On the Road: A question of fashion

John Simister tests the curves and swoops of two style machines
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Indy Lifestyle Online
HYUNDAI COUPE

How's this for a bit of self-reinvention? Hyundai, Korean maker of fairly nasty economy cars full of hard plastics and empty of personality, launches a curvaceous new coupe with intriguing looks, a full helping of today's technological buzzwords and a price which waves goodbye to the bargain basement. Forget where we've come from, is the message, and look where we're going.

An unpopular brand name is a problem for a car whose purpose (as with all coupes) is to act as a fashion accessory. And, at pounds 14,999 for the regular version and pounds 16,499 for an SE with air conditioning, part-leather trim and sundry other extras, Hyundai's latest is hardly a bargain. But it has a bold Korean style at a time when Japanese car manufacturers are reverting back to bland conformity. The curves and swoops are quite daring; ellipsoids everywhere, outside and in.

The engineering is a contemporary cocktail, with even Porsche involved in the tuning of the suspension. And it shows on the road; this car grips hard and corners with confidence. Trouble is, that firmness turns against you when you hit a bump. Poor road surfaces bring on a soundtrack of rattles from the interior trim, which is constructed of the low-quality plastics found in cheaper Hyundais and a sticky mock-leather vinyl on some surfaces. Plus, the engine is not as quiet as it should be when you work it hard. As with much of this car, when it comes to matching the best from the West it's nearly, but not quite.

Part of the deal with any coupe is that you pay more than you might for an equivalent hatchback, and get less. And that's certainly true of the Hyundai's passenger space. At least its hatchback has a decent-sized boot. And the air-con works brilliantly.

FIAT COUPE

If you're a connoisseur of cars, it's fashionable to like the Fiat Coupe. It looks like nothing else with those angled slashes above the wheels, the cartoon face with the double-bubble headlamp covers, the flat tail with four round lights set into the paintwork like currants in a bun. The same goes for the cabin, with its attractive but reflection- prone dials set in a facia strip matching the bodywork, its feast of textures, its remarkable feeling of quality and solidity. The looks are Italian, but the feel is German.

Fortunately, it's a rather good drive, as well as just an object of desire. It matches the Hyundai for outright speed, though not for liveliness on the accelerator. Strangely, it also sounds faster. And, while the Fiat actually smothers bumps no better than the Hyundai, it makes less fuss about doing so because it's devoid of rattles.

It may not steer as sweetly as the Korean, nor offer such effortless roadholding, but you'll hear fewer complaints from rear passengers because they'll have more room to move. Also, by the end of the year, the Fiat will have a new five-cylinder engine in place of the current four-cylinder, though what that will do to the price-tag remains to be seen.

THE VERDICT

Korea's motor industry is developing fast, and at the moment Hyundai is leading the way. Its new Coupe is the country's best effort yet, fun to drive, interesting to look at and promising for the future, but it isn't good enough to compete in a prestigious corner of the car market. The Fiat, on the other hand, has been honed beautifully. It's a gorgeous car to have and to hold, and pretty good to drive, too.

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