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First Drive

That's One Giant Step for Mitsubishi's Eclipse Sports Coupe

July 01, 1999|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

Like Mazda and Nissan meandering before it, Mitsubishi is another Asian backbencher carefully groping for sales, a new image and a popular presence for its basically fine cars.

As part of its calculation, Mitsubishi has dumped that truly grand cruiser, the 3000GT. With a price crowding $40,000, said a spokesman, it was far too expensive.

Mitsubishi is hanging with the Diamante despite a 25% sales drop in 1998. To play with the big dogs these days, explained the spokesman, everybody needs a demi-luxury car in its armory.

Numbers for the thrifty, middling-to-miniature Mirage are healthy. Montero is a solid seller because all sport-utilities are selling solidly. Adding a V-6 to the Galant lineup has helped monthly sales of that classy family four-door more than double.

Within that mix, concluded our man from Mitsubishi, there's a clear target for the future of the company: less expensive cars offering fun, value, style, performance, safety, in a full lineup of vehicles for a younger audience.

And that certainly justified a daring, major redo of the Mitsubishi Eclipse sports coupe--even if it meant staying in a market that asphyxiated the Ford Probe and Nissan 240SX, and where the only two-doors making any real money are the 35-year-old Ford Mustang and the yearling New Beetle.

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Yet what a contender. The larger, more powerful 2000 Eclipse is a classic of rolling daring, one of those rare vehicles creating instant admiration that in turn develops immediate recognition. The Plymouth Prowler has it. So does the Jaguar XK8. It is a matter of visual originality--part suggestive abstraction, part declaration of purpose.

Mitsubishi Motors' design studio in Cypress drew the shape and rehearsed the car before Chicago and New York auto show audiences as the SST--the subliminal, alphabetical message being supersonic transport, as in Concorde SST. A gruff and blunt front end apparently was too chunky for most tastes. The flat, extended butt didn't fly either.

But lightly flared and humped wheel wells and flat-sided fenders have survived the concept car. The rear was made softer, even pert, while the front was given a mouth and gills that are beautiful with a hint of a cruel streak, and mostly mako. The whole shows an ocean's rolls and swells. But no prizes for identifying deep side strakes giving the look of a mini-Testarossa separated at birth from Ferrari. And the Eclipse shows a ton of styling cues clearly filched from the dearly departed 3000GT.

Mitsubishi has dubbed this a "geo-mechanical" theme of "organic shapes and machined surfaces" to evoke the interaction between driver and car. We have no idea what any of that means.

Whatever the motif, it is certainly a techno-scientific look carried to the interior with a cockpit divided by a high center console into driver and passenger pods. Rear seats have more room in this pure 2+2 coupe, because the car is slightly longer and wider than the previous Eclipse. But there's still only room back there for slightly longer and wider children.

Touches of titanium punctuate long grab handles in the door and the fuel-filler lid. Surfacing materials have a stippled finish that Mitsubishi describes as "organic . . . adobe . . . approximates animal skin." We again have no idea what organ or what animal.

Mechanically, the Eclipse has exorcised the old and delivered all new. The base 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine, good for 140 horsepower, has been replaced by a 2.4-liter four developing 155 horsepower (reduced to 147 horsepower by an engine-management system to earn California's low-emission-vehicle rating). The optional turbocharged power plant of last year's Eclipse gives way to a normally aspirated 3.0-liter V-6 producing 200 horsepower.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard. An optional Sportronic system offers a conventional automatic plus a sequential changer for manual shifting. All very smooth, all very conducive to spirited driving with a wheel and chassis set that's flat and safe, thanks to a longer wheelbase and a multi-link rear suspension.

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Yet some things trouble us. The new car is about an inch taller than the old, but long-waisted 6-footers may have trouble with haircuts brushing the headliner.

Foot room is a bit of a jumble, legroom is skimpy for long 'uns, and the dead pedal is mounted way too high because there isn't room for it down below in the pedal well. The steering wheel tilts but is not telescopic, and that makes it either too far from the dashboard or too close to a long-armed driver. And someone had better start working on the hydraulics for the hatchback, which requires more heaving than most people are prepared to deliver.

Mitsubishi says it expects to sell four-cylinder versions of the Eclipse "beneath $18,000," while the V-6 model will be ticketed "around $20,000." The cars hit the showrooms late this month. Look for a convertible version next spring.

All in all, this is a splendid car headed for great applause from satisfied buyers delighting in being seen in something wonderfully different and less expensive than it looks. It's not perfect, but it's far from being a partial Eclipse.

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Paul Dean can be reached at paul.dean@latimes.com.

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