Hyundai Surprise: A Slinky New Sports Coupe

Seen in the pale light of evening, which makes picking out the manufacturer's logo difficult, Korea's latest and slinkiest sports coupe could be the product of any number of mainstream sports car makers.

But surprisingly, it isn't. This is latest offspring from Hyundai, a company hitherto known for its bargain-basement cars, yet one which is now hurtling headlong into the realm of stylish, modern cars. Gone are the days when Far Eastern manufactures churned out anonymous, less-than-satisfactory vehicles -- Hyundai hopes this new baby will emerge as a winner.

The new model is based on the recently introduced Lantra, which is a pretty good starting point. But the Coupe takes the Lantra's "curvy car" concept one step further with an even more eye-catching shape and a new two-liter, 16-valve engine. And at $22,498 for the standard model, and $24,748 for the high-specification SE version, Hyundai has chosen to price its most exciting car to date at a down-to-earth level.

So Hyundai is chasing the young, image-conscious customer. But has its new Coupe got what it takes to woo the buyers?

One walk around the flowing bodywork provides a quick answer. The panels curve and bulge in all the right places, giving the compact Coupe a more aggressive presence on the road than many rivals. Pulling into a gas station for fuel turns into a question and answer session as other drivers exhibit great difficult in suppressing their curiosity.

"Does it go as well as it looks?" is one favorite query, while "What is it?" and "Should I buy one?" are also questions of the day when you drive this Hyundai. Compliments came thick and fast from friends and strangers alike, so if you enjoy that sort of attention then this is the machine for you. But the company's engineers are keen the Coupe should also live up to its image from behind the wheel.

The new " Beta" engine has enough guts to push the Coupe past the 100 kilometers per hour mark in just 8.4 seconds, and on to a top speed of 200 kilometers per hour.

That sounds sporting enough, and out on the road the new engine does pull smoothly from low speeds in all gears, although it doesn't perform unusually well. Mid-range pulling power is reasonable, but you're encouraged to rev it hard for the best results. Unfortunately, this doesn't help matters as there's no extra surge of power higher up the rev range, and the engine sounds strained as you venture towards the red line.

Cruising at highway speeds works well, but driving on country roads is not at all relaxing. You need to make good use of the fast-acting, slot-like gearshift to keep the pace up, and your right foot has to be pressed heavily into the carpet at all times. Only then does performance live up to expectations.

The handling fares better. Although the firm suspension and low-profile tires give the Hyundai a rather firm ride in town and on other poor surfaces, they make up for this along the smaller roads. The chassis handles safely and has well-balanced composure through bends, with very good grip.

The Hyundai doesn't feel as agile or as fluid as Renault's Megane Coupe, but compared to many other cars in its class, it's a very good performer. The speed-sensitive power steering is firmly weighted and provides enough feedback, but it could be sharper in its responses, as could the brake pedal, which doesn't inspire much confidence, although it's ultimately up to the task. An anti-lock braking system is supplied as standard on both versions of the Coupe.

The Hyundai's cabin also features plenty of swooping lines and soft edges, and all the switches, dials and air vents have been rounded off to complement the curved facia. It looks good and is also functional.

The SE version includes air-conditioning, cruise control, leather upholstery and a CD player, as well as the electric sunroof, windows and mirrors, alloy wheels and engine immobilizer which come with the standard model. But these can't make up for the gloomy look in the cabin that is created by overly dark colors.

Headroom is tight in the front if you're tall, and while a couple of adults can fit into the back, it is a squeeze. But, with a large trunk and plenty of stowage space, the Hyundai is more practical than most coupes in the sector.

The majority of buyers in this market crave style above performance and in this respect the stunning Hyundai Coupe has the balance right. They may well have a winner on their hands.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.