There are two ways to look at the 1997 Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX coupe. The first is with lust -- hip little car, date magnet, cool wheels, that sort of thing. The second is with buyer's remorse, as in: "Geez, wish I had the extra bucks to get a BMW Z3, Porsche 986 Boxster or Mercedes-Benz SLK." The Eclipse GSX and its German rivals live in the same pocket-rocket town. But the Eclipse comes from the poorer, wannabe side of the tracks. Ditto the Mazda Miata, Toyota Celica, Honda Prelude, Acura Integra and Nissan 240 SX coupes -- all hot little sportsters, all lots of fun, all discernibly wanting when compared with the German competition. Which is ironic. Japanese models such as the Miata, Eclipse and Prelude rekindled America's passion for small, affordable, high-performance coupes. The Germans were barely visible in that market several years ago. Then BMW came along with its fabulous little 1.9-liter Z3, "affordable" by BMW standards at $29,425 a pop. Mercedes-Benzlater rolled in with its splendiferous SLK coupe, and Porsche showed up with its kick-butt 986 Boxster -- both for around $40,000 and both "affordable" by Mercedes-Benz and Porsche standards. The effect, if you're the owner of this week's tested Eclipse GSX, is like living in a middle-income community that suddenly has started sprouting luxury homes. You love your house, but when you take a walk around the block and see a galumptious $600,000 home sitting within view of your $250,000 abode, you start wondering about what you could have had if you had been a bit richer, or if you had handled your money a little differently. Background: For people bereft of envy, for those who just want a tiny car that can run like heck, the Eclipse fits the bill -- which can reach BMW and Mercedes-Benz proportions depending on the model and equipment chosen. There are six versions of the Eclipse -- the RS, GS, GS-T and GSX hard-top coupes, and the Eclipse Spyder GS and GS-T convertibles. That's a lot of samples of what essentially is a niche vehicle. But Mitsubishi figures that the pocket-rocket market is big enough to capture buyers at a variety of price points, and it wants to net as many as possible. The tested GSX is the all-wheel-drive iteration of the Eclipse, which means that it is the most versatile of the lot. The thing runs and corners like a demon on wet and dry roads. It has an overall nice feel at speed. But "overall" does not include shifting feel, which is choppy, to put it mildly. The GSX's engine, shared with the GS-T, is a rascal. It's a turbocharged, two-liter, inline four-cylinder job rated 210 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, with torque rated 214 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm with standard five-speed manual transmission. The optional, electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission reduces horsepower on the GSX/GS-T engine to 205 at 6,000 rpm, and changes torque to 220 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm. Lesser Eclipse models get a non-turbo, 1 40-horsepowerversion of that engine. The Eclipse GSX comes with lots of standard equipment, including air conditioner, cruise control, power door locks and windows, chromed dual exhaust pipes, dual front air bags, four-wheel disc brakes and 17-inch radial all-weather tires. But you can still slip into Option Hell with this one, even for items that shouldn't be optional -- such as the anti-lock brakes. And there are other options that you simply should eschew, such as Mitsubishi's version of leather seats, which are so lacking in suppleness, they seem to be crafted from the skin of a malnourished cow. '97 Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX Complaints: Useless rear seats. Problematic exit-entry in rear. Optional, high-rise rear deck spoiler looks silly and interferes with rear vision while contributing nothing to the drivability of the car. Praise: With the exception of shifting feel, the car is lots of fun to drive. So much fun, in fact, you could be seduced into ignori g its not able shortcomings. Excellent overall assembly quality. Head-turning quotient: Split decision. Those who love it really love it; and those who hate it, who find it somewhat adolescent, hate it with a passion. I vote with the lovers on this one. The Eclipse GSX's aggressive bubble styling is funky. Mileage: About 23 miles per gallon (16.9-gallon tank, estimated 380-mile range on usable volume of recommended premium unleaded), combined city-highway, running with one to three occupants and light cargo (which is about all you can carry in a 5.1-cubic-foot trunk). Sound system: Eight-speaker AM/FMstereo radio and console-mounted, single-disc CD changer with an optional trunk-mounted, remote control 10-disc CD changer. By Mitsubishi. Boss boogie. Price: Base price on Eclipse GSX is $23,220.Dealer invoice on base model is $19,963. Price as tested is $25,546, including $1,906 in options (rear spoiler, 10-disc CD changer, anti-lock brakes, limited-slip differential and keyless entry system), and a $420 destination charge. Alaska pays $540 in destination charges. Purse-strings note: This is a total "want" car, which means that the final price can depend on how much you want it and the dealer's eagerness to sell it. The car is surrounded by competitors. Shop and compare.
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