A new engine or suspension can breathe new life into a car that's been around for a few years.
Or, you can take the cheap way out and add a new nose, which is what Mitsubishi did to the Galant for '02, a tweak upfront so the automaker's bread-and-butter sedan sports a new grille, headlamps, color-keyed aero-type bumper and chrome badging. New taillamps and rear bumper were thrown in for good measure.
"It was time for a freshening. We changed the nose to give the car a more aggressive appearance and something to promote a different look and a little uniqueness," said Mike Krebs, product development director for Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America.
With the few tweaks, the '02 Galant LS we tested looked less like a carbon copy of all the other Japanese midsize sedans in the market.
When it comes to look-alikes, the Japanese have been guilty as charged, especially in the midsize sedan segment. As Nissan designer Jerry Hirshberg says in the TV ads for the new '02 Altima, "We looked at what was out there and saw a sea of sameness."
Mitsubishi won't have its next-generation Galant ready until '04. So it made do with a little cosmetic surgery until its turn comes to break away from the Japanese look-alike mold. We hope the '04 redesign will allow Galant to stand out in a crowd when viewing the entire machine, not just the nose job.
For '02 Mitsubishi also added a new model, the Galant LS, with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine. Previously the top-of-the-line LS was offered with V-6 only, the version that arrived for testing.
Mitsubishi is counting on the '02 model to keep Galant momentum going and propel sales to more than 100,000 for the first time in calendar '01, up from 96,452 a year ago. Sales were up about 2,000 units, to more than 65,000, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and for the full month were up about 1,200 units, to 72,183.
Galant was last redone for the 1999 model year, but the next generation for '04 will determine whether it can gain ground on rivals Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The '02 has fairly good cabin room, but a little more arm room would be welcome. It also has good road manners, but a little longer wheelbase and length should make for even better ride and handling.
The Montero Sport, Mitsubishi's compact sport-ute, will provide some early clues as to dimension changes coming for Galant.
The Sport is in its last year before a remake. For '03 it will be "a little longer," Krebs said. The '03 Sport will be built at Mitsubishi's plant in Normal alongside and off the same platform as the Galant sedan, when it's redone for '04, and the Eclipse coupe, which gets its remake for '05.
Normal also will continue to produce the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Stratus coupes for DaimlerChrysler under a five-year pact that began with the 2001 model year. The larger Montero will contin ue to be built in Japan.
We also tested an '02 Montero Sport. Adding it to the same line as the cars at Normal should provide a smoother ride with less motion. The longer dimension also should make rear-seat entry and exit less cumbersome.
The shared platform also means the next-generation Galant will be a little longer. A little more length and a little more cabin room, and perhaps a little more kick from its V-6, is what some observers say Galant needs to be taken more seriously by those shopping Camry/Accord instead.
The '02 Galant LS we tested is built on a 103.7-inch wheelbase and is 187.8 inches long overall. By comparison, the Toyota Camry is built on a 107.1-inch wheelbase and is 189.2 inches long. Those dimensions translate into more cabin comfort and increased road stance for better ride and handling in Camry.
The Galant LS we tested provided pleasant ride and handling as well as decent room and comfort. Anti-lock brakes are standard and tract control is in a $310 all-weather package that includes heated outside mirrors.
The 3-liter V-6 has good off-the-line pep and an appreciated 20 m.p.g. city/27 m.p.g. highway rating with the standard 4-speed automatic. Some might argue for a little more muscle, but not those intent on the 20/27 m.p.g. numbers.
Base price of the '02 Galant LS V-6 we tested is $22,817 ($21,117, or $1,700 less, for the LS with 2.4-liter 4).
The sticker lists a host of equipment as standard: dual front and side air bags; air conditioning; AM/FM stereo with CD player and seven speakers; power windows with 30-second reserve power; power locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; cruise control; height-adjustable steering column; rear-window defroster; rear-seat trunk pass-through; two power plugs; power sunroof; integrated fog lamps; and body-colored bumpers/door handles/door moldings and mirrors.
As for Mitsubishi plans, a lot is still "to be determined."
There had been numerous reports that Mitsubishi's new compact '02 Lancer (replacement for Mirage) platform was going to be shared with the next-generation Dodge Neon when it comes out for '04.
All Krebs will say is "that's still to be determined."
There also were expectations that Chrysler's midsize Sebring was to be the platform for the new midsize Galant for '04, as part of the platform-sharing plans between Mitsubishi and DaimlerChrysler, which owns a 33 percent stake in the Japanese automaker.
"I'm not sure the Sebring thing is going to happen," Krebs said in an interview. "There's been some talk of combining platforms or coming up with a Mitsubishi car off a modified Sebring platform, but that's still in the preliminary talking stage. We're looking at platform combinations and still looking at how much commonality and who does what but that's still to be determined."
There also have been reports that Mitsubishi's upcoming small sport-ute, called the Air Trek in Japan, would make its U.S. debut at the Detroit Auto Show in January before going on sale later in the year as an '03 model.
"The ASX that we showed in Detroit and Chicago this year was the concept for the small sport-ute that will be sold in the U.S. as an '03 model. But we still aren't sure when or which auto show the actual ['03] vehicle will debut at. And it will be a version of the Air Trek, similar in size but with totally different sheet metal," Krebs said.