On one hand, there’s a distinct subset of the population that has become enamored with all things Japanese, from the highly stylized cartoons known as animé to the controlled-mayhem motorsport known as drifting. On the other, there’s a broader segment of the post-9/11 American population for whom flag-waving patriotism has reached a fever pitch.
Both these trends come together in the all new 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse, a sporty coupe that hopes to play up both its Japanese roots and its made-in-the-USA construction. The result is a car that has an awful lot to offer no matter which side of that pop culture divide you find yourself on.
Bigger is Better
With a somewhat schizophrenic marketing strategy behind the 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse, it’s not surprising that the first television commercials to feature the car start, not with the vehicle itself, but with images of a group of young women beating out a hypnotic rhythm on traditional Japanese taiko drums. The fact that this drumming group was recruited from a homegrown taiko club on the all-American campus of UCLA somehow seems incredibly fitting.
The use of the taiko group also seems appropriate in a metaphorical sense, as this fourth-generation Eclipse will need all the banging of drums the automaker’s marketing budget can muster. Replacing a six-year-old model that had all but faded into obscurity despite a starring role in the Hollywood sequel 2 Fast, 2 Furious, the new Eclipse should go a long way toward filling the vacuum left by its predecessor. From its more aggressive styling to its improved sport-tuned suspension, Mitsubishi’s engineers and designers have given the car back a bit of the edginess lacking in the previous generation.
One thing the new Eclipse design doesn’t do is return to the more compact dimensions of the first- and second-generation models. In fact, the new Eclipse – which is built on the same underpinnings as the midsize Galant sedan and Endeavor sport-utility vehicle – has grown yet again with a body that’s nearly three inches longer, two inches taller, and more than three inches wider than the car it replaces.
This new larger 2006 Eclipse enters a market positively glutted with attractive sport coupes. From affordable choices like the Hyundai Tiburon and Scion tC to slightly pricier alternatives like the Nissan 350Z and Mazda RX-8, the Eclipse will have to stare down a group of recently introduced models that have collectively raised the bar for the sport coupe category.
In its favor, the Eclipse has a head-turning new shape, a pair of powerful new engines, and a long list of standard comfort, convenience, and safety features going for it. Add reasonable sticker prices starting at just under $20,000 and the Eclipse comes to this street fight well armed.
And it’s a good thing, too, as Mitsubishi has a lot riding on the success of this new model. The company’s sales have been down by 40 percent overall in the first four months of this year compared to 2004. Creating a turnaround on that scale is a lot to ask of any new car introduction but the folks at Mitsubishi are hoping to pull it off nonetheless.
Mitsubishi calls the 2006 Eclipse a “two-plus-two grand touring coupe” and wants people to think of it as an “attainable exotic.” While we’re not sure we’d go quite that far, this new design does go a long way towards achieving those goals.
Gone are the relatively conservative looks and heavy-handed lower body strakes of the previous generation, replaced by a much more organic and muscular look. Pronounced fender bulges, a steeply raked windshield and rear decklid, and a rounded bustle-like rear end give the Mitsubishi Eclipse a sense of motion. The wedge shape and nicely integrated rear spoiler also give the car a sporty low-slung look that does much to disguise the car’s increased dimensions.
Inside you’ll find an attractive interior that matches the Eclipse’s updated exterior. A stylish wave-form look to the dash, soft-touch materials, and faux metal accents give the interior a look that’s fresh and modern.
While this new design is generally pleasing, there are a couple of details that strike discordant notes in this otherwise harmonious design. To our eyes, the triangular wedge that divides the upper air intake adds an extra measure of complexity that takes away from what would otherwise be an attractive front end. We could also do without the clear taillight lenses that, while trendy of late, are bound to look dated sooner rather that later.
One side benefit of the 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse’s increased dimensions is a roomier passenger compartment. Rather than spread the additional 2.1 cubic feet of space around, however, designers dedicated it solely to improving the accommodations for the driver and front seat passenger.
Up in these choice seats there’s an extra half-inch of headroom and an additional half-inch of legroom, along with almost two more inches of shoulder and hip room. Combined with a standard tilt-adjustable steering column and supportive bucket seats, this additional space makes it possible for a wide range of different sized individuals to find a comfortable driving position.
While the room up front is good, the back seat is another story altogether. In fact, the rear seat passengers have actually lost an inch of legroom and a half-inch of headroom. In real world terms this means the back seat is no place for an adult, at least not an adult you like. Instead it may help to think of it as a nicely padded shelf for gym bags, briefcases, and the like.
As a matter of fact, that extra space may come in handy given the fact that the interior’s storage options are limited to a small center console, glove box, and map pockets in the doors. In an era when we’re all spending more time in our cars than ever before, the lack of handy compartments or trays for cell phones and other modern paraphernalia seems like an oversight.
Raise the rear hatch and you’ll find larger items fit easily through the wide opening, though a long reach between the rear bumper and the cargo floor is a recipe for back pain when loading and unloading heavier items. There’s slightly less room in the cargo hold than in the outgoing model, but a 50/50 split-folding rear seat back helps make up for it with added cargo carrying flexibility.
When it comes to choosing between the entry-level GS and top-of-the-line GT models, the good news is that either of the two available engines is a good match for the Eclipse’s sporting character.
The GS’s 162-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline four cylinder, backed by a choice of a five-speed manual gearbox or an optional four-speed automatic, turns in a capable performance. Fuel economy from this powertrain is also quite respectable with EPA estimates of 23 city/30 highway for the five-speed and 23 city/29 highway with the automatic.
