More than Fashionably Late
Midsize sedans are the world's most ordinary form of private transportation. That's partly because they sell in such huge volumes, thus making them more rampant in suburban America than the common cold. But "ordinary" (connoting something less impressive than "extraordinary") can also mean boring, as in the driving experience. Carmakers use midsize sedans as their bread-and-butter cars, the sales of which allow for niche products that are actually fun to drive. For example, without cars like the Malibu, there would be no Corvette. Without the Accord, there would be no Prelude. And without the 626, there would be no Miata. For large-volume carmakers, a successful midsize sedan is imperative to financial well being.
Mitsubishi sells a high volume of Galants, but not quite the volume they want, which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 units per year. Galant is the best-selling car in Mitsubishi's automotive product line, and has been for several years, but it has never tallied near the numbers of industry-leading rivals like Honda or Toyota. Last year, the Galant posted sales of roughly 44,000. For the huge midsize market, that's barely a dent.
As a bread-and-butter model, the '98 Galant was day-old toast compared to all-new products like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat. Faced with such brutal competition, Mitsubishi had to rethink the Galant, and we're happy to report that their new thinking is a step in the right direction, if a bit late on the scene.
First, the Galant needed to compete size-wise with the competition. The new Galant is a bit wider, a bit longer, and a couple of inches taller than its predecessor, providing a respectable amount of interior volume. Trunk volume is 14 cubic feet, which is also close to the Accord and Camry. Second, the new Galant had to offer more power. Previously available with a four-cylinder motor only, the new Galant offers an upgrade with the 3.0-liter V6. Finally, the Galant needed to offer something extra, something to make it stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, that's where it falls short.
What about the new looks? While we admit it's attractive for a sedan, the Galant's styling borrows rather than creates. Mitsubishi calls it "European," but we call it "BMW." Rear angles are strikingly Bavarian, and even the front of the Galant borrows the classic shark-shaped overbite that's so characteristic of Bimmers. Yes, the appearance is familiar to Mitsubishi's flagship Diamante, but the Diamante took its styling cues from the same drafting table.
Still, if you're going to trace a car's outline, BMW is not a bad model to emulate. To their credit, Mitsubishi designers got one thing right all by themselves: the chrome grille on our test car lent a classy appearance, which competing sedans lack. Add fog lights, and you're looking at arguably the best-looking sedan available at this price.
The base Galant, called the DE, comes fairly well equipped. The DE is powered by a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder motor, which is good for 145 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 155 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm. Even the entry-level Galant comes with an automatic transmission, which shows that Mitsubishi is building the Galant for the majority of buyers, and not for us performance seekers. The base Galant comes with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and a cassette player.
The volume seller, however, is the step-up ES model, which Mitsubishi features in television ads for $17,990. A $1,000 premium over the DE bumps up standard equipment to include the chrome grille, fog lamps, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel with integrated cruise control, a remote keyless entry system and fake wood trim. We'd step into the ES trim just for the elegant chrome grille and body-colored side molding, but the added convenience of power windows and remote entry make the ES the value leader.
Our ES test car added something no Galant has had before this year: a V6. The 3.0-liter SOHC powerplant develops 195 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 205 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm, which is right up there with the V6 output from Honda and Toyota. The Accord V6 makes 200 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque, and the Camry V6 makes 200 horsepower and 214 foot-pounds of torque. Besides the engine, the V6 version adds four-wheel antilock brakes, rear disc brakes and 16-inch tires. Moving and stopping power comes at a cost of $2,000 over what you'll pay for a Galant ES.
Added to our ES V6 was the Premium Package, which brings side airbags, a sunroof, alloy wheels, a security system and a built-in garage door opener. With all these extras, the Galant still came in under $23,000. A Camry LE V6 with similar equipment costs close to $25,500. Value is a big part of the Galant package.
For luxury seekers, there's an LS model that offers more goodies, like 16-inch alloys, leather seats, a power driver's seat and an Infinity sound system. GTZ is the image car with pretensions to performance. The GTZ comes with a tacked-on rear spoiler that looks like the one on the Mirage, white-faced gauges and a stiffer suspension. Too bad the GTZ still comes with an automatic transmission. Imagine a GTZ V6 with an optional five-speed manual transmission, and that's exactly how this car could stand out from the crowd.
Inside, the Galant looks like a basic no-frills, low-thrills sedan. The dashboard has been lowered to offer a better view of the road, and the center controls are laid out with a stereo up top and climate controls down low, just how we like them. A center armrest is a nice touch, and it flips back to offer rear passengers a cupholder. The center console itself includes two cupholders, which are positioned between the shifter and the console so as not to interfere with any dashboard controls. However, the armrest sits squarely over one of the cupholders, rendering it useless.
Seating is comfortable for four passengers, and the Galant will carry five in a pinch. This brings up another design glitch: the rear bench seat offers a pass-through portal, but it's located in the right passenger seating position rather than in the middle. So in order for four people to caravan to the closest ski resort, two of them will need to sit side by side behind the driver. With a center pass-through, the problem would be eliminated, and you might find an even more convenient place for the rear cupholders.
The Galant's four-wheel independent suspension has been tuned for North American drivers on North American roads. This means that the front MacPherson struts offer better straight-line stability, which we verified by driving along Colorado's I-25 during 100 mph crosswinds. As tumbleweeds and sand flew across the road like buckshot, the Galant tracked ahead, requiring little input to the steering wheel. The soft suspension rocked gently from side to side, but not enough to make us nervous.
What did cause alarm, however, was a loose-fitting hood. In heavy winds, the driver's side of the hood appeared to be unlatched, bobbing up and down as if a demon spirit had possessed the engine, causing a miniature poltergeist. We were concerned enough to pull off the highway and check the hood to make sure it was indeed latched. Slamming it shut a few times, it was apparent that the latch worked fine; poor build quality was the issue.
Back on the road, we drove the Galant over mountain roads of Northern Colorado during a snowstorm. Slush-bound highways had little effect on our progress, but may have contributed to the amount of road noise that made its way into the cabin, which was substantial. The antilock brakes were frequently activated on icy streets, but the system itself remained unobtrusive. Traction control, however, would have made a welcome aid when starting out on slick uphill climbs. Too bad it's not available on the Galant.
The Galant's automatic transmission was surprisingly smooth, matching engine revs exactly as it should. The adaptive transmission kept up well, even after being subjected to our schizophrenic driving style that includes hammering both the throttle and the brakes. Controlled by fuzzy logic, the transmission factors in pedal application, vehicle speed, engine torque and road conditions to determine precisely when to shift. Incredibly, we noted time after time when the transmission shifted exactly as we would have with a manual.
By now it sounds as though we were won over by the new Galant, which is partly true. The car is no longer a compromise when it comes to performance, as it was when four cylinders were standard. It's reasonably priced when compared to its closest rivals, and offers a load of standard equipment. Ergonomics have likewise improved, and the new sheetmetal can even be called attractive.
What would be undeniably attractive is if Mitsubishi would allow the Galant to be the performance car it pretends to be. Give the ES V6 a five-speed manual transmission, white-faced gauges, a sporty exhaust note and about 15 extra horsepower, and the Galant will raise the bar for all midsize sedans by standing out from the pack. Until then, Mitsubishi's just playing follow-the-leader.