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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Just Another Day in Paradise? Here's Your Ride

June 07, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Assaults on Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing are becoming a global bushwhacking.

Timber salvationists continue to accuse the company of assisting the chain saw massacre of the Malaysian rain forest. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed against Mitsubishi alleging chronic, acute sexual harassment at the company's Normal (consider that misnomer), Ill., plant.

And now the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition are calling for a national boycott over a reported lack of minorities among Mitsubishi dealers and parts suppliers.

No surprise that in the first quarter of this year, sales of all 10 Mitsubishi models barely topped 40,000--a drop of 15%, or about half of Ford Escort sales.

Buried by these accusations and perceptions, sadly, is the simple truth that Mitsubishi, despite undeniable management staggers, has always made fun, stylish, quite capable motor cars.

And none more fetching than the 1996 Eclipse Spyder in both its forms: a very quick turbocharged GS-T hustler and the equally seductive, but slower GS with conventional breathing.

Both fall within performance, price and comfort parameters of the industry's developing trend toward compact convertibles. Such as the Toyota Celica and Chrysler Sebring.

The milder-mannered Mitsubishi GS comes with a 2.4-liter, 16-valve four-banger good for a quite effective 141 horsepower. Base price is $19,280, it's a 20-28 mpg bargain at the gas pumps and cuter than a puppy with its head cocked.

The more mischievous GS-T has a smaller, 16-valve, 2.0-liter engine force fed by a 14.1 psi Garrett turbocharger that elevates output to a strong-hearted 210 horsepower. Base price is $25,000, gas mileage is huge at 23 and 31 mpg, and its fine looks draw long looks.

Above all else, both synopsized ragtops fulfill the first incentive of convertible motoring--the suggestion that here is a vehicle for celebrating life, sunshine and shorelines. It may also urge passengers into singing along with the stereo, waving arms like kids in a roller coaster and smiling at total strangers in haughtier cars.

None of the convertible curses apply here.

* The only manual effort to raising or removing the lid is fingertip release of two catches on the windshield frame. Touch a dashboard button to power up a pair of electric motors, there's an unfussy rush of canvas to the rear and in eight seconds the top is stowed behind the rear seats.

* These Spyders are not decapitated Eclipse coupes. They were designed as convertibles, built with crossover braces, reinforced floor pans and stronger windshield pillars. Even driving coarse roads or making lateral maneuvers across steep driveways, there's neither cowl shake nor groans nor metallic mutterings from the chassis.

* The fully lined top fits tighter than a tube sock and provides impressive levels of cabin hush. In the happy absence of lousy weather, we presume it will do an equally capable job of turning back drafts and rain dribbles.

* And although the essence of convertible manufacturing is biased toward lower roof lines and raked windshields, the Spyder achieves the crouching look without reducing the headroom.

Having said all that, the Spyders' flaws center heavily on its form and function as a convertible.

On our test GS-T, with top down, the rubberized boot for tidying up the rear seemed too rubbery. On one sunny run, wind broke the Velcro barrier and the cover was left flapping. Aerodynamics held it to the car. But a vision of this monster overshoe flying free and wrapping itself around the windshield of an 18-wheeler remained a worry.

With top up, the oval rear window--albeit glass and electrically heated--is undersized and definitely makes rear vision a squint.

Stuffing all that framework and fabric into the rear of the car has savagely reduced available trunk space--to 9.2 cubic feet from 16 cubic feet in the Eclipse with a roof. And rear seat backs have been straightened to the vertical. Forced to sit sideways, adults will appear jammed into a steamer trunk.

To close out the negatives and niggles: Come make-over time, Mitsubishi might enlarge and reposition secondary dashboard instruments--oil pressure, turbo boost, fuel and coolant temperature gauges--currently squished into small, dark corners deep beneath tachometer and speedometer.

But on the move, there will be no complaints about the Spyder's hustle and scurry. And that applies to both versions.

The turbocharged GS-T scoots very smartly off the mark with only a quiver of torque steer from this relatively light, comparatively high-powered front-driver. We did notice a turbo snap when jumping quickly off the throttle at 2,700 rpm in lower gears, but that could have been an aberration of the car, not the entire species. Nor is turbo lag any great burden.

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