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Behind the Wheel

Mitsubishi's Mid-Size Galant Offers Looks, Soul

July 30, 1998|PAUL DEAN

We are besotted by bestsellers, and inveigled by badge merchandising, until a goodly number of our car purchases are inspired by perceptions. This should raise no dire caveats among fearful emptors if the only result of image shopping is a Toyota Camry, Honda Accord or Ford Taurus in your monthly payment plans.

But it's not a storm-tight buying process.

And basing a car purchase on a sister-in-law's hearsay or the power of cute and adorable advertising means you may be overlooking some very fine mid-size automobiles.

Such as Mazda's 626. It's a $21,000 sedan ranked a "Best Buy" by the Consumer Guide Automobile Book, alongside the hot-selling Accord and Camry.

There's the similarly priced Nissan Maxima. Another smoothie that for performance and luxury appointments at dress-for-less prices should be offering Toyota, Honda and Ford cruel and unusual competition.

Now add the 1999 Mitsubishi Galant to this covey of very capable automobiles hobbled by a parent company or earlier siblings laid low by misdirected advertising, misguided promotion or misaligned planets.

Or, in Mitsubishi's case, losing face and market place after three years of plummeting sales that come close to terminal velocity if you consider losses of $1 billion to be potentially fatal. And there have been environmentalists at its gates, plus a sex discrimination scandal at Mitsubishi's plant in Normal (what a misnomer), Ill., that for one brief, dingy moment had "Hard Copy" preempting reruns of "Monica and Bill Do DC."

Yet Galant will survive even the deepest scrutiny as a handsome sedan with styling that snuggles close to European and nouveau-Asian parameters. It's that BMW-Mercedes-Audi-Volkswagen-Lexus GS400 profile that starts with a bobbed trunk, a snubbed, sloping nose and slender roof pillars. Also a heavily raked windshield flowing into an ovoid roof line. Then mild fender flares, fore-and-aft styling creases atop the fenders, gently concave flanks--with not one curve or angle that isn't contributing something to the overall form.

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Granted, it's a look that paddles a safe channel, albeit a modern mainstream, but a shape rescued from the generic by a discreet, slender, elegant grille. It shows just enough chrome--formed into a delicate, one-piece strip with headlight clusters--to suggest fine jewelry, not flashy ornamentation.

It should surprise no one that all this thoughtful, with-it styling that is so SoCal was sketched at Mitsubishi's design and development studio in Cypress.

And for the first time, Galant comes with a V-6--a 3.0-liter engine borrowed and refined from Mitsubishi's Montero sport-utility. It produces 195 horsepower, which is a few ponies less than Accord and Taurus but six more than the comparable Camry. The 2.4-liter inline-four in the base Galant has also been fed additional vitamins that create 145 horsepower, or 12 more than the entry-level Camry.

Prices begin at $17,000 for a four-cylinder Galant DE; the smoother-equipped ES V-6 with anti-lock brakes and 16-inch wheels goes for $20,000; and $24,000 will get you the V-6-powered Galant LS, which drips more luxury than Mercedes could ever deliver for that skimpy price.

We're talking leather seats, wood-grain trim, automatic climate control, key-less entry, power doors and windows, rear heater ducts, cruise control, eight-way power driver's seat, power sunroof, side air bags that are seat-mounted (so protection remains constant no matter where the seat is adjusted), alloy wheels, security system with panic button and an Infinity premium sound system as standard equipment.

There's also a sportier Galant GTZ with a crisper suspension. It doesn't proceed any more quickly than the LS, but it certainly looks faster, thanks to the obligatory rear spoiler of absolutely no aerodynamic purpose and a mean and sullen look produced by removing most of the chrome trim.

Galant transmissions, unfortunately, are a little limited. Four-speed automatics are the current rule, although a five-speed manual should be here in time for your Christmas shopping. Still, only for four-cylinder cars. The V-6 variants, even that supposedly athletic GTZ, will be forever married to an automatic.

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Galant--once a compact--has been lengthened and widened, stands taller, and now matches government standards and dimensions for mid-size cars. That means more interior space than last year and fewer opportunities for rubbing shoulders and fighting for the center armrest. The uncluttered dashboard is deeply rounded, with Honda-intelligent positioning of instruments and controls that would pass any blindfold touch test.

Yet in a marketplace throbbing with mid-sizers--and add Chrysler Cirrus, Chevy Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am to this imposing list--even an excess of good looks, cool appointments and high value is only part of the public-acceptance process. Real success is rooted in a vehicle's soul and verve and the lift it delivers to drivers who previously thought a car is a car and definitely not a member of the family.

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