Saturday afternoon on Mulholland Highway. It's the most famous driving road in Southern California, but today there isn't much traffic. The baritone exhaust note of our 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse GT nips at the heels of a couple on his-and-hers cruiser bikes.
They surprise us by letting us pass.
The turns tighten into decreasing-radius kinks. Our Eclipse gathers itself up to meet the challenge. The steering and brakes feel great. And there's torque everywhere we look on the tach.
Then we see them standing on the side of the road with their babies, a black Nissan 350Z and a gray one. Watching us sling our front-drive sport coupe through the turns, beating the life out of its Goodyear Eagles. We feel sheepish for about 5 seconds. Then it's back to running through the gears and terrorizing SUV drivers who have no business on a road like this.
History Lesson If you've seen the 2006 Eclipse you understand our dilemma. The first and second generations of the car were feisty econosports available with turbocharged four-cylinders and all-wheel drive. They were big on value and, as the 1990s wore on, big on sex appeal. The third generation lost that scrappy character and those buxom curves, but gained a smooth V6 and a highway ride to match.
The 2006 Eclipse is round once more. It looks a little like the second-generation car. It also looks a little like the Audi TT and Nissan 350Z. But there are distinctive touches like a gaping intake duct, multireflector headlights that appear to be wearing monocles, an aluminum-trimmed spoiler and LED taillights.
We talked to Eclipse owners. Some love the front end, some hate it. Some think designers softened the Concept-E styling too much, but most agree Mitsubishi has come back to a sexy Eclipse.
But the company hasn't come back to turbos or AWD. Instead, there's an even bigger V6 under the hood of GT models. It displaces 3.8 liters, same as in the Galant. Variable valve timing and lift results in considerably more horsepower, now rated at 263 at 5,750 rpm. Torque is up to 260 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. A six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic with a manual shift gate are available.
The base GS model keeps last year's 2.4-liter inline four, but it picks up variable valve timing this year, which helps it to 162 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. It can be fitted with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
New Platform The switch to the stiffer Project America platform (Galant, Endeavor), however, has increased curb weight to an obese 3,500 pounds. This isn't as much of a problem in the GT as it is in the GS. We sampled an automatic GS and found it short of passing power.
That new chassis has a 0.8-inch-longer wheelbase and a 2.4-inch-wider track. A widened track is usually good for handling, and inside the Eclipse, it opens up a couple extra inches of shoulder and hiproom. You can feel the difference as you settle back between the bolsters of the car's faux Recaro seats. These seats are standard on both trims, and whether you keep the cloth or splurge for leather, they provide superb comfort and support.
One look at the coupe's upswept beltline and fast roof and you know the backseat is still cramped. Save it for annoying friends who invite themselves along at the last minute.
Carries Its Weight Well We already told you the 2006 Eclipse is heavy, but performance isn't smothered by the extra pounds.
The big V6 doesn't quite have the athletic demeanor of the 350Z's V6, but it sounds mean and has enough bottom-end thrust to break the front tires loose even with the traction control on. There's torque steer, too, which shouldn't be a surprise when you put that much power through the front tires.
With medium throws and easy clutch work, our six-speed Eclipse GT pulled a 6.8-second 0-60 and a 14.9 quarter-mile. Check out our recent sport coupe comparison test and you'll see the Eclipse is faster than the Mazda RX-8, but no match for the Nissan 350Z or Ford Mustang GT.
One Good Turn The Eclipse is not a model athlete like the 350Z or RX-8, but turn onto a twisty road, and it's ready to run. Like the Galant, it feels smaller the harder you push it, but a wider, stickier set of tires than the whiny 235/45R18s on our test car would increase its handling threshold. Stability control isn't available, though Mitsubishi plans to offer it in 2008.
Even with the average-quality rubber, the Eclipse got through the slalom in a hurry. With 62 percent of its weight up front, the coupe never turns in with the eagerness of most competitors, but an average speed of 64.9 mph establishes the Mitsu as faster through the cones than the 350Z, the Mustang and the RX-8.
"Thanks to its short wheelbase and front-wheel drive, the Eclipse absolutely shines in the slalom," writes our editor in chief. "We could enter the slalom really hot and scrub off speed without spinning or losing control."
Unfortunately, the brakes aren't at the same level. They felt solid during repeated runs on twisty roads, but when we summoned their full reserves at the test track, the best they could do from 60 mph was 131 feet. A Mustang GT can do it in 121. An RX-8 can do it in 108.
