Five years ago, sports car sales were largely limited to the Mazda RX7, used car lots and a cottage industry building ghastly fiberglass replicars.

Somebody apparently had decreed we didn't really want cars pandering to such antisocial behavior as individualism and the child-racer in all of us. It probably was the same marketing consultant who said that if adults can do without teddy bears, they could certainly get along without convertibles.

But we beat 'em, by golly. Convertibles came back. So have sports cars. Now there's a new, growing and freer generation of grinning Americans riding lower in 300ZXs, snorting breezes in Miatas and thoroughly enjoying the addiction.

There's a car re-creating the British roadsters of the '60s, a snarling slope nose implying the mid-engined soul of Italian motoring, and a covey of sport coupes to defoliate the laurels of Porsche. . . .

Missing--at least for anyone who can't afford a Mercedes SL, which is just about everyone--has been one of those big cat sports cars; a comfortable road animal broad of track and long of leg, capable of blowing past everything. Con mucho gusto and only a tiny twitch of guilt. Preferably on the A6 leaving Paris for the South.

Now, from Mitsubishi, comes the 3000GT, which is perfectly cast in this role of the grand touring sports car.

It weighs close to two tons. It has leather armchairs for the perfect couple and a trunk looking for luggage by Louis Vitton. Entrance and exit is not a decathlon event. The car has style, is well-educated and does not fidget.

Yet with twin turbochargers performing CPR on a 24-valve V-6, the full-house Mitsubishi 3000GT develops 300 horsepower and accelerates from rest to 60 m.p.h. in about six seconds. Porsche, Ferrari, Acura NSX and Corvette live in that neighborhood.

Each of those high performance marques will run around 160 m.p.h. So does the Mitsubishi.

But the Mitzu does itfor about $31,500--and that's for the top banana 3000GT VR4 fully optioned down to its leather upholstery.

The miracle continues.

There isn't a handling assist or a transportation safety item--short of ejection seats and self-sealinggas tanks--that isn't built into the 3000GT VR4.

It is the world's first high-performance car to offer both all-wheel drive for tighter road grip and four-wheel steering for precision handling. The anti-lock braking system is four-wheel. The independent suspension is four-wheel. Velocity with Reason secured by four of everything. Hence VR4.

There's an electronically controlled suspension that automatically adjusts the shocks to soft, medium or firm. It better dampens the hammering imposed by lumpy roads or lunkhead handling, keeping everything stiff, flat and balanced for whatever might be around the next corner.

And if this doesn't bring finesse to fast passage, Mitsubishi adds what it has trademarked as "Active Aero," a system that automatically tilts the rear spoiler (borrowing a concept pioneered by Porsche) while lowering the front air dam.

Both slide out at 50 m.p.h. to increase front and rear downforce, i.e. diverting air flowing over and under the car so it holds the vehicle down, reducing that moment of high-speed indecision when an aerodynamic vehicle needs to be reminded that it is a car, not an airplane.

In introducing the car to the motoring media here this month, executives of Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America stressed that it is easy to build a fast, safe, high-technology car that few people can afford.

The challenge, said Executive Vice President Richard Recchia, is creating an affordable car that can "expand the driving limits of the average driver."

Mitsubishi, on its initial reach into the world of refined muscle cars, has done just that, and the hit is dead center.

The line (to be re-badged under the Chrysler-Mitsubishi partnershi and sold as the Dodge Stealth) starts with the 3000GT, which goes on sale next month at a price Mitsubishi estimates as "under $20,000." On the GT, the V-6 is not turbocharged and engine power is reduced to 222 horsepower. Anti-lock brakes and driver air bag are options on this model.

The 3000GT SL, said Mitsubishi, will cost "under $25,000." The automatic suspension system, anti-lock brakes, automatic climate control, alarm and a six-speaker, 100-watt sound system are standard.

Then there's the all-wheel steer, all-wheel drive, all-inclusive and almighty 3000GT VR4.

It looks heavy, purposeful and clearly is longer, wider and lower than the Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo it was built to unhorse. There's a pinched waist to the car that apparently has much more to do with styling (Raymond Loewy used the same Coke-bottle squeeze play on the Avanti) and reflections than aerodynamics.

