The first time I drove the new Mitsubishi Eclipse was in a heavy rainstorm after having just spent an hour stuck in a traffic jam in an old, pokey SUV. Seized with a sudden sense of freedom, I headed up the freeway at breakneck speed, dodging in and out of traffic and skipping around the huge puddles forming on the edges of the half-flooded roadway. It wasn't a wise thing to do, perhaps, but the Eclipse is that kind of car: a quick, nimble front-wheel-drive sports coupe that invites you to let it all hang out.
Little wonder that the Eclipse, which has been completely redesigned for the '06 model year, is the dream car of many college students and twentysomethings, especially now that the Volkswagen Jetta has gotten so pricey (see BW Online, 8/25/05, "Jetta: All the Betta for the Young").
This car offers exactly what many young car buyers want: speed, style, and value. With the 2.4-liter, 162-horsepower, four-cylinder engine (which, believe me, is plenty powerful), you can get one for $20,000. And it comes loaded with standard equipment, including air conditioning, power windows, remote keyless entry, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, a six-speaker sound system with MP3 playback, 17 inch allow wheels, and an integrated rear spoiler.
Add $900 for automatic transmission and another $1,500 for a "sun and sound" package that includes a power sunroof, a fancy sound system with a thumping 10-inch subwoofer in the trunk, and gizmos like steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.
SIDE-CURTAIN STANDARD. If you're into convertibles, wait until early next year, when a ragtop Spyder version of the car is due out. And if you really want to go crazy, there's the Eclipse GT with a powerful 3.8 liter, 263-horsepower, six-cylinder engine that starts at $24,294. To me, that seems like overkill, though, given how quick the car is with the four cylinder engine. The smaller engine also uses regular gas (premium is recommended with the GT) and is rated to get a respectable 30 mpg on the highway and 23 in the city.
The Eclipse is a sweet ride for the money, whichever option package your choose. My test car –- which had a stick shift and the smaller engine -- was a blast to drive. It's so quick that even from a rolling start I sometimes squealed the tires. The shift throws are short, so you can really move swiftly through the gears, and steering is tight for a front-wheel-drive car. Move out into the passing lane and punch it at highway speed and there's a reassuring surge of power.
It's also loaded with safety features. The Eclipse comes standard not only with seat-mounted side airbags but also with side-curtain airbags, which are hidden in the windshield pillars. This is a key new safety innovation that make small cars far safer in crashes. Every small car should have side-curtain airbags, but most buyers won't pay for them as an option -- so props to the folks at Mitsubishi for making them standard.
FLASHY THREADS. Whether you flip for the Eclipse, however, is likely to depend on whether you like its radical styling and are willing to put up with its inconveniences. This isn't a sedate family sedan, by any means. It's got a low-to-the-ground coupe profile with a long, curved, swooping roofline. The company says it was designed to look like a crouched cat ready to pounce. And the spoiler gives the rear-end a brutal, race-car look.
There are a number of daring styling touches in the car's interior, too. On the basic models, the upholstery is functional cloth that's available in shades of black and gray. But you can also get it in terracotta, which I suspect is pretty memorable.
The dashboard is a long and very distinctive ovoid-shaped construction that extends across the front of the cab. And I love the way the controls and instrument panels look at night. The numerals are illuminated in a screaming, purple-tinged blue (Mitsubishi calls the color "ice blue") and the needles on the dials are in bright, cadmium red. The lens on the high-tech, doubled-filament front headlights is also tinged blue, continuing the lighting scheme on the car's exterior.
Accommodating the Eclipse's sculpted exterior styling left the passenger compartment pretty cramped, however, even though the '06 Eclipse is longer and wider than the previous version of the car. There's an unusual amount of hip and shoulder room, especially in the front seats. But headroom is very limited: In the front seats, it's listed as a meager 38.5 inches (37.7 inches with a sunroof), but it seems like less if, like me, you keep the seatback upright and the seat adjusted high for good visibility.
Legroom in the front seats is listed at an adequate 43 inches, but also seems like less if you're the driver because you can't telescope the steering wheel when the seats are way back.
PERSPECTIVE ADJUSTMENT. As for the rear seat, fuggeddaboutit if you're a normal-size adult. It's hard to get in and out of the car to begin with because there are only two doors, and headspace in back is a mere 34.6 inches. Mitsubishi lists the rear seat legroom at 29.2 inches, but I don't know what they're measuring. I'm 5 feet, 10 inches, and with the driver's seat adjusted the way I like it, there were a mere six inches between the seatback and the front of the rear seat. With the front seats all the way back, the space shrank to two inches (two inches!). Unless you have small kids, it's best to think of this car as a two-seater with an unusually large storage space in back. In fact, it becomes a huge cargo space if you fold down the rear seats, which opens up access to the trunk.
Mitsubishi Motors is counting on the Eclipse to help spark the sales comeback the troubled company is hoping for in the U.S. market (see BW, 10/24/05, "Mitsubishi Zips Past The Scrap Heap"). At very least, the new Eclipse will add pizzazz to the lineup. Whether you love the car's styling or hate it, the Eclipse really stirs up the emotions.