Mitsubishi Eclipse gets the pulse rate and sales going up

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Mitsubishi’s extensive advertising of its new Eclipse sports coupe may be paying dividends. That’s good for Mitsubishi, because some say the Eclipse must be a success to save the troubled Japanese company in the U.S.

No matter how cloistered you might be, it’s hard to avoid both print and television ads proclaiming the virtues of the new sports car.

Most people, particularly young people, have some knowledge of the newest Eclipse.
Witness this exchange with a young man washing windows at a McDonald’s as we were fumbling for the keys to our Sunset Pearlescent GT test car in the parking lot:

“Hey, sir, is that yours?’
“Wow, nice.”
“We like it.”
“Is that the new, the new, you know, the new....”
“The new Eclipse?”
“Yes sir, it sure looks good, rounded real nice.”
“You want to take a look inside?”
“Wow, thank you.”
“This is the GT model, comes with 263 horsepower.”
“Is it fast?”
“It’s fast, especially if you don’t mind shifting gears.”
“How much is it, I sure like it, it is so rounded.”
“This one is loaded for about $28,000, but you can get the V-6 for around 24. If you want the 4-cylinder you can get it for around 20. But you look like you would need the V-6.”
“Yes sir, this is great.”
“Well look, nice talking to you, but I’ve got to push on.”
“Thank you, sir.”

And that wasn’t the end of it. There was the guy at the post office — about 30 years older than the teenager at McDonald’s — who motioned us to roll down the window so he could ask about the new Mitsubishi.

Our take after seven days behind the wheel is that Mitsubishi has created a sports coupe that has people of all ages interested; and surely will get some of them to visit a Mitsubishi store. Not since we drove the New Beetle and the original PT Cruiser have we garnered so much street interest.

The Eclipse has built up a big following since its inception in 1990 — it may have the best name recognition of any of the entry-level sports coupes of the last two decades — and this fourth generation, which harkens back to the first and second iterations in styling cues, hits the mark because those are the models that are fixed in people’s memory bank. The big question — is the sports coupe capable of sustaining the initial enthusiasm when people begin living with the car on a daily basis?

We think the Eclipse will sell itself long after Mitsubishi cuts back on its advertising campaign. It looks good inside and out, it’s fun to drive and it offers performance that matches its swoopy good looks. And we think it’s easy to live with.

Unfortunately, the new car got off to a rocky start with two recalls after its May 10th launch. Both involved brake problems and both have been fixed. The recalls involved only about 3,000 early production models, so don’t let that sway your buying decision. Mitsubishi may simply have been too anxious to get the coupe out to the public.

Early showroom response has been good with about 1,800 of the ’06 models sold in June. Mitsubishi had planned for only 800 June sales as it cranked up the assembly line. Demand appears to be increasing and workers were put on overtime at the Normal, Ill., plant in July to ensure an adequate supply of the new coupes. September sales scaled to 2,692 – more than 139-percent better than September of 2004.

Mitsubishi needs help, and the Eclipse may supply the jump start. Total sales have fallen precipitously from 345,111 in 2002 to 184,608 in 2004. The slide has continued this year with sales of only 65,753 units through the first six months of 2005, although sales in August and September seemed to turn the tide. Thanks in most part to Eclipse.

Ironically, this free fall into oblivion is not for the lack of some decent products including the mid-sized Galant sedan, mid-sized Endeavor SUV and hot-rod Lancer Evolution. Mitsubishi’s sharp decline came at the hands of a questionable marketing program that ended in financial chaos. The company and the product deserved better.

The 2006 Eclipse is more than decent, it’s about as good as it gets in a sports coupe under 30 grand, a coupe that can accomplish weekday chores and supply weekend fun in equal measure. If this is Mitsubishi’s direction, it’s headed for renewed success.

A closer look at the front-drive hatchback extols its virtues: Styling — The rounded form suggests exotic sports car. Both front and back fenders bulge over the tires with the large rear haunches merging into the roofline. The sculpted rear end is set off by a chrome-ridged spoiler that is integrated neatly into the rear design. It’s bold and dramatic. Other noteworthy aspects of the exterior styling are the cone-shaped body-colored door handles and the sophisticated front headlight assembly that houses recessed lenses.

Powertains — the engine choices seem just right. The GT comes with a 3.8-liter V-6 with a variable-intake-valve timing-and-lift system developing 263 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Power is directed through either a 6-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic. Either way performance is satisfying. Keep the rpm up through the gears and the Eclipse will cover a quarter mile in 14.5 seconds hitting 100 miles per hour. A romp to 60 takes about six seconds. There is some evidence of torque steer and there is some tire squalling on full-throttle takeoffs, but nothing excessive for a front-wheel drive car.

The standard 162-horsepower 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, mated to a 5-speed manual, can also provide scads of fun while yielding better gas mileage numbers than the V-6. While more power usually equates to more fun we found the 4-banger just as pleasurable to drive without a big fall-off in the fun department. In fact it was more than adequate and we expect that the small displacement engine will end up the volume leader as buyers look at gas mileage and price.

Handling — we did find the GT an entertaining companion on the back-road twists and turns, holding the road with gusto as the speeds increased. The Eclipse has a heavy feel, and for good reason. The GT weighs in at a rather portly 3,500 pounds. But this extra weight, 60 percent of it centered over the front wheels, does not seem to diminish the coupe’s willingness to eat up the curves.

Interior — the dashboard layout is straight forward with radio and climate control knobs that exude a good feel. A large information display sitting high in the middle of the dash is a grand idea. It imparts such information as outside temperature, compass direction, radio station or CD setting and the time. One extra cool feature is the icy blue glow of the dials after dark. The seats have good side support and proved comfortable to our old, aching back. We found getting in an out much easier (considering our age and girth) than in many low-slung cars. This may be a selling point for the middle-aged who thinks the new Eclipse will provide at least a sip from the fountain of youth.

Space — we love the hatchback design because it allows for the storage of a lot of stuff while offering all the wonderful traits of a sports car. The Eclipse hatch opens wide for the adequate storage of two sets of golf clubs, bags and other assorted trip needs. (A footnote here — if you opt for the outstanding sound of the optional Rockford-Fosgate 650-watt sound system, the rear-mounted subwoofer will take up some space. The tradeoff is worth it). Like most sports coupes, the back seats are not inhabitable by full-sized adults except for very short trips. They make a good place to stash toddlers and briefcases.

We did note a few shortcomings. The stereo is not satellite ready and satellite radio is not offered. That’s a strange omission in an all-new model. Storage cubbies up front are nonexistent outside of the center console bin and the cup holders. And it is hard to tell where the climate control knobs are pointed. The indicators are not well marked. It’s a small price to pay for a youthful image and some fun behind the wheel.

Mitsubishi has made the Eclipse affordable. It’s in reach of the young person who wants a new, hip ride. The GS 4-cylinder starts at $19,994 and includes the stuff we have come to expect in a 20 grand car including power windows and locks, air conditioning, alloy wheels, CD player, keyless entry and cruise control. Antilock brakes and side-curtain airbags are standard on all models.

The GT V-6 begins at $24,294 and adds the bigger engine, traction control and fog lamps.

Our test car carried a bottom line of $27,964 with several options including power sunroof, leather seating, heated seats, 18-inch alloy wheels and upgraded stereo system.

Mitsubishi may have fallen on hard times, but that hasn’t prevented it from designing a very attractive new coupe. If you’ve been looking at a Nissan 350Z, a Mazda RX-8 or a Honda Accord coupe, you would be remiss if you pass up a test drive in the new Eclipse before making a purchase.