2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse First Drive

2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse Hatchback

(2.4L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

Mitsubishi's Prodigal 'Sun' Returns

Like so many recently redesigned models (Mazda Miata, Jeep Grand Cherokee and BMW 3 Series to name a few), the Mitsubishi Eclipse has been successful since day one. When it debuted in 1989 as a 1990 model, the automotive world was stunned by its combination of sleek styling, unrivaled performance and unprecedented value. The little hatchback from Normal, Ill., quickly established itself as a benchmark in the "small import performance" segment with class-leading sales and a fanatical following. The base version had a 140-horsepower engine while the top-line GSX model came with a 190-horsepower turbo four cylinder and an all-wheel-drive drivetrain for amazing traction in both wet and dry conditions

However, as with any well-received vehicle, major makeovers can be a risky proposition. The ideal update will fix any flaws found in the original model without diluting the charm and personality that made the vehicle a success in the first place. Change the original recipe too much, and an automaker can quickly kill the goose and any forthcoming golden eggs (a la Taurus).

In 1995 the Eclipse received its first major redesign. Maximum horsepower for the 2.0-liter turbo jumped to 210 while all-wheel drive continued to give the GSX models an edge over similarly priced sporty coupes. A convertible or "Spyder" configuration was added in 1996, and while you couldn't get it with all-wheel drive, the 210 horsepower GS-T Spyder combined exhilarating performance with top-down playfulness.

Ten years and a half-million cars after its introduction, Mitsubishi prepares to unleash its latest Eclipse on the American market (like all previous models, the newest car is built and sold exclusively in North America). This time around, only the name remains the same. The body, chassis, interior and drivetrain are completely redesigned in the 2000 Eclipse. But is this change for the sake of change, or is the new car actually better? A recent drive from San Francisco into Northern California's wine country revealed that both elements play their part in the new Eclipse.

First, the changes, which include a larger Mitsubishi-built four-cylinder engine in the base RS and midlevel GS models. Up from 2.0-liters and 140 horsepower to 2.4-liters and 155 horsepower, this four cylinder's most endearing trait is the ultra-smooth behavior it exhibits from idle to redline. Augmenting the increase in horsepower is a 33 foot-pound increase in torque compared to the older, less-refined Chrysler mill. With 163 foot-pounds on tap at 4,500 rpm, the new RS and GS models feel considerably more responsive than their '90s ancestors.

The really big news, however, comes in the form of a 3.0-liter V6 that powers the top-of-the-line Eclipse GT. This engine, which sends power to the front wheels only, replaces the all-wheel-drive, turbocharged GSX model. Peak output is 205 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 205 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm. These numbers are down from the previous model's 210 horsepower and 214 foot-pounds of torque, but just as with the new four-cylinder engine, numbers alone don't tell the whole story. First of all, this V6 is far smoother than the previous car's turbo four. When accelerating hard from a standing start, you can dip deep into those 205 foot-pounds and get seamless, immediate thrust. The silky engine remains composed right up to its 6,200 rpm redline. We're still not crazy about the 2000 Eclipse's loss of peak power (especially since the car also gained about 75 pounds) and we don't know exactly where its acceleration times will fall. However, we can assure you that the GT model does not feel lethargic or underpowered in the least.

Either of these engines can be had with a five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic. While previous-generation cars were notorious for their long-throw, imprecise manual transmissions, the new Eclipse has a sublime shifter to match its refined engines. Double-cone synchronizers on first and triple-cone synchronizers on second gear mean no more "crunched" upshifts during spirited driving. GT cars also have double-cone synchronizers on third gear and all manual-shift transmissions use a shorter-throw design. Bravo Mitsubishi!

The automatic transmission uses Mitsubishi's "learned control" to tailor its shifting characteristics to an individual driver's style. Relaxed driving is supposed to result in upshifts at lower engine speeds while aggressive behavior holds the automatic in each gear longer. We didn't get a chance to see if the transmission was learning anything from us because our brief time in the automatic was spent playing with the new Sportronic mode. In keeping with the times, Mitsubishi has added a manual control system to its automatic that features a separate gate for upshifts and downshifts. The system works as well as the typical manual-shift automatic of today, which means that the lag between moving the shifter and feeling the shift is too long. With the exception of Acura's new TL and various BMW models, these "manumatics" don't offer more than fleeting amusement for most drivers.

Less amusing still is the overactive suspension and vague steering found in the low- and mid-line models. Stiffly sprung compression and rebound dampening gives the car a bouncy ride over all but the smoothest of pavement. This, combined with the floaty, off-center steering, makes the Eclipse RS or GS a real handful on bumpy canyon roads. When pushed hard the cars display adequate feedback and control at the limit. But for a leisurely drive in the mountains, we found them too abusive on the backside and generally too unwieldy to enjoy.

Happily, the V6 car uses a different steering system and vastly superior suspension tuning. We fully expected the GT to be faster than its lesser brethren, but the car's advantages in terms of confidence and control make it feel like it sits on an entirely different platform. While casual driving is pleasant enough, the real fun begins at about eight-tenths pace when the standard 17-inch wheels and 50-series tires transmit accurate road data directly into the steering wheel. We still miss the turbocharged rush and all-wheel-drive confidence that came with the old GSX, but this new GT displays completely neutral handling and a consistent pull from corner apexes that only a V6 can deliver. The Eclipse's essence has always been about fun. On this point, the new GT delivers.

The original Eclipse was also about value, and at first glance the latest version seems to score well. The base RS model starts at $17,697, without destination charge. For that you get the 2.4-liter engine, a five-speed manual transmission, 15-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD player, power windows, tilt steering wheel, height-adjustable driver's seat, an anti-theft system, an air filtration system, folding rear seat and an accessory power outlet. The GS lists for $19,047 and includes the RS features plus 16-inch wheels, a power sunroof, a rear stabilizer bar, dual power mirrors, fog lamps, cruise control, remote keyless entry, glass-mounted antenna, leather-wrapped steering wheel, adjustable lumbar support and a split-folding rear seat. GT cars get the 3.0-liter V6 engine, 17-inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, front strut tower brace, additional bodyside molding and upgraded seat fabric for $20,187. All models can be equipped with an automatic for an additional $1,000, making the Eclipse a real bargain in the sport-coupe class.

Or is it?

Upon closer inspection of such things as dash materials, interior door surfaces, seat fabric and trim pieces, it becomes clear how Mitsubishi has kept the Eclipse "value priced." On the RS and GS models particularly, hard plastic abounds in areas around the climate controls and upper door panels. And a tap on the cargo-area liner near the taillights creates a drum-like resonance that imparts anything but a sense of value. The GT is slightly better in terms of soft-touch dash material, but the central dash, cargo-area liner and fake aluminum accents continue to feel toy-like.

Even more troubling is the amount of road noise and tire slap that blasts through the interior at highway speeds. Not even the GT insulates its passengers from hearing every bump and road surface irregularity. The body structure itself feels considerably stiffer than in previous Eclipses, with bending rigidity up 41 percent and torsional rigidity up 26 percent. But if body structure is one of the new car's key improvements, overall interior noise pollution is its major downfall. It's possible that final production vehicles will include additional sound-deadening material. However, before buying we'd recommend a test drive of at least 60 miles per hour to see if you can live with the roar.

There's no denying the huge leap that Mitsubishi has taken with the 2000 Eclipse. From its styling to its drivetrain, the car is totally different from anything that's previously worn an "Eclipse" badge. We like the improved drivetrain, stiffer body structure and responsive handling at the limit, especially in the GT model. And, as long as you don't look too closely at the interior pieces or listen too carefully at highway speeds, the price seems right too.

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