power and refinement, a growing question mark over Hyundai's reliability, and a distinct lack of the kind of style that people expected from a coupe.
In early 1992 came the first indication that change was afoot.
Hyundai chose the Detroit show to wow visitors with its HCD-I (Hyundai California Design) concept car. It won the show's award for best concept, no small feat.
The HCD-II came hot on its heels at Detroit '93.
Auto show concepts often prove to be little more than flashy attempts to get attention. Few could have expected the Korean upstart to, three years later, proudly unveil in Geneva the production "Hyundai Tiburón" (현대 티뷰론).
Named by New York agency Interbrand Schechter after the Spanish word for "shark," the Tiburon was instantly convincing in both design and performance. Most agreed that it was the best car ever to come out of Korea.
Those bold, imaginative, individualistic curves, exaggerated "coke-bottle" shape, and frameless doors created quite a stir. "Korea is finding its own style now," mused Britain's CAR magazine. "In function and form, Tiburon delivers excitement far in excess of what we expected from the Hyundai nameplate," gushed Motor Trend.
"For you, driving means more than just reaching a destination," read the brochure. This was a very different sort of Hyundai.
Independent rear suspension, a rear stabilizer, rear disc brakes, quick steering, and performance-rated Michelin tires gave Tiburon responsiveness and grip beyond its sub-$15k price. Moreover, word had it that Porsche had been enlisted to help tune the car. "Although company officials won't confirm that rumor, they don't exactly deny it either," wrote Car and Driver. Certainly, the Tiburon was possessed of throttle adjustability, a dash of verve that involves the feet as well as the hands in steering, and helps make the car feel more alive.
With twin camshafts, sixteen valves, and one hundred and forty horsepower, the two-liter Tiburon could hit sixty miles per hour from rest in about eight seconds. It wasn't the quietest or most refined engine, but it was homegrown (a departure from Hyundai's practice of reheating old Mitsubishi lumps). Moreover, it was paired to one of the best manual transmissions in the business, with a light clutch and a positive shifter. The ride was surprisingly good, given the adept handling, although poor roads could induce rattles.
Though not as novel as its exterior, the inside of the Tiburon was pleasing, with overlapping elliptical gauge faces and a driver-centric console reminiscent of the last-generation Mitsubishi Eclipse. Headroom and legroom, front and rear, were the measure of - or better than - the Eclipse and Toyota Celica, and equipment was generous for the money. The front seats could use a little more padding and lateral support, and some of the controls looked and felt cheap; but it would have been churlish to gripe. This was more car - and more fun - than anyone could possibly have expected for under $15,000.
As a bonus feature, the view out of the windshield was, as Car and Driver put it, "Evocative - because the fenders kick up into your line of sight like those of a Corvette."
If anything was lacking, it was anti-lock brakes, which inexplicably were not always available. Surprisingly for a style statement in a fashion-conscious market, too, the Tiburon was available in just seven colors, two fewer than the entry-level Accent or Sonata family sedan with which it shared showroom space.
Before Tiburon, Hyundai had rarely done nationwide advertising. The company had relied primarily on spot marketing, putting its greatest emphasis in major metropolitan markets. Now, however, it had a halo model that could lead a national image campaign. "We are communicating a new Hyundai, which is best represented by Tiburon," chief operating officer Doug Mazza told dealers, before launching into a discussion of the company's new ten-year powertrain warranty.
By the turn of the Millennium, Hyundai could justifiably claim to have turned a corner.
"Update your files," suggested one advertisement, featuring a vague outline of an old Hyundai Excel, against the present line-up, headlined by Tiburon.
"New technology. New designs. New standards. New thinking. Add in a great warranty and you have a whole new Hyundai."
Things should have gone pear-shaped in 2000, when a facelifted Tiburon debuted.
The nose, whose teardrop headlamps had seemed so well integrated into the complex front surfacing, now received dual beams nestled in heavy-handed cones. "For a financially challenged Korean automaker that is still battling for acceptance in the U.S., you do what you can to draw attention," shrugged Car and Driver.
Europeans recoiled at the clumsy front end, sending Tiburon's EU sales falling thirty-five percent. Europe, much of which knew Tiburon as simply the "Hyundai Coupe," had actually taken to the car more than America. After the facelift, European sales of the car would never quite recover.
U.S. sales, however, shot up, doubling from roughly ten thousand in the space of two years.
A new Tiburon debuted in 2002. With the second generation, Tiburon finally gained the optional V-6 for which some had been clamoring.
A new, wider chassis was cloaked in bodywork that was not only seven percent better aerodynamically, but from some angles hinted at the Ferrari 456 GT. More shark-like than its predecessor, perhaps less dorky, and undoubtedly more serious, it demanded respect.
"Our objective was to make the car much more aggressive, much more authentic, much more masculine," said Dave Ossenmacher, director of Hyundai's product planning.
Indeed, Hyundai desperately wanted Tiburon to appeal more to young men. It had even taken Tiburon rallying. Yet fifty-eight percent of 1997-2001 Tiburon owners had been female.
