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Mitsubishi had a tough time establishing an identity in the North American market. Much of the blame for that lies in the fact that the first Mitsu products sold here came over as Dodge Colts during the 1971 model year. But when Mitsubishi opened its own U.S. dealerships in 1982, its first products did nothing to excite buyers. Does anyone even remember the thoroughly awkward Cordia coupe and Tredia sedan?
The car that finally pushed Mitsubishi into America's automotive conscience was the Eclipse sport coupe that arrived for the 1990 model year. And it didn't arrive from Japan but Normal, Ill.
Mitsubishi let its rear-drive Starion sport coupe linger on through the 1989 model year, knowing that it would replace it with a pair of front- or all-wheel-drive coupes over the next two years. For 1990 that meant the four-cylinder Eclipse, while 1991 would bring the V6-powered 3000GT. While there was genuine enthusiasm for the 3000GT (particularly the all-wheel-drive, 300-horsepower, twin-turbocharged VR4 version), that car was large, heavy, unwieldly and relatively expensive. The Eclipse, on the other hand, was compact, fairly lightweight, nimble and affordable.
The Eclipse was the first fruit of a joint venture formed in 1985 between Mitsubishi and Chrysler known as Diamond Star Motors. From a plant in central Illinois, the partners would crank out vehicles to be sold under the Mitsubishi, Chrysler, Dodge, Eagle and Plymouth brands. The egg-shaped, three-door Eclipse was in fact — from pop-up headlights to cropped tail — pretty much identical to the Plymouth Laser and Eagle Talon sold through those respective dealers.
"The new coupe follows in the wheel tracks of earlier Chrysler/Mitsubishi joint efforts in terms of design and hardware," wrote Motor Trend upon its first exposure to both the Eclipse and Laser. "Functionally, the car is based on a Mitsubishi product, in this case, the [Galant sedan's] mechanical bits. Stylistically, the car is a joint effort of designers at both companies who endured numerous internal design competitions before the final version was completed in Japan by teams from both companies working together."
Twisting the Galant into the Eclipse/Talon/Laser was straightforward, continued Motor Trend. "Many adjustments have been made to the pieces, of course, like paring the wheelbase down to 97.2 inches and completely recalibrating the suspension to deal with its new job description. Wheel sizes have grown clear up to 16 inches on the high-end turbo cars we tested, compared to the 15-inch wheels used on the Galant GS . The suspension pieces are strictly routine stuff, with MacPherson struts supporting the front end and a twist beam semi-independent setup in the back. The requisite disc brakes are fitted all around, but no antilock braking system is available at this time. At least the Diamond Star car's braking system provides good feel and has impressive fade resistance."
Naturally a 97.2-inch wheelbase didn't leave much room for rear-seat legroom, so the Eclipse barely had any. But the front-seat occupants were well treated with comfortable bucket seats and a nicely textured dashboard. The L-shaped instrument pod wrapped around the driver in cockpit style, featured a full complement of easily read gauges and placed the secondary switches in reasonable places. Beyond that, the three-spoke steering wheel was thick and nicely contoured for comfort. There were a lot of different materials used in the interior, and the motorized shoulder belts (in lieu of front airbags) were universally loathed, but the interior was overall a nice place to be.
There were four different trim levels of Eclipse for 1990, each offering its own mix of powertrains. At the base sat the plain Jane Eclipse with a 1.8-liter, SOHC, eight-valve four making just 90 hp, driving the front wheels through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. One step up was the Eclipse GS powered by a 2.0-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four making a much more satisfying 135 hp and available with the same transmissions. Adding a turbocharger to that motor resulted in 190 hp aboard the GS Turbo, which came only with the five-speed. At the top of the lineup was the GSX that took everything in the GS Turbo and added five more horses, all-wheel drive and a fully independent, multilink rear suspension to the equation.
With a curb weight of just 2,745 pounds and 190 hp, it was no surprise that Motor Trend's test GS Turbo was a speedy little thing. It ripped to 60 mph in just 7.4 seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 15.9 seconds at 90.3 mph. Not bad for a front-drive car in the early '90s.
The 1991 Eclipse was virtually indistinguishable from the '90 edition. However, antilock brakes and the automatic transmission were now options on the GS Turbo and GSX. Buyers could also get a limited-slip differential in the GSX, but had to forego the ABS brakes if they chose it.