In silhouette, there's a little bit of last year's Eclipse to the front and a trace of Toyota Celica in the bustle. Overall, see an MR2 that ate all its Brussels sprouts.

The front end--with intakes next to the fog lamps feeding the intercoolers--is quite smart. We also salute the genius who added flush lenses to the headlights to allow fast-lane flashing without the headlights popping up.

The blemishes, however, are nothing short of extraordinary in a vehicle of this sophistication. Forward of the rear wheels are air intakes that carry air nowhere. They are dummies, styling sleights and cues filched from the functional vents on all Ferraris. It is an odd note for a vehicle that in most other departments not only holds its own but actually leads the way.

Atop the hood are two more warts.

"Blisters in the hood," explains a Mitsubishi press release, "permit a low, aerodynamic hood line without compromising front suspension travel."

In truth, it looks as if some unthinking type compromised that low, aerodynamic hood line by mounting the shock absorbers where they would make like jack hammers against the hood.

Can't have that, said the body man.

But you could patch the hood, said the suspension man, call them blisters and pass them off as part of the styling.


The interior of the car is clean, friendly, with intuitive placement of hand brake, shifter, turn signals and other manual controls. Seating is rich, adjustment makes all upholstered convexes fit the driver's concaves and there is superb pneumatic lumbar support.

Headroom is sufficient for 6-footers and above. Leg room is a full stretch on both driver and passenger sides. But rearward vision, particularly when the spoiler starts doing push-ups, can be a little cluttered.

Hand grips built into each door are a nice touch. The passenger's grip is right at hand. The forearm braces well against a ledge close to the grip. So when things get adventuresome, a passenger can hang on for grim death and nobody will notice the bloodless knuckles.

And things will indeed get adventuresome in the 3000GT VR4.

Peak torque arrives with the engine turning at only 2,400 revolutions, so huge power is readily available for fast starts. Turbo lag is barely noticeable. The all-wheel drive partnered by broad tires on 17-inch wheels makes for quiet, unflappable takeoffs.

If it weren't for the velocity and some rude snorts from the exhaust (which, incidentally, is fitted with a cutout for changing the note from deep purr to naughty rasp), things would appear almost polite.

Fifth gear is in a world of its own and pure overdrive. It allows long, wonderful loping that if Highway 101 were an autobahn and that was Munich, not Salinas, ahead, you'd be looking at a 125-m.p.h. cruise.

Mid-range performance of the car--snapping from fourth to third with a shifter that's both quick and positive--is almost gymnastic. Braking on 12-inch discs leaves no doub that this car will stop wherever and whenever it is told, and with little of the pedal surging and foot pounding associated with most anti-lock systems.

With all wheels pointing and powering in the same direction, steering response, of course, is immediate. The smallest adjustments correct the grossest errors of braking or throttle mismanagement until a single conclusion forms: It would take an absolute duffer doing the totally inexcusable on the worst of surfaces to get this car sideways or into the boonies.

It is a performance car that is a delight to drive very hard. It was built to run and without protest.

There is a boldness here. No matter the night, no matter the huge distance, no matter the hour, the heft and ability of the car becomes the satisfaction of the task.

And that, dear lovers of better things in life, is the near-forgotten pleasure of grand touring.

1991 Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4

The Good All pace, grace and heft of traditional grand touring car. Quality construction. Technology devoted to safety. Superb, corrective handling.

The Bad Borrowed styling. Gizmoair ducts.

The Ugly Hood bunions.

Cost Base, estimate $31,000 As tested, estimate $31,500 (includes antilock brakes, driver-side air bag, cruise control, leather seats, automatic climate system, 100-watt sound system)

Engine V-6, 24-valve, 3 liters developing 300 horsepower.

Type Two-seat (with occasional rears), front engine, all-wheel drive, all-wheel steering, grand touring sports car.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h. (as tested) 6.1 seconds. Top speed (manufacturer's estimate) 160 m.p.h. Fuel economy, city-highway average (as tested) 20 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,900 pounds.