The new car was more refined, less buzzy, and even more spacious. It enjoyed one hundred and eighty-one horsepower in six-cylinder form; and with a six-speed manual transmission, it shaved a second-and-a-half off its predecessor's 0-60 mph time. Initially optional, and later standard, were larger, seventeen-inch wheels shod with Michelin Pilot tires. The brakes were a revelation, even as ABS did not become standard equipment until several years into the car's life. Inside, V-6 models enjoyed leather seating and a premium Infinity sound system.
Despite the undeniable improvements, something had been lost in the translation from 1997's attention-grabbing newcomer to this sobered, more mature 2003 follow-up.
The V-6 engine, for instance, had come from the Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle and Sonata family sedan. As a result, it was refined, but was tuned for mid-range torque. This was hardly the high-strung powertrain that Honda and Mitsubishi had led imported coupe enthusiasts to expect. Indeed, the V-6 only amplified the Tiburon's tendency to torque steer and understeer excessively. Meanwhile, the lazier driving style which the engine encouraged was at odds with the firm ride. And while the dashboard was of undoubtedly higher quality, it lacked the old car’s flair.
Tiburon prices climbed by $3k, with a fully-optioned V-6 model costing a reasonable $20k. It remained a good deal for the money, and sold at roughly twenty thousand copies annually before faltering in 2006. Hyundai gave it a mild facelift for 2007, with blue back-lit instrumentation to match. V-6 models became even stiffer in a last-ditch effort to appeal to the sort of enthusiasts who might not care that the design was four years old.
Tiburon's final two years were a struggle. Indeed, the last 1,300 cars proved virtually salesproof. Hyundai bartered them against advertising air time, in an extremely rare, desperate move. Barter deals effectively put the company in competition with itself, for pennies on the dollar, and can severely harm residuals.
Park Jong-Suh, South Korea's first car designer and the senior executive vice-president of Hyundai/ Kia's design department, retired. He'd once cited the original, 1997 Tiburon's organic forms as an authentic counterpoint to geometric designs like the Audi TT. It was much to his credit that, despite being front-wheel drive, Tiburon had offered pleasing proportions.
Now seventy, he recently said that his Tiburon was inspired by photography of masculine whales jumping from the sea of Alaska. "People today believe that they can do anything with computers," surmises Park.
"But in order to design an excellent car, you need to go back to the basics, by observing the beauty of nature and the form that nature produces."
The '97 Tiburon's flowing theme, which some had dubbed "coke-bottle" styling, vaguely reappeared on the 2007 Elantra compact, and some of the drama lived on in the 2009 Sonata family sedan and 2011 Elantra.
Hyundai, however, had decided that Millennials wanted a different sort of drama in their coupes. Despite having scored almost two hundred thousand American - and one hundred and fifty thousand European - buyers in its twelve-year life, the Tiburon was gone. Hyundai's internal research suggested that the name had low awareness.
Tiburon was replaced by the 2010 Veloster. Its name a cross between "velocity" and "roadster," the Elantra-based compact offered a hidden third door at the rear. It bears noting that where both Tiburons had independent rear suspension, Veloster proffers a cost-saving torsion beam.
Those after a more traditional experience could opt for the more expensive Genesis coupe, a clean-sheet, sub-$30k, rear-wheel-drive effort whose dynamics came in for praise.
Veloster has sold fairly well in America, in some years surpassing thirty-thousand copies. Hyundai can be pleased that combined American sales of the Veloster and Genesis coupe reached forty-five thousand in some years; but Europe has not taken to either car.
Both Veloster and Genesis coupe have their merits, and it might well be argued that the Veloster evokes the sense of drama of the original, 1997-2001 Tiburon, while the Genesis coupe achieved the performance promised by the looks of the 2003-08 model.
However, neither has quite matched the satisfaction of watching the original, $13,500 Tiburon take on the establishment.
It bears remembering that most enthusiast publications were initially skeptical of the new coupe's chances for success. Familiar names in coupes - Dodge's Stealth, Mazda's RX-7, and Nissan's 300 ZX - had all disappeared from the sales charts in recent years. Yet here was Hyundai, the Korean purveyor of humdrum cars and a perennial also-ran in customer satisfaction surveys, bucking the trend.
Hyundai officials explained their belief that the RX-7 and 300 ZX had strayed too far from their original missions as simple and affordable, yet stylish and fun, sports cars. They pointed out that the more modest Saturn and Dodge Neon coupes were still enjoying healthy sales.
Tiburon went on to help change the company's image.
Hyundai has become a much larger, more serious player in the twenty years since the Tiburon's launch. It has bought its onetime rival, Kia; has hired two famous German head designers, and has often challenged the best for quality and customer satisfaction.
Showing off the original Tiburon, the company's U.S. operations chief Doug Mazza promised Road & Track that Hyundai would become "a car you want to buy, instead of one you have to buy."
The car named after the Spanish word for shark certainly played a key role in bringing that goal within reach.