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BEHIND THE WHEEL / PAUL DEAN

Galant Mixes Value, Vigor

April 30, 1993|PAUL DEAN

The back seat of the 1994 Mitsubishi Galant fits no human seat not first liposuctioned into petit. It is an abbreviated bench providing marginal head room for two, sideways leg room for one and only bloodless comfort for unfortunates stuffed back there.

The receptacle end of the driver's seat-belt mounting is too short and jammed way too deep alongside the seat. It takes less effort to get out of a bad marriage than to unfasten this buried buckle.

And while most other auto makers are busily stuffing bigger V-6 engines into smaller and newer models, Mitsubishi has stuck with a stubborn minority dedicated to squeezing as much power as possible from four cylinders. Until they gasp for mercy. Or self destruct.

These negatives notwithstanding, when the new Galant goes on sale in May, it begs viewing as one of the slickest, most value-packed motor cars since Honda Accord and Ford Taurus first mined this mania for nimble, stylish mid-size sedans.

Despite the absence of a beefier motor--and Mitsubishi could well have adapted a V-6 from its GT3000 and Montero marques--the combination of larger cylinders mated to 16 valves and an overhead camshaft still produces 141 horsepower from the Galant's basic power plant. That's an increase of 20 horsepower over 1993 models, which accelerated smartly only when going head-to-head against dump trucks.

In another first for '94, Galants will be sold with an optional double-overhead-cam engine, which puts out 160 horsepower. That's more than Accord, Camry or the new Nissan Altima get from their four-bangers--and 20 more horses than Taurus obtains from its base V-6.

With an entry model at $13,600 and rising through two trim levels to $16,775, the Galant is wisely priced alongside competitors. Cost of the snazzier GS with the overfed engine has not been announced but is rumored around $20,000. Give or take an option.

More than a tale of numbers, however, the new Galant is a story of presence as a highly sophisticated package in an affordable class where major compromises are common.

Even the least expensive Galant is equipped with driver and front-passenger air bags. Anti-lock brakes are optional on all models. And independent four-wheel, multi-link suspension is standard.

Complex terminology aside, this suspension system adds evenness and equilibrium to steering and braking, while reducing intrusions of sound and motion. It is a cutting-edge system that provides the balanced handling and feel of higher-priced performance sedans.

Just like those bigger guys, the Galant's automatic transmission has a fuzzy logic--a computer that reads speed, brakes and throttle settings before deciding which gear you should be using.

And all for under $18,000.

Safety surrounds the Galant occupants. The body is 70% more rigid than last year. The passenger compartment is a roll cage. There's a full complement of crumple zones to absorb impact energies. And it just feels tough.

Visually, this is a larger Mirage with an ovoid center section in silhouette, a squat rear end and, consequently, a trunk smaller than Accord, Camry or Taurus. A rolling roof line slopes effortlessly to the front bumper and the movement is barely interrupted by a boldly raked windshield.

The car is lower, longer, softer and less angular than earlier Galants. Light assemblies are flush-mounted and wraparound and the grille is two levels of gentle apertures. The appearance is sporty but not snarly, streamlined without futuristic posturing.

And the bulge on the left side of the hood is genuine; it creates room for an oversize timing-gear cover on the twin-cam engine.

The Galant's interior is plain and deceptive. Fabric seats. Plastic dash. But the fabrics are first class with none of the sheen and harshness of discount-house upholstery. Vinyl is lightly grained to head off the cheap-checkbook look.

Front bucket seats are thoroughly supportive, backache-resistant, with lateral movements controlled by firm lumbar padding. There are more than enough openings and cubbyholes for maps, gum, sunglasses, cellular phones, a change of socks--and a sizable glove box despite the passenger-side air bag.

The test car was a GS model with its expanded inventory of power sunroof, CD player, four-wheel disc brakes, manual transmission, five-spoke alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes and a rear spoiler.

And, of course, the heftier 160-horsepower engine, which delivers more fun than anyone deserves from a car of this price and purpose.

It is several seconds quicker off the line than its ancestors and much faster at the top end. Steering is speed variable for handy slop during slides into parking slots, advancing to a tighter, more direct feel at freeway speeds.

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