In low-adrenaline moments, the Eclipse rides more comfortably than the 350Z or RX-8, but its 40-foot turning radius will have you muttering obscenities on tight city streets.
Upgraded Cockpit The old Eclipse had a mishmash interior loaded down with cheap plastics. In the new car, you can tell some thought went into the design.
The dash flows in a soft wave, and a large inlay of textured, matte-finish vinyl does a good job of drawing your eyes away from the hard plastic surrounding it. The dark trim on the center stack does a convincing impression of real metal. The gauges live in their own pods, and although the markings are smaller than we'd like, ice-blue backlighting makes everything crystal clear at night.
The leather upholstery is merely average-grade hide, and it's mixed in with plenty of vinyl, but contrasting stitching along the edges of the seats provides unexpected flair.
Storage and visibility are the only major faults in this cockpit. For storage, you're limited to a center console container and a glovebox. There's no tray for a cell phone, no door bin for a map, no holder for your sunglasses. Huge C-pillars are the main obstacle to rear visibility; you might as well be driving a convertible with the top up when it's time to back up.
What You Get Now that econosports like the Acura RSX and Hyundai Tiburon offer ABS and side airbags as standard equipment, a more upscale coupe like the Eclipse couldn't come to market without them. For 2006, these items are included on both the GS and GT.
If you want a sunroof or the clean, aftermarket-deep bass from the 650-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system (detailed in our stereo review), you'll need to spring for the Sun & Sound Package on the GS or the Premium Sport Package on the GT. Leather, 18s and a power driver seat are GT exclusives.
Mitsubishi promises the GS will sticker under $20,000 when it goes on sale June 12, 2005, while the GT will come under $25K and remain "well under 30" when loaded with the Premium Sport goodies.
Although you'll still want to take a look at value leaders like the RSX and Mustang, that's a pretty solid value, especially when you add in Mitsu's 5-year/60,000-mile basic warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage.
Back on Mulholland The 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse GT is a huge improvement over its predecessor. It may not be as hard-core as Nissan's Z or Mazda's RX-8, or as fast as a Mustang GT, but it's way more fun than a Honda Accord Coupe and just as comfortable.
In fact, it's so good there's little need for the turbo fours and AWD of its ancestors. That's what the company's Lancer Evolution is all about, and that's just fine with us.
Now if you'll excuse us, we have some SUVs to terrorize.
Senior Editor Ed Hellwig says: I have little doubt that the release of this new Eclipse will be met with plenty of derision by enthusiasts. They'll whine about its weight, its front-wheel-drive layout and the fact that "turbocharger" is nowhere to be found on the spec sheet.
Legitimate points maybe, but in their nostalgia for Eclipses past, they'll gloss over the fact that those turbocharged motors put out no more than 210 horsepower and required a good thrashing to make use of it. With 263 smoothly delivered ponies from its big V6, this Eclipse is not only considerably faster than any of its predecessors, it's buttery smooth and gutsy down low.
Then there's the interior with its tasteful detailing, superb seats, well-placed controls and monster stereo. Distractions to hard-core enthusiasts, maybe, but elements that make this coupe far more appealing to a wider audience. Take into consideration some of its less-than-illustrious competitors like the Acura RSX, Honda Accord Coupe and Toyota Camry Solara and the Eclipse starts looking even better. I would still take a Mustang GT for the same price, but to those who see that car as nothing more than a retro throwback model, this Eclipse delivers a far more modern and intriguing package.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says: I've never been a big Eclipse fan. I get that the turbo all-wheel-drive versions were really hot and all but I just couldn't get into them. The last generation was OK but clearly left the door open for a car like the Nissan 350Z to come in and eat everybody's lunch.
But I like this new Eclipse quite a bit. Of course I'd rather have a comfortable touring car than an all-out sports car any day, but the Eclipse offers few compromises. The engine is great, the handling is sporty enough to be fun and the ride quality doesn't suffer as a result.
Compared to cars like the Nissan Z and Mazda RX-8, I prefer the Eclipse's more refined interior, more comfortable seats and more forgiving ride quality. The exterior look is striking as well.
I'd be a lot more excited about this car if it were not for the excessive torque steer. It's just too pronounced. Still, I expect to see a lot of these on the road. Unless you love getting beaten up, skip the Z and live a less stressful life with the Eclipse.