Accelerating hard toward a downhill corkscrew at Laguna Seca Raceway, the speeding car had much less scampering room than the squirrel. Ooops. Sleep tight, furry one. Within seconds, red-wrinkled turkey buzzards flew in for lunch. They pecked, strutted the corner in defiance of quick traffic, and brought an ominous presence to a recent afternoon of testing the 1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse. Yet there was a more significant perception. Here was a quartet of sport coupes built more for Laguna Canyon than Laguna Seca enduring days of torture without once shedding a wheel, exploding an engine or pirouetting into the weeds. Gears were jammed and clashed; hot engines were redlined and made animal howls. Brakes were stomped until discs smoked. And it all proved enormous prowess--this overbuilding of track-tough technology into cars that in suburban trim, straight out of the showroom and on ordinary tires, deliver handling and personal excitement that once belonged to competition weekends and highly modified sports cars. Conceived at Mitsubishi Motors America design studio in Cypress, imported from Illinois and the Mitsubishi-Chrysler partnership that is Diamond-Star Motors, the new Eclipse will certainly overshadow the old. This second generation is much more powerful than the first, with base horsepower up from 92 to 140; at the turbocharged top of the line, the rating increases from 195 to 210. The car is a hair shorter overall, but its cab-forward design allows a wider track and longer wheelbase for a lower center of gravity and more secure handling. It also lowers the car's nose, heightens its haunches and creates a pugnacious silhouette reminiscent of a small Dino Ferrari. As a sign of thriftier times, the series has been trimmed to four models from five and two engines from three. As a memento of more cautious moments, the car that once sold behind three badges as the Mitsubishi Eclipse, Plymouth Laser and Eagle Talon will now be marketed only as Eclipse and Talon. The alphabet soup shakes out to entry-level Eclipse RS and GS models powered by a double-overhead camshaft version of Chrysler's 2.0 liter. This is the sweet, growling little four-cylinder borrowed from the new Dodge/Plymouth Neon. Variants GS-T and GSX will have turbocharged 2.0-liter engines by Mitsubishi--with stronger brakes, limited slip differential and all-wheel drive on the GSX for motorists with tastes for sportier feel, not just the look. Double air bags are standard on all models, and anti-lock brakes optional. A new multi-link suspension--a replacement for MacPherson struts--also comes with the sticker price and improves handling by transferring more power to tires. Eclipse goes on sale in August and cost police are still massaging prices. But, Mitsubishi executives say, expect to pay about $14,000 for the base model and $20,000 for the lustier and turbocharged one. That's a jump of about $1,500 and $2,000from last year. * When introduced in 1989, Eclipse was among the first sport coupes and became the nation's best-selling Mitsubishi. Five years later, the new Eclipse maintains those initial standards of sensible accessories and quality of assembly. Plus equitable pricing, peppery performance and striking styling. But will it eclipse the competition? Well, the car is more powerful, certainly looser and more raucous than Acura's Integra and Honda's Prelude. The Ford Probe and Mazda MX-6 are available with V-6 engines but are still 46 horses shy of Mitsubishi's turbopunch. Toyota's Celica is light on performance, heavy on price. Paseo is bland in most every department except fuel economy. And the Nissan 240SX is available only as a $24,000 convertible. We ran all four siblings of the Mitsubishi series on rambling Carmel Valley roads and around Laguna Seca. Even lesser powered, lower-echelon models were a delight, with nicely modulated, power-sensitive steering allowing them to take directions well. The multi-link suspension and lowered set of the chassis certainly reduced the slop and shock of weight transfer and kept maneuvering flat. There is electronic monitoring of the automatic transmission to guarantee smoother shifts more appropriate to the speed of the car, throttle settings and even brake applications. The base engine showed impressive pep except under racing conditions, where there is no such thing as too much response and pull. Our favorite, of course, was the leather-lined, full-house GSX with a five-speed manual and looks that bring yelps of approval. Most sport coupes--indeed, most cars these days--are a collection of borrowings with a few touches of distinction. Eclipse stands aside from the crowd with the narrow, wrap-around headlight lenses from last year's front end and a grille that's a broad grin between triangular nostrils. The rear is a chunk starting at the rear window pillar and flowing as a gentle glass slope into a rounded spoiler, large butt and the suggestion of an auspicious racing past: Zagato. Eclipsophiles will be happy to know that the trademark power bulge on the hood--although superfluous on non-turbocharged versions of the car--has survived. The car's interior is a cockpit that cuddles. Parallel lines leading from doorsills and elbow rests are continued forward to merge with the arcs and planes of the dashboard, center console and arm rest. The arm rest is broad, padded, contains a cubby box, and is a partition that brings coziness to driving alone without creating a sense of isolation when with a passenger. Primary instruments and dashboard controls are open to the touch and very visible--although fuel, oil pressure and boost gauges are tiny to the eye. In first gear, the shifter crunches close to the cigarette lighter when it's used as a cellular phone plug. The Eclipse remains a 2+2, but that's two people plus two large bags of laundry. Do not try to stow two extra passengers in these miniaturized rumble seats. The cowl has been moved forward almost six inches, which increases interior room and brings the driver closer to the roadway directly in front. But a lowered roof line kills upper vision, and thick rear pillars make quick overtakes a process of hopeful glances, guesswork and prayer. Although there's sufficient legroom and ample variations of seat height and rake to accommodate the longest of shanks, there's a sharp edge to the center console that becomes a constant irritation to the outside of a driver's right knee. The GSX is a very quick car that will accelerate from rest to 60 m.p.h. in less than seven seconds, by far the best in class. There's a distinct dawdle in first gear before the turbocharger exhales around 3,000 r.p.m., but then the scenery sta rts to blur. And the beefed up brakes--with two-piston calipers--would stop a runaway truck. Unfortunately for pursuers of tactile pleasures, the gearbox is a toad. The throw has been shortened and the shifter sits a little high. That's fine. But cogs are overtly notchy and quick shifts from second a constant miss with much floundering in neutral. In mitigation, all the test cars were pre-production models where mechanical miscues are common and usually correctable before the showroom date. In normal service, the gearbox functions adequately, albeit formally. On the track, in competition against stopwatch and personal limits, it calls for too much deliberation. Not that added concentration would have made much difference to the squirrel. 1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX Price: $20,000, estimated base. The Good: Frisky looks, purposeful performance. Raises bar among sport coupes. Dual airbags top long list of standard feature . Track tough. The Bad: Clumsy shifting. Turbo lag. The Ugly: Derriere may startle some. Cost As tested, estimated: $22,000 (includes two air bags, leather-faced seats, air conditioning, cruise control, power locks and windows, tilt steering, anti-lock brakes, all-wheel drive, traction control, six-speaker sound system with CD player). Engine Turbocharged 2.0-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder developing 210 horsepower. Type Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 2+2 sport coupe. Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, with five-speed manual, 6.9 seconds. Top speed, track tested, 130 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 21 and 27 m.p.g. Curb Weight 3,120 pounds.
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