EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

The light went out on the Plymouth Laser, but the Eagle Talon’s wings weren’t clipped, and for 1995 you’ll be treated to a new appearance, a new size and a new engine in the sport coupe built for Chrysler by Mitsubishi.

Talon and Mitsubishi’s Eclipse are the survivors from the Talon/Eclipse/Plymouth Laser trio. Laser was the odd car out in order to make room this fall for the Dodge Avenger, which will replace the Daytona, and the Chrysler Sebring, which will succeed to the LeBaron coupe. Mitsubishi will build both cars for Chrysler at its Diamond-Star plant in Downstate Normal.

Larry Ranka, Jeep-Eagle marketing plans manager, said Diamond-Star will begin shipping ’95 Talons to dealers this month, but abundant supplies probably won’t show up until late summer.

Though Chrysler insists otherwise, Talon is an example of “badge engineering,” which means that about the only thing that separates Talon from Eclipse is the nameplate. The ’95 Talon/Eclipse share the same engine, turbocharger, hood bulge, transmission and dimensions.

Both new models sit lower and wider and appear sportier than their ’94 versions, which, in comparison, look more like economy cars with deck-lid spoilers. The ’95s are 68.7 inches wide versus 66.9 inches on the old ones and they stand 51.6 inches high versus 52 inches.

The two also have been restyled for ’95, but differ little from each other except for front facias, rear spoilers, rocker panel sculpting, wheel covers and tail lights. Perhaps the most telling difference is that the Eagle is topped by a black roof and Eclipse is more fashionable with a roof the same color as the body.

The cars were developed by Mitsubishi and Chrysler. Both sides submitted design proposals for the next generation 1995 models, but when it came time to transform the final design into sheet metal, Mitsubishi’s proposal got the nod because Mitsubishi was going to build it. Perhaps that’s why it also got the better-looking roof.

Where Chrysler won was in supplying the powertrain for both cars-a 2-liter, dual-overhead cam, 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine in 140-horsepower and a turbocharged 210-h.p. version. That engine replaces the underpowered Mitsubishi-built 1.8-liter, 92-h.p., 4-cylinder offered in base models and the 2-liter, 135-h.p. (195-h.p. with turbo), 4-cylinder in the TSi. The 2-liter, DOHC engine also is to be used on the two-door Dodge/Plymouth Neon sport coupe this fall, though there’s a chance that horsepower will be boosted a bit for the Neon.

Chrysler notes that this is one of the first times a Japanese automaker has relied on a domestic producer to supply it with all of its engines.

Not to spoil Chrysler’s celebration or to downplay the impact that a few thousand engines will have on the $40 billion trade deficit with Japan, but using Chrysler’s engine helps Mitsubishi cut costs. With the value of the yen having risen against the dollar, a U.S.-sourced engine is cheaper than carting one from Japan. So though the 2-liter is a fine engine, Mitsubishi did have an ulterior motive in selecting it that had as much to do with bottom line as off-the-line. And with the engine, Eclipse boasts about 75 percent U.S. content, a most politically correct figure.

Talon is offered in base ESi, TSi turbo and TSi turbo all-wheel-drive versions. We tested the TSi turbo with 5-speed and TSi turbo all-wheel-drive with automatic.

For 1995 Talon’s subcompact length is unchanged at 172.2 inches, but wheelbase and width have been extended by 2 inches. Though only a minor extension of the wheelbase, it moved occupants a tad farther from the wheels and the point of impact/harshness.

The big difference is in width. The old Talon seemed to compartmentalize driver/passenger in narrow tunnels. Seats were cramped and didn’t offer much in lateral support. By stretching the width just 2 inche , you pick up added leg and arm room to rest in a wider, more comfortable, more supportive seat that helps hold you in place. The front seats also feature a support plate for long-distance driving comfort.

The TSi turbo with 5-speed is more fun at playtime than the automatic. Downshift, upshift, accelerate, feel the turbo kick in, take a tight turn, feel the body stay put. With the 5-speed you drive; with the automatic you steer. With the 5-speed you are more of a participant, with the automatic more of a passenger. But, if you commute to and from the city in rush hours and unless you can find a patch of roadway not dotted by construction barricades, you may want the more user-friendly automatic.

The turbo makes the 2-liter come alive. The speed-sensitive power steering is responsive and precise. The 16-inch, steel-belted, all-season radial tires provide nimble handling and stability in maneuvers. All-wheel-drive ensures that the power is kept on the road and that you won’t have to garage your Talon when the seasons change. The base ESi model comes with 14-inch treads only, so it’s strictly for show.

Ride and handling also benefit from beefed-up body rigidity. Chrysler claims the body is 50 percent stiffer to help eliminate squeaks and rattles. Whatever the percentage, Talon is very quiet. Special material in the dash, console tunnel, floor pan, wheel houses, inner quarter panels and cargo floor also keep noise down.

One of the primary attractions of the ’95 Talon is the standard dual air bags. The ’94 Talon didn’t have even one. Because the TSi turbo is a performance coupe that typically will be driven by youth with limited road experience, dual bags are a necessity. Dual bags also will be a major selling point when kids debate parents over the wisdom and merits of a $20,000 sports model at graduation time.

One gripe, however, is that anti-lock brakes are only an unpriced option in any Talon. Making ABS an option keeps the base price down so the car can be promoted as more economically attractive-especially to youth.

While air bags are a plus, Talon suffers some minuses. Neither Chrysler nor Mitsubishi paid any attention to the lack of rear seat room that has plagued the car from day one. You pay for a pair of seats in back, but all you get are cloth or leather grocery bag holders. Ironically, when the front seat backs are lowered to provide access to the rear, they automatically return to their original position so the driver and/or passenger don’t have to readjust them. But since humans don’t fit in the back seats, there’s no need to lower the seat backs.

To enjoy the most driving or riding comfort, push the driver/passenger seats back as far as they go-to the front of those rear seats, which are nothing more than a ploy to avoid higher insurance rates for having to market Talon as a two-passenger model. Someday the insurance indus try will catch on. Until it does, fold the rear seat backs down and use the area for extra stowage. It would be the civil thing to do.

As of this writing, Talon hasn’t been priced, but Chrysler said stickers will range from about $14,000 for the ESi to less than $20,000 for the TSi turbo with all-wheel-drive. Chrysler expects the AWD model to account for up to 20 percent of sales. It should be popular in the Snow Belt.

In addition to that noted above, standard equipment on the TSi and TSi all-wheel-drive we tested includes four-wheel disc brakes, fully independent front and rear suspension, speed sensitive power steering, dual power mirrors, power windows/door locks (AWD only), rear window defroster/ wiper/washer, driver’s seat height adjustment to aid visibility over the dash, tilt steering, AM/FM stereo with cassette and six speakers, tinted windows, fog lamps, 5 m.p.h. bumpers, digital clock, floor console with dual cupholders, visor mirrors, rem te fuel filler and liftgate releases, stainless steel exhaust and cast aluminum wheels.

Air conditioning-chlorofluorocarbon-free-and power sunroof are optional.

Eclipse, by the way, will offer a convertible version, but not Talon. Chrysler says it is looking into one, but not until the 1996 model year at the earliest.

One word of warning, Talon comes in a novel lime green exterior paint finish. We’d be surprised if the yellow/green color lasts more than one year.

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