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Nashville Scene Looking on the Bright Side

Sports coupes back in the spotlight with new Mitsubishi Eclipse

By Marc K. Stengel

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  Will the last sports coupe to leave the garage please turn out the lights? As any enthusiast knows, the '90s have been especially unkind to the sporty, two-door coupes that put performance ahead of practicality. The automotive boneyard is littered with the alpha-numeric evidence of demise: 300ZX, RX-7, 3000GT, Supra, MX-6, Corrado, Subaru XT--all now gone, all little lamented except by a shrill, partisan few. From a record of 700,000 sports coupes sold in 1985, the category tallied just 375,000 units for '98.

Meanwhile, sales of pickups and sport/utes soar. Their cargo capacities and all-wheel-drive systems promise function instead of fun--even though most of these mommy-trucks stick to the pavement and keep their cargo holds clear. How interesting that, during this time of fiscal exuberance, our automotive mood has taken such a decidedly puritanical turn. Sports coupes simply cannot be trusted, because the very idea of living it up is at such cross-purposes with the notion of buckling down. Come to think of it, watching a portfolio of equities and mutuals zoom into paper profits isn't very hard work, either. But at least that truck in the driveway symbolizes a long day of totin' that barge, liftin' that bale. Maybe that's why trucks seem to be eclipsing sport coupes right out of existence.

No one is still superstitious enough to believe that even a total eclipse is permanent. Nothing, in fact, could be more cyclical, and the arrival of Mitsubishi's reconfigured Eclipse sports coupe for 2000 reveals a first bright edge of hope reappearing into the enthusiast's field of view. Particularly for the enthusiast on a budget, the Mitsubishi Eclipse manages to make performance not only stylish and comfortable, but also practical--or at least practically affordable.

In fact, a serious element of practicality is fundamental to the new Eclipse: Mitsubishi now builds the Eclipse in its Normal, Ill., plant, upon the same design platform that undergirds the Galant sedan. It would be wrong, however, to think of the Eclipse as a kit-car adaptation of Mitsu's demure Galant. As automotive innovations go, "platforming" is a truly amazing--and unsung--accomplishment of the 1990s that allows automakers to maximize resources, reduce costs, and widen variety. Unlike the GM heyday of the '70s, when a single, virtually identical car was re-badged and "platformed" throughout the corporation's many sales divisions, the modern approach adopted by Mitsubishi exploits a supercomputer-driven "virtual reality" to engineer clever variations of shared powertrain-chassis-suspension combinations for different types of vehicles.

In other words, where the Galant grew up last year into a refined, midsize contender with a first-ever V6, the Eclipse has matured into a classic gran turismo 2+2 coupe of the classic style, but draped in daring new frocks. The biggest technical news is the disappearance of the up-level Eclipse's edgy, hyperactive twin-turbo four that erupted in 210-horsepower spurts. For 2000, a 3.0-liter V6 rolls out 205 horsepower whose smooth, predictable output is a magic carpet ride by comparison. What a pleasure it is to plant the accelerator foot into a meaty, broad swath of powerband whose healthy 205 ft.-lbs. of torque peaks three-quarters of the way toward redline. With the short-throw manual five-speed that comes standard, it's a true pleasure to find the fat part of the power curve as you carve your way through the twisties.

At just a shade over 3,000 lbs. curb weight, the Eclipse is light enough on its feet, if not truly tossable in the manner of, say, the much tinier Miata. A balance ratio that places two-thirds of the car's weight over the front wheels is a boon to front-drive traction, but the resulting extra understeer also softens the handling somewhat and delivers a little less razor-sharp precision. The Eclipse has matured into a sporty car that flows with the terrain, in comparison to its skittish predecessor, which darted across and sometimes through the landscape. In a sense, the Eclipse has exchanged a sometimes unpredictable excitement for a less erratic, more refined behavior. It is, I say with no hesitation, a most welcome change.

It is also just slightly paradoxical, given the almost strident styling changes made to the new Eclipse's exterior and interior. Vents and gills rake across the front and side of the car. The trademark spoiler (a dealer-installed option) still vaults over the rear deck of what appears, if you look closely enough, to be a Galant's trunk lid. Pit-row-style faux rivets bedizen the gas filler cap, which appears to have been graft-welded into the otherwise smooth right flank.

This techno aesthetic migrates into the interior in the form of faux titanium touches, more rivets, and an elaborate, bulbous dash assembly that wears little eye-shade visors and a collection of molded portholes for various vents and gauges. It's a kind of mobile MOMA styling exercise that's most notable for being so self-consciously comprehensive. Although at first I found it to be almost a bit much, I quickly came to appreciate the wise ergonomics of seating placement, switch positions, and the like. Best of all--especially for anyone familiar with the dungeon-esque tradition of Eclipse rear seating--the 2+2 bench in back now provides genuinely humane seating space. Finally, the Eclipse interior acknowledges the reality of comfort--or at least its great need. If overall styling is still not especially mature, at least it represents a heroic effort by a gifted plastic surgeon to put some new bounce into that old bod.

In addition to the V6-powered Eclipse GT for just over $20-grand, Mitsu is rolling out RS and GS versions with a gutsy, 154-horsepower 2.4-liter four at base prices of $17,697 and $19,047, respectively. Far from packing it in and drawing the shade on the Eclipse, Mitsubishi is justifiably optimistic about the bright prospects of its next-generation sports coupe.

Bandwagon effect

It's hard to keep success a secret--not that America's Big 3 automakers wouldn't want to keep it that way. Their near-exclusive choke hold on the popular--and profitable--truck trend is facing unprecedented attack from imports. In addition to a healthy supply of compact trucks already available from all the major Japanese manufacturers, Hyundai, Porsche, VW, BMW, and Honda all have plans for new sport-utility vehicles and minivans in the next few years. Nissan may even jump in beside the new Toyota Tundra with its own full-size truck. Trucks, it appears, have become the bandwagon.

And so too, of course, has the Internet. Last week, the Internet auction service eBay announced an affiliation with the nationally prominent collector car company Kruse International. Together, they're managing "The Showroom" at http://www.ebay.com, devoted to collector vehicles and exoticars.

Don't tell anyone, but Elvis' Cadillac has been sighted leaving the URL.

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