Advantage: Tiburon

"Each new Hyundai vehicle must enhance Hyundai’s brand image," says the company’s president, Finbarr O’Neill. Of course, any president would say the same thing: brand image is king. But in Hyundai’s case, the challenge is central because people persist in the belief that Korean cars "aren’t as good" as Japanese ones.

Hyundai’s mission has been hurt by the failure of fellow Korean carmaker Daewoo Motor America, which filed for bankruptcy in May after selling 100,000 cars here since 1998. General Motors, which is acquiring Daewoo’s assets, has been the target of lawsuits from Daewoo dealers who say they can’t get parts support for customers’ cars. One Daewoo owner was quoted as calling his new car "a throwaway," hardly the reputation you want when trying to establish the integrity of Korean cars. It’s a big mess.

But when Packard went out of business, did people stop buying Buicks? Hyundai has worked mighty hard to build its reputation, and its cars are selling. In 2001, Hyundai’s U.S. sales rose a whopping 41 percent. Hyundai is now the 11th biggest brand in the American market, up from 18th in 2000. And according to a report last spring from J.D. Power and Associates, the company’s "initial quality" rating has improved 42 percent since 1997.

Speaking to the Detroit News, O’Neill said it wants to be a "tier one" brand name, and that to do so means moving ahead of such solid marques as Mazda and Mitsubishi. His goal, O’Neill said, "is to make it OK to have a Hyundai in your driveway."

Low prices, especially when rated against comparable European or Japanese cars, are the key. Hyundai’s affordable Elantra GT hatchback and Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle have been good sellers, and I’m confident the company has another winner in the all-new 2003 Tiburon sports coupe.

For one thing, the Tiburon — a descendant of the HCD-1 and HCD-II concept cars — is very pretty, with flowing lines and plenty of dangerous curves. For another, it’s great fun to drive, particularly in GT V-6 form. This DOHC 2.7-liter, 180-horsepower engine has already been seen in the Sonata sedan and the Santa Fe SUV. In the GT version, you can marry the reasonably responsive power plant to a handling package that includes tuned suspension and 17-inch wheels. It can supposedly reach 132 miles per hour, but I can only vouch for 80 (under carefully controlled test conditions, of course). Base cars come with a two-liter, 140 horsepower four, mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed auto.

I loved chucking my GT test car into corners because it went around them nearly flat, and powered out like a Porsche. It’s great off the line, too, with wonderful sporty noises. Fuel economy, with the V-6 and a five-speed, was 18 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway.

The Tiburon is well appointed. For $19,344 (as tested), the consumer gets such features as dual side airbags, four-wheel disc brakes, air, cruise control, keyless remote, a decent CD/cassette system, power doors and locks, and even heated mirrors.

The interior is sumptuous for this class of car. If the Tiburon has a flaw, it’s in the minuscule rear-seat accommodations. The seat itself is not so bad — even for a 6-footer — but even though the new car is two inches longer than the old one, rear legroom is still nearly nonexistent. Storage under the big rear hatch is excellent, however, and the rear seat folds down neatly.

They should sell scads of Tiburons, improving the image of Korean cars in the U.S. by no small measure.