For 1992 Mitsubishi swapped the Eclipse's pop-up headlights for a set of fixed lamps shaped like cat's eyes. There were also some changes to the spoiler and wheel designs, and both of the turbo engines were now rated at 195 hp, but otherwise the Eclipse was unchanged. Motor Trend drove a '92 GSX, concluding, "The GSX remains one of the all-time great buys in a performance sport coupe. The all-wheel-drive system is completely transparent, but can save you from some outrageous cases of brain fade." They measured the GSX steaming to 60 mph in 7 seconds and running the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds at 89.2 mph.
ABS was made standard on the GSX for 1993 while the other Eclipses carried forward with minor visual tweaks such as a stand-alone rear spoiler on the GS. Time was catching up with the Eclipse, however, as a GSX finished fourth in a five-car comparison test run by Car and Driver (the then-new V6-powered Ford Probe GT won). "This year," the magazine wrote, "Mitsubishi has refined the brakes, adding larger discs and has improved the shifter action. The raft of changes makes working the potent turbocharged engine a sweeter prospect.
"Four years, though, is a lifetime in this highly competitive niche. The Eclipse's powertrain, for instance, gives up nothing to its larger displacement competitors in power or acceleration, but it can't match the newer four- and six-cylinder engines for smoothness or seamless power delivery . Despite its intact performance figures, the Eclipse felt and looked like the elder statesman of this brat pack." For the record, Car and Driver had the GSX wailing to 60 mph in only 6.4 seconds and consuming the quarter-mile in 15 seconds at 88 mph.
With a new Eclipse on its way, the 1994 edition was basically the '93 with new vehicle identification numbers. Motor Trend's test of a '94 GSX had it running a 6.6-second 0-60 time and flashing through the quarter-mile in a scalding 14.8 seconds at 91.1 mph.
Could the next Eclipse match this first one's ability to enchant enthusiasts while attracting a wider audience?
Compared to the foreshortened, almost stubby first Eclipse, the second version seemed long, sleek and gorgeous. And again it was practically indistinguishable from the Eagle Talon. But the Plymouth Laser didn't live to see 1995 as that division's death spiral quickened.
The second Eclipse rode on a 1.6-inch-longer (98.8-inch) wheelbase than before to provide at least the illusion of ample rear-seat legroom and featured a more sophisticated suspension design that used double A-arms in the front and a multilink system in the back no matter what engine or drivetrain was installed. And those drivetrains were different.
There were again four Eclipse models with the base car now known as the RS, an uplevel GS, a turbocharged GS-T and the all-wheel-drive, turbocharged GSX. The engine in the RS and GS was a 2.0-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four built by Chrysler instead of Mitsubishi and making 140 hp. The turbo engine was the same Mitsu-made "4G63" 2.0-liter, DOHC, 16-valve used in previous Eclipses, but reworked to push out 205 hp in the GS-T and 210 hp in the GSX. Both five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions were offered across the board, and ABS was now an option to add atop the standard four-wheel disc brakes.
The interior was, naturally, all new and played upon the same themes as the original with the instrumentation wrapping around the driver cockpit-style. The seats were a bit wider and the materials used were more uniform in color, but the most obvious improvement was the addition of front airbags for the driver and passenger that eliminated the despised power shoulder belts.
Edmunds' Kevin Smith (then writing for Car and Driver) drove a manual-shift '95 Eclipse GS and reported that "[although] the 140-hp output of this naturally aspirated engine does not look puny, the poor beast has to thrash itself silly to make it. You need to be up around the torque peak (4,800 rpm, where 130 pound-feet are available) for the thing to deliver any acceleration, and by then, the whirrings and whinings (have) cranked up serious decibels. In the lower gears, you press the tach needle right to its 7,000-rpm redline to come out of an upshift with sufficient revs." But that cacophony did produce a decent 8.6-second 0-60 time and a quarter-mile elapsed time of 16.7 seconds at 83 mph.
Smith also appreciated the chassis composure and the overall competence of the Eclipse package. "There's no question, however," he concluded, "that the stronger, glued-to-the-road GSX is our favorite Eclipse, and it will be such for anyone who considers pure performance among the top two or three car-picking priorities. But for a lot of sport coupe buyers, probably many more than will opt for the turbo cars, the GS will make perfect sense: a swoopy and original shape, with fine accommodations and adequate performance at a realistic price."
