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Mitsubishi looks for a new edge with the Eclipse

July 15, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

It has been a long, winding and largely uphill road for Mitsubishi, but the 2006 Eclipse sports coupe might just be the vehicle to put the company back on the straight and narrow.

There's no denying that times have been tough for this Japanese automaker, but the Eclipse is the first of what will be a new wave of vehicles to hopefully jump-start the company's revival.

Next up is the Raider pickup, based on shared technology with the Dodge Dakota, that arrives this fall. Other new sets of wheels are expected to follow, all designed to broaden brand appeal and fill showrooms with buyers.

As far as the '06 Eclipse coupe is concerned (a convertible is due out early next year), Mitsubishi's formula involves borrowing some styling cues from the past, adding some size and cranking up the juice.

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The fourth-generation Eclipse is built at Mitsubishi's Normal, Ill., plant, specifically for the North American market, and especially for North American tastes. It is longer, taller and significantly wider than its predecessor and appears to be a close copy of the boldly sculpted Concept E that was first displayed a year-and-half ago.

It has been specifically created to evoke memories of the highly-successful "fast and furious" (second-generation) car that became the darling of the "tuner" crowd, largely because of its good looks and optional turbocharged motor that could be goosed up with all sorts of performance goodies.

The result? The new Eclipse is clearly an attention-getter. It features bulbous, hyper-extended fenders, a sensuously sweeping roofline and rounded, turned-up haunches that suggest agility and excitement of the first order. The wheels have been pushed out as far as Mitsubishi dares: 2.5 inches farther for a wider stance.

Standard 17-inch wheels (18-inch versions are optional) help fill in the wheel openings for that all-important hunkered-down look.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Eclipse's two-door platform is actually based on the Galant four-door sedan and, when compared to the outgoing Eclipse, is considerably stiffer to improve ride and handling.

The interior doesn't quite keep up with the new sheet metal for jaw-dropping acuity, but there are large, simple-to-read dials and knobs that readily fall to hand. And, unlike some vest-pocket performance cars, the Eclipse's front buckets are large enough to accept people of all sizes. In typical coupe fashion, the 50/50 split rear bench is for occasional/emergency-only use.

Along with plenty of flash, the new Eclipse features more than a touch of dash. Base GS versions come equipped with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 162 horsepower, a gain of 15 from the '05 base motor. Pop for the GT and you'll be running with a Galant-based 263-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6 (up 63 over the outgoing 3.0), one of the strongest powerplants this side of a Nissan 350Z.

Pick the four-cylinder and your transmission choices consist of a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic. More cogs come with the V-6, specifically a six-speed manual or available five-speed automatic with a shift-for-yourself Sportronic mode.

All models come with air conditioning, cruise control, remote keyless entry, height-adjustable steering column, six-speaker audio system and power windows, locks and side mirrors. Options such as a power sunroof, climate control, premium 650-watt audio audio system with steering-wheel controls and leather seats can also be ordered.

Also included is a healthy supply of safety gear, including front, side-impact and side-curtain air bags and four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock. The GT adds traction control.

It's premature to label the Eclipse as Mitsubishi's key to a comeback, but the car is much more than a small step up from the old model and is also a step in the right direction for a car company looking to return to its former glory.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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