The real star of the show, however, is the impressive 263-horsepower, 3.8-liter V6 that comes mated to either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic. This engine, which is shared with the Galant sedan and Endeavor SUV, gets decent fuel economy estimates of 18 city/27 highway for the manual and 19 city/28 highway with the automatic in EPA tests.
As with the previous generation, this new Eclipse puts its increased horsepower to the pavement via the front wheels. While this set-up will put the Eclipse at a disadvantage compared to rear-wheel-drive sports cars like the Nissan 350Z and Mazda RX-8 in the eyes of many driving enthusiasts, we think we can safely say the car’s broader target audience – buyers looking for a sporty car rather than a sports car – aren’t likely to find this to be a significant issue.
As with all vehicles, your opinion of a sport coupe like the Eclipse will have as much to do with your expectations as it does with the car itself.
From an ordinary driver’s perspective, for example, a gain of 15 additional horsepower over the outgoing four-cylinder engine gives the GS model an acceptable level of performance. Despite a somewhat coarse sound under full throttle and the fact that it’s not likely to win any races, we expect that all those buyers looking to cut a sporty image while still maintaining good fuel economy and easy drivability will find this four-cylinder version well suited to their needs.
Those looking for a car with acceleration to back up the Eclipse’s racy looks will undoubtedly want to opt for the GT. The V6 engine puts out a whopping 53 horsepower more than the previous model, and it’s a difference you can definitely feel when you stand on the accelerator. The only problem here – as with virtually all powerful front-wheel-drive cars – is massive amounts of torque steer that creates a strong tug on the steering wheel under hard acceleration.
Both manual and automatic transmissions are well matched to their assignments. The manual gearboxes shift smoothly, and the Sportronic automatic on the GT manages to pull off surprisingly crisp shifts when running through the gears manually, with none of the delay common in such auto-manual transmissions.
Crisp also characterizes the handling. One of the complaints most often heard about the previous generation car was that, in trying to make the Eclipse appealing to a wider audience, the engineers made its ride and handling a bit too civilized. This new version has, for good and bad, gotten a good measure of its edginess back.
The fully independent suspension delivers responsive handling, making this a car driving enthusiasts will enjoy flinging down a stretch of curvy two-lane road. The downside from an average driver’s point of view, of course, is that the ride quality suffers somewhat from the firmer suspension settings that make this good handling possible.
Along the same lines, we think most folks will agree the steering feels nicely weighted. Drive the Eclipse hard however, and you discover a slightly artificial quality that leads to a lack of just the kind of clear feedback enthusiasts look for. No matter which category you fall into, we’re pretty sure the car’s relatively wide 40-foot turning circle will have you choosing your U-turn locations carefully.
The standard four-wheel-disc brakes provide good pedal feel and decent stopping power that should make drivers of all stripes happy. As far as we’re concerned, Mitsubishi gets extra points for making an important safety feature like antilock brakes standard on both models.
On the 2006 Eclipse, Mitsubishi has also included several important safety items as standard equipment. For starters, the front airbags include an occupant sensing system that turns off the passenger side airbag when a child who might be hurt by the force of a deploying airbag occupies the seat. What’s more, both the GS and GT models come standard with side-impact and side-curtain airbags that protect the driver and front passenger’s chest and head.
Other important safety features include three-point lap/shoulder belts at all seating positions, LATCH child seat anchors, and daytime running lights. Traction control is an option on GT models, but we’d like Mitsubishi to go one step further and offer electronic stability control across the model line.
As for quibbles, the fact that those inflatable side-curtain airbags don’t extend to protect those riding in the back seat is a cause for concern. Combine that with the lack of head restraints for rear seat passengers and we’d think twice about putting anyone we cared about back there on a regular basis.
Wrap-Up and Specs
No matter whether you choose to view this as a Japanese car that just happens to be made in America or an American car that just happens to have a Japanese first name, we think you’ll find the new Eclipse is a huge improvement over the model it replaces. Despite a few weak points, we think it deserves a place on every sport compact buyers shopping list.
Test Vehicle: 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS and GT
Price Range: $19,994 (GS); $25,194 (GT) (including $595 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder (GS); 3.8-liter V6 (GT)
Engine Horsepower: 162 at 6,000 rpm (GS); 263 at 5,750 rpm (GT)
Engine Torque: 162 at 4,000 rpm (GS); 260 at 4,500 rpm (GT)
Transmission: 5-speed manual (GS); 6-speed manual (GT)
Curb weight, lbs.: 3,274 (GS); 3,472 (GT)
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 23/30 (GS); 18/27 (GT)
Length: 179.7 inches
Width: 72.2 inches
Wheelbase: 101.4 inches
Height: 53.5 inches
Leg room (front/rear): 42.8/29.2 inches
Head room (front/rear): 38.5/34.6 inches (without sunroof); 37.5/34/6 inches (with sunroof)
Max. Seating Capacity: Four
Max. Cargo Volume: 15.7 cubic feet
Competitors: Acura RSX, Chevrolet Cobalt SS, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Ford Mustang, Honda Accord Coupe, Honda Civic Si, Hyundai Tiburon, Mazda RX-8, MINI Cooper S, Nissan 350Z, Saturn Ion Red Line, Toyota Camry Solara, Volkswagen GTI
Photos courtesy of Mitsubishi