Hacking the roof off the Eclipse was the big news for 1996 with the introduction of the Eclipse Spyder convertible. Available either as a normally aspirated GS or turbocharged GS-T, the major mechanical deviation from the coupe was that the ragtop GS used the Mitsu-made 2.4-liter four from the Galant sedan in place of the Chrysler 2.0-liter used in the Eclipse GS coupe. Rated at 141 hp, the 2.4's big advantage was its healthy 148 lb-ft of peak torque to move the convertible's additional 155 pounds of heft.
The Spyder's top was a particularly nice one with excellent insulation, one-touch power operation and a heated glass rear window. Rearward vision was compromised pretty severely when the top was up, but the rear seat was retained and the car's structural integrity was impressive.
"The Spyder is great fun to drive through crinkly countryside," wrote Car and Driver in its first test of the Eclipse Spyder GS-T, "with its keen steering, strong brakes, much improved cable-shifter action, slick clutch and good throttle response working in unison as the car slows, turns, swings and squirts from corner to corner." And the GS-T Spyder was decently quick, too, sprinting from zero to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds and covering the quarter-mile in 15.6 seconds at 91 mph. The magazine also tested a manual transmission GS Spyder with the 2.4-liter, naturally aspirated four, and that car strolled to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds with a 16.9-second quarter-mile at 82 mph.
However, as good as the GS-T was with the manual transmission, the combination of the turbo engine and automatic transmission was a miserable one. The engine would just be hitting the meat of its turbo-swollen power band when the tranny would slug into the next widely spaced gear and acceleration would fall off as if the car had run into molasses.
All Eclipses got a new front fascia for 1997 with a deeper air dam and projector-style foglamps. There were also new rear spoilers for the GS-T and GSX and the GSX's wheel diameter went from 16 to 17 inches.
Edmunds' evaluated the '97 Eclipse GSX in a comparison test against the Honda Prelude, Mazda MX-6 and Nissan 240SX, with the four editors involved then placing the cars in the order they each individually thought appropriate. Two editors had the all-wheel-drive Eclipse finishing fourth, one had it second and the last picked it as the winner. "The Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX is all about performance," we wrote. "One look at that bulging hood lets the innocent bystanders know that you're carrying heat. And it ain't just for show. The GSX gives away nothing when it comes to performance. 0-60 in 7 seconds, 210 hp, a super-slick 0.29 Cd, and an exhaust note that simply growls are all indicative of one mean machine. The interior is also most like a sports car, with a driver-centered cockpit providing a near-perfect driving position."
But there were reasons for the Eclipse being so controversial, too. "Where the Eclipse goes wrong is also in its design," we concluded. "Rearward visibility is nil, unless your cataracts distort the lumpy rear glass back into shape. A huge spoiler doesn't help matters, and from the rear, this car is an enormous expanse of (choose your color) paint. It's a good thing you don't need to look into the rearview mirror too often, or the visibility issue would certainly be a problem. Our only concerns surfaced when forced to gaze back in parking lots, and (when) backing up at night. The other nagging concern with the Eclipse's huge butt is that to carry home any groceries, you must first hoist them over a very high rear deck, then drop them into a very deep trunk. That won't feel good on the next trip to the chiropractor."
The Eclipse made it through both 1998 and 1999 virtually unchanged (though its twin the Eagle Talon — and all of Eagle for that matter — died after '98). The second generation had succeeded in attracting new buyers to the brand, but it was also a slightly softer car than the original. The next Eclipse would be even softer still.
Both the Spyder and the all-wheel-drive GSX were gone from the Eclipse lineup for the year 2000. And in their place was an all-new car, more grown-up than ever before and now available with a mature, refined V6 engine.
"This time around," Karl Brauer wrote for Edmunds when the new Eclipse appeared, "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?"
Sharing its chassis with the Galant sedan (which was now produced alongside it at the Diamond Star plant), the wheelbase on the third Eclipse stretched 100.8 inches while overall length grew 3.2 inches to 175.4 inches overall. With its arched roof, chiseled nose with headlights in the corners and heavily sculpted sides, the third Eclipse was a significantly larger car than before. The suspension now used struts up front and a multilink independent system out in the back.
