LA JOLLA, California - When Mitsubish first introduced its Eclipse as a 1990 model, a convertible wasn't part of the picture. That changed after the redesigned Eclipse emerged for 1995, soon joined by a soft-top equivalent.
Mitsubish redesigned the Eclipse again in 2000, adding a convertible shortly afterward. The current generation debuted in spring of 2005 as a 2006 model and, once again, Mitsubishi has created a fabric-roofed companion.
Developed with the theme "Driven to Thrill," the Eclipse Spyder exhibits particularly sleek and flowing lines, led by "monocle" headlamps. Designed in California, it features a wedge profile and a short hood - cues that suggest kinship with prior Eclipse generations. Proportions were designed to suggest a two-passenger sports car; but it's actually a 2+2 layout with a small back seat and trunk that holds a modest 5.2 cubic feet of luggage.
Compared to the prior convertible, torsional rigidity is 55 percent greater. Hip and shoulder room in the 2+2 cockpit has increased by 2 inches. Legroom is up half an inch; headroom, up fractionally.
As usual, the soft-top body was intended from the start. "All the structural things that are needed for a convertible are seen in the coupe," said product manager Mike Evanoff. The actual roof was created by ASC (American Sunroof Corporation), which has developed convertible tops for quite a few automakers over the years.
When equipped with an aero package, the Eclipse Spyder has exceptionally low ground clearance, at both front and sides. Pointy protrusions below the foglamps look especially threatening when the car sits so low to the ground.
In the Spyder GS, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine produces 162 horsepoewr and 162 pound-feet of torque. The 3.8-liter V-6 in the Spyder GT develops 260 horsepower and 258 pound-feet. A four-speed automatic transmission can replace the standard manual gearbox on the GS, while a five-speed (Sportronic) unit is offered for the GT. "To get performance on the GT," Evanoff said, "you don't have to drive it like you stole it."
Both models have rear stabilizer bars, of different thicknesses, as well as a rear spoiler. The three-layer cloth top, with a full inner headliner, comes in black or gray with a glass rear window. Hydraulically operated, the top stows below a solid cover, so no separate boot is needed.
Alloy wheels hold 17-inch tires. Seat-mounted side-impact airbags are standard, as is antilock brkaing with electronic brake-force distribution. A $1,980 Premium Sport group for the GT includes 18-inch wheels, leather seating surfaces, heated front seats, automatic temperature control, and aluminum pedal.
Three interior color themes are offered. Gauges were inspired by high-performance motorcycle and feature Ice Blue dashboard illumination. A 650-watt, nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system is standard, including a six-disc CD changer and MP3 playback capability.
With manual shift, the GS gets an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 22-mpg city and 29-mpg highway. A Spyder GT with a manual gearbox manages only 17/26 mpg (18/26 with automatic).
Sheer fun is the byword for the manual-shift Eclipse Spyder GS, which can be more entertaining on the road than the more powerful GT. The four-cylinder engine is pretty exuberant, actually; certainly eager and enthusiastically responsive.
Mitsubishi's manual transmission seems geared to take full advantage of moderate horsepower. Opterating exceptionally well, the gearbox slips instantly between gears, up or down, without blockage. The clutch is especially helpful, with nice action. It's easy enough to modulate during takeoffs, though a little care is needed.
Even with automatic, GS acceleration from zero isn't bad, though less energetic at higher speeds. On uphill grades, it sounds like a bit of a struggle in lower gear, but the four-cylinder does a good job overall.
On smooth roads, at least, you can expect a satisfying ride. Apart from the rich exhaust note, the GS is enjoyably quiet. The GS handles with surprising agility on twisty roads, and carries on with minimal correction on straightaways.
More brute force is evident in the manual-shift GT, but with a cruder overtone that's absent from the stick-shift GS. Actually, it's not as much fun to drive. The V-6 engine also sounds somewhat harsh, though the gearbox and mannerly clutch are just as appealing in this installation. What would be a rich exhaust note sounds more like a foghorn if the GT is equipped with an automatic transmission.
Rear and over-shoulder visibility are simply awful with the top up, but mirrors do a good job. Big ventlike panes ahead of side windows help a lot to keep wind rush down.
Snugly-bolstered front seats are not confining and contain ample cushioning, offering excellent support. Seat bottoms are short, but not a problem. Don't even try the back seat unless you're a child; and maybe not even then.
Deep-set instruments may almost disappear in dark shadow, but they're fairly legible generally. Fuel and temperature gauges are tiny.
Unlike first-generation Eclipse Spyders, the latest versions show no sign of lack of solidity or cowl shake.
Sales began in March. With the standard manual gearbox, the GS convertible stickers for $25,389 (plus destination charge). An Eclipse Spyder GT with a manual gearbox commands $28,269. An automatic transmission may be installed, but few option packages are offered.
Taking his lead from automakers who love to specify exactly who will buy their cars, Evanoff notes that the Eclipse Spyder is meant tor generation E (everyone). On the whole, though, it's intended as a "reward" car for folks with active lifestyles and extroverted personalities. Still, it's a safe bet that some prospects would rather sit than run, and dealers aren't likely to shun sales to shy customers. Competitors include the Ford Mustang and Nissan 350Z, but the Eclipse is really in a separate league from those two.
Lately, Mitsubishi has not seen its finest hour, as sales have slumped sharply. At its peak, a few years ago, Mitsubishi was selling 300,000 cars per year. By 2005, the total was down to 124,000. Mitsubishi is taking things "one day at a time, one product at a time," said product manager Evanoff. Though he foresees a turnaround, expecting a quick one is "not realistic"