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Eclipse survives while its rivals die

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There is not supposed to be a market left for sport coupes, even reasonably priced ones like the newly revamped 2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse.

If there were, cars like the Nissan 240SX, Ford Probe, Mazda MX-6, Isuzu Impulse, and Toyota MR-2 would still be sitting alongside all those sport utility vehicles in dealer showrooms. (Although Mister Two is making a comeback this spring as the MR-2 Spyder).

For that matter, the Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser would still be around — the Eclipse's sister ships back when Mitsubishi was dancing with Lee Iacocca after he'd brought Chrysler Corp. back from the heart of darkness.

Even more glamorous sportsters such as the legendary Nissan "Z" cars (that evolved themselves right out of existence once they became the 300 ZX), the Mitsubishi 3000 GT, Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7 have gone the way of all sheet metal, and they were big deals once upon a time.

All of which begs the question as to why Mitsubishi has suffered the Eclipse to live when so many others have died. The answer is that with annual sales of around 50,000 over its dozen model years, Eclipse has been profitable enough for the Japanese carmaker to keep it on the shelf alongside its Monteros, Galants, Diamantes and Mirages.

Not surprisingly, Eclipses have been sold mostly to young people, folks who didn't care that the back seat would accommodate no one who had not yet moved beyond fourth grade. It was small, reasonably quick, had attitude, was definitely not something Dad had let them borrow for the evening and was priced to where they could just about make the payments each month if nothing unexpected popped up.

And unlike Nissan with its "Z" cars, Mitsubishi kept the faith with the Eclipse. From its debut as a 190-horsepower jellybean in 1989, through its turbo iteration, to the current model, the Eclipse remained true to its fans.

It's just that this time, Mitsubishi would like to expand the fan club a bit, perhaps by boosting the Eclipse demographic to include people somewhat longer in the tooth, people in their 30s or even 40s.

How to do it? Well, it would help to make the back seat a bit friendlier, which they did. Make the exterior design more sophisticated, mission accomplished, throw in an optional automatic transmission that can be shifted manually through the gears, and lose the four-cylinder turbo and all-wheel-drive versions that were a blast to drive but added weight, expense and, in the turbo's case, made them less reliable and costlier to insure.

Oh, and in the top-line GT model, install a V6 power plant. Older folks like V6 engines; makes them seem less like toys and more like real cars.

Which brings us full circle to the Eclipse for the new millennium. It's a more normal car than its predecessors, which is fitting because it's built in Normal, Ill., smack in the American heartland. It's edgy enough to appeal to the young and the restless while mainstream enough not to embarrass more mature folks.

Especially when the rear spoiler is omitted, as it was in my tester. Every photo I've seen of the new Eclipse has a wing mounted on the trunk lid, but my test car did not and was the better for it.

There are three models in the double-ought Eclipse lineup: The base RS starts at $17,697 with a manual shifter and the 154-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder motor. Considering that it's pretty well equipped — CD player, AC, 15-inch wheels and such — it's the bargain Eclipse.

The GS Eclipse is intended to be the volume leader, priced at $19,047 with self-shifter and $20,047 with the aforementioned Sportronic automatic transmission with clutchless manual mode. It adds bigger 16-inch wheels, cruise control, fog lamps and a rear stabilizer bar to the mix.

Finally, there's the flagship GT with its 3.0-liter, 205 horsepower V6. This time the wheels are 17 inches in diameter, the rear brakes become discs instead of drums, there are side air dams for the "ground effects" look, and the seat fabrics are upgraded.

Base price for the GT is $20,187, which includes a long list of standard goodies, such as keyless entry, folding rear seatback, six-speaker stereo and power windows/mirrors.

My tester had a single option package that added $2,500 to the tariff. It included anti-lock brakes, leather seats, power driver's seat, side air bags and a power sunroof. With a $435 destination charge, the bottom line was $23,222.

Fuel mileage for the GT is rated at 20 mpg in city driving and 28 on the highway.

At under $25K, the Eclipse GT is not a serious hot-rod; it looks faster than it is. But it's fun to drive and it has one thing that most cars of this class do not: a throaty exhaust note that sounds more like a Ferrari than a Mitsubishi.

Back in the '50s, there was a great emphasis placed on how a car sounded — you installed glass-pack mufflers before you did anything else to customize your Ford flathead V8. A cool car not only had to look the part, it had to sound good as well.

That aspect of image-car motoring has been pretty much lost in these days of catalytic converters, but it's alive and well with the Mitsubishi GT. I would find myself blipping the throttle just to hear it growl.

E-mail (max@desnews.com) or fax 801-236-7605. Max Knudson's column runs each Monday.