Thirty years ago the automobile industry decided to build cars especially for women--and lumbered them with pink Mustangs, striped Honey Bees, Bluebirds and Yellowbirds and Whitebirds by Pontiac and a Firebird Esprit best remembered for the bon mot it coined. Esprit decor .
Give 'em cute was a given, with automatic transmission, of course, and four cylinders, naturally, and benign designs that actually gave birth to things called "secretaries' cars."
This year, such sexism has been splattered--by the 2+2 sports coupe, a corps of small, quick, inexpensive cars thoroughly engineered for both sexes but definitely with the performance/career woman in mind. Up to and including Shirley Muldowney.
All are good for speeds in excess of 120 m.p.h. and some will hit 140. The turbocharged versions only come in manual shift and accelerate faster than a California Highway Patrol cruiser. They are two-door and four-cylinder and all cost around $15,000--less than the ducky VW Cabriolet marketed so blatantly at coeds, young mothers and real estate ladies.
The sport coupe community includes the Ford Probe GT and the Nissan 240SX. There's the Mazda MX-6 and Toyota Celica. And going on sale this month (a coy ploy to justify its 1990 model designation), the Mitsubishi Eclipse.
To Rick Lepley, vice president of sales for the Cypress-based Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America Inc., the Eclipse sport coupe answers drastically changed demographics among car buyers.
"We had researched who bought our (small, mid-range) Cordia from 1983 to 1988, and each year we found that the percentage of male buyers decreased," he said. "Speaking from memory, in that first year 70% of Cordia buyers were male dropping to 66% by the third year.
"In the final analysis, more than half of the buyers in that segment were women."
Other manufacturers of agile two-doors reported those same figures holding across the board. In 1987, according to automotive analysts J.D. Power and Associates of Agoura Hills, 45% of all new cars were purchased by women. That's up from 23% in 1970. That's also a $50 billion market.
In addition, there's a growing, car-hungry market of single women and female professionals (Mitsubishi's target is 29-year-olds with a median annual income of $27,000) anxious to drive as well as dress for success. Women have evolved into sophisticated motorists who now know their anti-lock brake system from an anti-cough suppressant.
Hence the sport coupe and with it, an eclipse of tokenism and the normal limits of small car performance as we know it.
The Eclipse is manufactured by Diamond-Star Motors of Normal, Ill., a joint venture of Chrysler Corp. and Mitsubishi Motors. Wearing the Mitsubishi badge, it's an Eclipse. Behind the Plymouth emblem, it's the Laser. Later this year, Eagle, another Chrysler subsidiary, will market the same car as the Talon. So much for indulging buyer loyalties.
The Eclipse comes in four models and base prices--the entry level coupe and the Eclipse GS, both powered by the smaller 1.8-liter engine and costing just over $12,000; then a 2.0-liter, 16-valve version, and finally the turbocharged lead dog.
Being gluttons for performance (also for magicians who pull tigers out of silk hats) we allowed Mitsubishi to force the turbocharged Eclipse upon us.
A Flying Wedge
Aesthetically and athletically, it's a finned wedge that flies. The power bulge on its scarlet hood is not there for looks but to contain larger mechanicals. Similarly, the air dam extensions, side sills and rear spoiler are exactly what Edwards AFB would add for aerodynamic integrity.
Seats are close to wraparound and once belted in--after comparing the automatic, motorized seat belts to the last public hanging at Tombstone--the snug, secure feeling is not of car but of cockpit.
It has to do with a right forearm set on the center console allowing gear shifts by wrist and fingertip. Just like a video game. It is emphasized by a curving fascia that's all analog and color coding, with oversized tach and speedometer allowing superb visibility and total communication between pilot and systems. Like an F-14.
The ergonomics of the car--that human-factor engineering where eight control functions can be completed by drumming one's fingers--and its mix of cloth and vinyl (including one surface of simulated elephant hide) have formed an interior by MIT with fit and finish by Savile Row.
From dead stop, the Eclipse is not a fast car. Nor, in the first of five gears, is it particularly smooth. Owing to 190 horsepower driving the front wheels, a hard start also will slap at the steering until a quick exit from a side street feels more like Stony Burke leaving a rodeo chute.
The Good News
Fortunately, that's all the bad news. Torque steer is not a factor at highway speeds. Once in second and third gear and beyond, the turbo boosts the Eclipse through the nimblest mid-range performance of any car today.