NOT to wax astronomical, but the new Mitsubishi Eclipse seems to have been born under a dark star. Mitsubishi Group lost more than $4 billion in the last fiscal year; U.S. sales are down a third in 2005; the executive ranks of the company's American division, based in Orange County, have seen more churn than a stern-wheeler; and the fourth generation of the Eclipse -- the enteric-coated sport coupe built in Normal, Ill., and its most bankable product -- suffered an embarrassing stop-sell order last month when some early models were diagnosed with a faulty vacuum brake booster.
Otherwise, it's been a flawless rollout.
Needless to say, Mitsubishi needs a hit. Unfortunately, the new Eclipse isn't it, at least not yet. This car has the feeling of homework finished in the dead of night.
This quality of uncrossed T's and undotted I's shows up in little ways, like the unsightly puckers in the leather-seat upholstery, and in big ways, like jinxed ride and handling and glitches in the engine program. Perhaps these are problems specific to our test car, but the silver GT with the six-speed manual I drove was as unsorted as a thrift store donation box and just about as buggy.
This is not the car sentimentalists of the old Eclipse hoped for. For 15 years, the Eclipse has been the drug of choice for the sports-compact craze; whole industries sprung up to sell unwise, high-performance parts to owners wanting to set their Eclipses on Kill, particularly the all-wheel-drive and turbocharged models of the first and second generation (1990-1999). If you have a Maori tattoo around your bicep and the director's cut DVD of "The Fast and the Furious," you probably owned one of these.
In 2000, the Eclipse got bigger and heavier and dispensed with the turbocharged four-cylinder favored by street-racing grenadiers. For them, Mitsubishi now offers the Lancer Evolution sport sedan, a rally-racing monster with AWD, a 276-hp turbocharged four cylinder, and more bad attitude than the Christmas play at Chino State Prison.
The Evo proves Mitsubishi knows how to get its freak on, and so it wasn't unreasonable for Mitsubishi fans to hope the new Eclipse would be honed with the same stone. Not unreasonable, but unrealistic. Mitsubishi is positioning the Eclipse as an under-$30,000 "grand touring" sport coupe, a more refined option to competitors such as the Mustang V6 and Acura RSX.
The Eclipse does have looks going for it. Longer, wider and taller than the car it replaces, and situated on a slightly longer wheelbase, the new syrupy-smooth Eclipse design is most notable for its amazing colossal bootie, a massive, thick-rump style that Mitsubishi describes as "muscular haunches." From some angles the car appears as mere life support for that bodacious back 40.
Audi TT and Nissan 350Z, meet Mercury Cougar. And yet it all seems to work, thanks to some sparkling details, like the crystalline backlights and headlamps, a dramatic rising character line above the rocker panels, and a neat chrome spoiler on the high deck lid.
One oddity is that our test car's 18-inch wheels and tires -- generous footwear for a car this size -- were utterly dwarfed by the enormous wheel wells inside those fenders. Time for some tire steroids, perhaps?
The Eclipse is based on what Mitsubishi called its Project America platform, a front-drive architecture shared with the Galant Sedan and the Endeavor SUV, and this fact in itself doesn't portend sports compact glory. Sure enough, the Eclipse suffers from an excess of excess. The V6 model bends the scales to the tune of 3,472 pounds, with 62% of the weight over the front wheels.
A 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder (162 hp) pulls the Eclipse GS around (mated with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic) while the 3.8-liter iron-block V6 (263 hp) is enlisted for the GT (gearbox choices are a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual).
Both engines are equipped with Mitsubishi's variable-valve timing and lift heads, and this is where I first ran into trouble. The system hydraulically switches between low- and high-lift cams at about 4,000 rpm, pouring more torque into the drivetrain on demand. And sometimes, even when it's not on demand. Due to what must have been rambunctious engine-control programming, our test car surged awkwardly and unpredictably around the four grand mark, even when I was holding the throttle steady on city streets. Like fruit flies, that got old fast.
Aside from this computer-control problem, the V6 is a nice piece, smooth and darkly sonorous, with loads of torque from its over-square engine (95.0 mm bore vs. 90.0 mm stroke). When bolted to the six-speed manual, it manages to accelerate the car to 60 mph in under 7 seconds, which is entirely respectable. Meanwhile, the sixth-gear ratio of 0.79 combined with a final-drive ratio of 3.238 means the car can casually creep into the three-digit range so, as they say in France, watch those speedos.