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A Sports Car Tour de Force


CARMEL VALLEY — Five years ago, sports car sales were largely limited to the Mazda RX7, used car lots and a cottage industry building ghastly fiberglass replicars.

Somebody apparently had decreed we didn't really want cars pandering to such antisocial behavior as individualism and the child-racer in all of us. It probably was the same marketing consultant who said that if adults can do without teddy bears, they could certainly get along without convertibles.

But we beat 'em, by golly. Convertibles came back. So have sports cars. Now there's a new, growing and freer generation of grinning Americans riding lower in 300ZXs, snorting breezes in Miatas and thoroughly enjoying the addiction.

There's a car re-creating the British roadsters of the '60s, a snarling slope nose implying the mid-engined soul of Italian motoring, and a covey of sport coupes to defoliate the laurels of Porsche. . . .

Missing--at least for anyone who can't afford a Mercedes SL, which is just about everyone--has been one of those big cat sports cars; a comfortable road animal broad of track and long of leg, capable of blowing past everything. Con mucho gusto and only a tiny twitch of guilt. Preferably on the A6 leaving Paris for the South.

Now, from Mitsubishi, comes the 3000GT, which is perfectly cast in this role of the grand touring sports car.

It weighs close to two tons. It has leather armchairs for the perfect couple and a trunk looking for luggage by Louis Vitton. Entrance and exit is not a decathlon event. The car has style, is well-educated and does not fidget.

Yet with twin turbochargers performing CPR on a 24-valve V-6, the full-house Mitsubishi 3000GT develops 300 horsepower and accelerates from rest to 60 m.p.h. in about six seconds. Porsche, Ferrari, Acura NSX and Corvette live in that neighborhood.

Each of those high performance marques will run around 160 m.p.h. So does the Mitsubishi.

But the Mitzu does it for about $31,500--and that's for the top banana 3000GT VR4 fully optioned down to its leather upholstery.

The miracle continues.

There isn't a handling assist or a transportation safety item--short of ejection seats and self-sealing gas tanks--that isn't built into the 3000GT VR4.

It is the world's first high-performance car to offer both all-wheel drive for tighter road grip and four-wheel steering for precision handling. The anti-lock braking system is four-wheel. The independent suspension is four-wheel. Velocity with Reason secured by four of everything. Hence VR4.

There's an electronically controlled suspension that automatically adjusts the shocks to soft, medium or firm. It better dampens the hammering imposed by lumpy roads or lunkhead handling, keeping everything stiff, flat and balanced for whatever might be around the next corner.

And if this doesn't bring finesse to fast passage, Mitsubishi adds what it has trademarked as "Active Aero," a system that automatically tilts the rear spoiler (borrowing a concept pioneered by Porsche) while lowering the front air dam.

Both slide out at 50 m.p.h. to increase front and rear downforce, i.e. diverting air flowing over and under the car so it holds the vehicle down, reducing that moment of high-speed indecision when an aerodynamic vehicle needs to be reminded that it is a car, not an airplane.

In introducing the car to the motoring media here this month, executives of Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America stressed that it is easy to build a fast, safe, high-technology car that few people can afford.

The challenge, said Executive Vice President Richard Recchia, is creating an affordable car that can "expand the driving limits of the average driver."

Mitsubishi, on its initial reach into the world of refined muscle cars, has done just that, and the hit is dead center.

The line (to be re-badged under the Chrysler-Mitsubishi partnership and sold as the Dodge Stealth) starts with the 3000GT, which goes on sale next month at a price Mitsubishi estimates as "under $20,000." On the GT, the V-6 is not turbocharged and engine power is reduced to 222 horsepower. Anti-lock brakes and driver air bag are options on this model.

The 3000GT SL, said Mitsubishi, will cost "under $25,000." The automatic suspension system, anti-lock brakes, automatic climate control, alarm and a six-speaker, 100-watt sound system are standard.

Then there's the all-wheel steer, all-wheel drive, all-inclusive and almighty 3000GT VR4.

It looks heavy, purposeful and clearly is longer, wider and lower than the Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo it was built to unhorse. There's a pinched waist to the car that apparently has much more to do with styling (Raymond Loewy used the same Coke-bottle squeeze play on the Avanti) and reflections than aerodynamics.

In silhouette, there's a little bit of last year's Eclipse to the front and a trace of Toyota Celica in the bustle. Overall, see an MR2 that ate all its Brussels sprouts.

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