There were now three trim levels offered, with the stripped RS leading the way, a mainstream GS model and a GT that went forth with the V6 in its nose. All were front-drivers only and each could be had with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The automatic on the GS and GT also included Mitsubishi's "Sportronic" feature which allowed manual operation.
Both the RS and GS were powered by the same Mitsubishi-built 2.4-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four that had been powering the Eclipse Spyder and also used as the base engine in the Galant. In the Eclipse it was rated at a robust 154 hp and 163 lb-ft of peak torque at 4,500 rpm.
It may not have been as startling a performer as the old GSX, but the new GT was a friendly beast. "We fully expected the GT to be faster than its lesser brethren," wrote Brauer, "but the car's advantages in terms of confidence and control make it feel like it sits on an entirely different platform [than the RS and GS]. 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 SOHC, 24-valve V6 actually made five less horsepower than the turbo engine in the old GSX (205 versus 210), but those ponies came harnessed to a friendlier torque curve that delivered 205 lb-ft of twist at 4,500 rpm. "First of all," explained Brauer, "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 lb-ft 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."
The Eclipse Spyder was back for 2001 in both GS and GT versions with another high-quality top and reduced rearward vision. The engines were also rerated with the 2.4-liter four now pegged at 147 hp and the 3.0-liter V6 at a flat 200. Otherwise, the Eclipse was pretty much a carryover.
An '01 Eclipse GT coupe was part of an Edmunds.com six-car sport coupe comparison where it finished fifth. "One might think that the Eclipse's V6 would allow it to be the gold medalist of the acceleration Olympics," wrote our Brent Romans. "But that's not the case. Zero-to-60 mph takes 7.2 seconds and the quarter-mile happens in 15.7 seconds at 89.2 mph. Braking is likewise unimpressive, with the Eclipse requiring 128 feet to stop from 60 mph. The culprit? Curb weight is a good guess, as the Eclipse weighs a porky 3,053 pounds. For comparison, the flyweight Celica weighs in at just 2,500 pounds."
Our summary judgment of the Eclipse was harsh. "Overall, we're not impressed with the Eclipse," Romans concluded. "For the 20-point evaluation category of this test — the part where each editor rates the car on everything from engine performance to cupholder design — the Eclipse earned an average score of 58.5 percent. Not only is this the worst evaluation score of the six cars, a casual check of other previous comparison tests we've conducted reveals that this is one of the lowest scores any car has ever earned.
"The Mitsubishi might be OK for somebody wanting a comfortable and stylish two-door to punt around in and nothing more. But if that's the case, why not just buy a Toyota Camry Solara? Consider your decision long and hard before settling on an Eclipse."
Except for some new exterior colors, new logos and some lighting for the vanity mirror, there were no changes to the 2002 Eclipse line.
Slightly updated styling announced the 2003 Eclipse (revised front and rear fascias with new headlights and taillights were most obvious), while a new GTS model now topped the line. The GTS added ABS, side-impact airbags, 12-way adjustable leather seats, a six-disc CD changer, redundant audio controls to the steering wheel and (for the coupe) a sunroof to the standard equipment list. Beyond that, the GTS also featured a new intake manifold on its V6 that used variable length runners to boost output to 210 hp.
At the 2004 Detroit Auto Show in January, Mitsubishi showed its "Eclipse Concept-E" gas-electric hybrid sport coupe that obviously forecast many of the features and themes that will define the next Eclipse production car. So, to no one's surprise, the third-generation Eclipse line went through 2004 unchanged. It finished its life quietly during the 2005 model year with the excision of the low-selling RS and a special "Remix" edition of the GS that included charcoal leather front-seating surfaces, a 210-watt audio system with in-dash six-disc CD changer and a chrome exhaust tip.
The next Eclipse is due out soon as a 2006 model and will be based on the "Project America" platform that underpins the current Galant sedan and Endeavor SUV (both of which are now also assembled at the Normal, Ill., plant). Though it will share much of its styling with the Concept-E show car, the drivetrains will be shared again with the Galant with base cars running Mitsu's 2.4-liter four and the fancier versions getting a big 3.8-liter V6. All-wheel drive is unlikely to return.
Will this next generation be enough to ignite the dormant passion for the Eclipse that's buried in enthusiasts' hearts? There's always hope.