EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit Newspapers's view

LA JOLLA, Calif. — When a Detroit TV station took a group of consumers nicknamed “Gearheads” through the 2006 North American International Auto Show, they picked the 2007 Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder as one of their favorite vehicles.

It was clear from the videotape of the Gearheads’ event that Mitsubishi showed to reviewers at the media introduction of the redesigned Eclipse Spyder that those consumers only sat in the convertible.

Perhaps if they had actually driven it, their opinions might have changed.

While the Eclipse Spyder looks intriguing and sounds like a relative bargain with its under-$26,000 base price, a few hours behind the wheel leaves you with the impression that this convertible needs help from diet guru Jenny Craig.

Weight is an issue here. It affects everything from the car’s looks to the type of droptop to its heavy and ponderous driving feel.

And while most of us could stand to lose a few pounds, that flaw seems particularly troublesome in a convertible, especially one that competes, at least price-wise, with some of the more agile drop-tops on the road.

They include the Nissan 350Z, Mazda Miata, Pontiac Solstice and Toyota Solara. Unlike the Z, Miata and Solstice roadsters, which are two-seaters, the 2+2 Eclipse Spyder has a rear seat that can accommodate two additional passengers.

The Eclipse Spyder, which is assembled in Normal, Ill., goes on sale in March.

It will start at $25,984, including a $595 destination charge, for the base GS model. The uplevel GT model will start at $28,864, including destination, the company said.

The California-designed convertible is eye-catching, especially from the front end and in side profile, with its wedge shape, short hood and unusual “monocle-lens” style headlights. It is longer, wider and taller than the previous version.

While the Eclipse Spyder does have a “wasp-waist” midsection, the bulky rear end is where the styling fell apart for me. I’m not crazy about driving anything with such a big butt.

The Mitsubishi just looks ungainly, especially next to a shapely competitor such as the Solstice or even the more muscular Ford Mustang convertible.

The Eclipse Spyder is outfitted with a power cloth top similar to the one on the previous model and can be ordered in black or gray.

On the plus side, the Mitsubishi’s convertible top comes with a glass rear window equipped with a defroster. It lowers in less than 20 seconds and can be dropped while the car is rolling at around two miles an hour.

A retractable hardtop would have given the Eclipse Spyder a more upscale look and feel, but Mike Evanoff, the vehicle’s product manager, said that Mitsubishi went with the cloth version to keep the car more affordable and to avoid the additional weight.

The cloth top tucks neatly away, without the baby-buggy appearance of some convertibles, such as the Volkswagen New Beetle, and for the first time, Mitsubishi is offering an optional wind deflector.

This feature is a dealer-installed option and the price has not been determined.

The cloth top is trimmed with a black headliner, which, combined with the Eclipse Spyder’s high beltline, gives the cockpit a cave-like and somewhat claustrophobic feel.

The claustrophobia is heightened in the rear seats, where the cinched-in sides of the car intrude into your shoulders and the legroom is limited.

I wouldn’t dream of putting a passenger back there, not only because it’s uncomfortable, but because there is no side air bag protection in the rear, either.

I tested preproduction versions of the Eclipse Spyder, including a base GS with no options and a top-of-the-line GT model with a $1,980 premium options package that included such features as 18-inch wheels, leather seats, heated front seats, automatic temperature control and aluminum pedals.

The Eclipse Spyder GS is equipped with a single-overhead-cam 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a standard five-speed manual transmission.

The engine makes 162 horsepower, but the car weighs a pudgy 3,472 pounds. The powertrain team lacks zest, especially when you need an extra boost to merge on the highway or quickly change lanes.

Competitors such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible and Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible are hundreds of pounds lighter and feel much more nimble.

Mitsubishi says the base GS will deliver 22 mpg in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway. A four-speed automatic transmission is available as an option on the GS.

The Eclipse Spyder GT is outfitted with a 260-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6 mated to a standard six-speed manual transmission, and feels much peppier than its four-cylinder sibling.

Mitsubishi says this powertrain combination enables the convertible to sprint from zero to 60 in about seven seconds, despite a curb weight of 3,671 pounds (the fully equipped version that I drove tipped the scales at an extra-chubby 3,759 pounds).

Mitsubishi says the fuel economy ratings on the GT have not been determined.

The Japanese automaker was reaching for a “techno” look with the Eclipse Spyder’s cabin.

The dashboard is “wave-shaped” and the gauge pod, with its ice-blue illumination, is inspired by high-performance motorcycles.

Still, for a vehicle which aims at a high-tech crowd, it lacks a navigation system and an iPod jack, although Mitsubishi says the jack will be available eventually.

On the plus side, the Eclipse Spyder is outfitted with bucket seats designed to hold you in place during cornering.

Improved lumbar support allows for more fine tuning to individual tastes and front side impact bags are standard.

One of the most pleasing features on both models of the Eclipse Spyder is a standard 650-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with a six-disc CD changer and nine speakers.

The audio system’s “forward-firing” subwoofer is tucked into the middle of the rear seatback and should make for a great conversation piece. It almost makes up for the fact that there are no rear cupholders.

The Eclipse Spyder drive route took us along some of the most beautiful roads in southern California, including scenic lookouts over San Diego.

Because the Mitsubishi convertible has a wide track and a longer wheelbase than the previous model, it felt firmly planted on the road. It is easy to park and maneuver, thanks to its power rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel independent suspension.

If you can pop for the Eclipse Spyder with the bigger engine and live with its ample posterior, you’ll probably enjoy this convertible.

But I would advise any true gearhead to take a hard look at the GS model. This is one ride that cries out for a serious road test before it gets your seal of approval.

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