Equus Celestial – Part Two

The star fades

SST Concept. Image: oldconceptcars.com

In the first few days of January 1998, Mitsubishi revealed their first ever American designed and fabricated vehicle at the Chicago motor show. With a styling theme described as Geo-Mechanical, this muscular looking brute showcased not only a study of future potential but also the trajectory Japanese/American market appeared then to be following. Solid in stance, the SST (Sophisticated Sports Touring) roadster bristled with confidence with its acid lemon colour scheme, side strakes, singular central exhaust and independent suspension. The engine remained the two litre and good for 210 bhp but the transmission had become automatic.

At the New York motor show three months later, the Tangerine Dream SST Spyder arrived allowing Dan Sims, chief designer at the Cypress, California R&D base to wax lyrical. “We’ve used high speed trains, classical architecture, even nuanced the flexed human bicep to show what we describe as metal in motion. The colour mimics cadmium tooling with a nice contrasting indigo blue cloth roof.” To those almost spherical wheel arches, Sims gushed, “the wheels are like ball bearings, thrust through the surface.” Both concepts were drivable and capable of accommodating any of Mitsubishi’s engines – the SST Spyder replete with 250bhp, four cylinder turbo.

Image: oldconceptcars.com

April 1998 however was a dark time for Eclipse GSX owners – a recall affecting some 40,000 models from inception. “A lock up of the transfer case can occur due to insufficient lubrication causing potential loss of vehicle control,” said the makers. This unguent affliction was seemingly caused not by the transfer case leaking itself, rather the case’s central brass plug weeping; remedial service was naturally offered free of charge. 1995-97 models frequented repair areas due to thrust bearing failures. Meanwhile, the Eclipse had become the tuners dream vehicle – garishly painted, the inspiration for a certain furiously fast film franchise.

Tapping into the motorsport fraternity with ease, the Eclipse proved easily capable of fettling for road racing, endurance events, rallying and even drag racing. Jett Racing took a Mk3 Eclipse to the heady heights of 1,600bhp from the four cylinder engine, but believed capable of withstanding up to 2,000bhp. Their claim of having the “world’s fastest four cylinder” appears difficult to dispute – the quarter mile dispatched in just 6.2 seconds at 225mph.

As we move onto the publicly available third generation Eclipse, the SST had inspired the side strakes to be production friendly. A visual strength motif, Sims’ new millennium vision became a somewhat busy design. The front end’s grille and vents may have aped those strakes but had lost more than a semblance of coherence and the frisson of earlier generations. The rear too followed the then current trend of jewelled lights, arced spoiler and overly fussy use of indentation.

Now saddled on to Chrysler’s ST platform, shared with the Mitsubishi Galant, as with many in middle age, dimensions grew; 4,455 mm in length for the 2000-3 version, the Eclipse extended further to 4,491 mm in 2004/5. Around the hips, an extra ten millimetres made for 1,750 mm. The coupé now stood at 1,311 mm high, the convertible thirty millimetres taller. The wheelbase measured 2,560 mm. Weights started at 1,280 Kgs with an additional 100 kg for the convertible. The engine line up also changed. The 4G64 gained 10 hp for 150 bhp. And a V6 was offered: 6G72, a three litre, SOHC generating 200 bhp. Later tweaks raised the bar another ten.

The suspension had been modified in an attempt to stem press criticism. Now a more pliant ride, Eclipse tied for second place with the Toyota Celica GTS in another Car and Driver 2002 comparison. With competition from the new Beetle Turbo S, Hyundai Tiberon GTV6 and eventual winner, the Acura RSX Type S, the three diamonds garnered  praise for “trusty handling, polite at any speed, growls nicely.” The reporters nevertheless believed the Eclipse resembled a Pontiac too closely and found its interior rather too black and blue for his taste. The verdict of “sports at a low pulse rate” being faint praise, indeed.

2004 and Mitsubishi revealed the Concept E, a hybrid powered Eclipse. A 3.8 litre V6, good for 270bhp to the front sat under the bonnet whereas the car’s rear housed a battery shoving another 200bhp to the rear wheels. Whilst showcasing their engineering talent, the Concept E was a thinly disguised version of the fourth and final Eclipse generation that would bolt from the stables in 2005.

Softer, gently rounded styling lay on top of the Mitsubishi PS platform, known as Project America. Again shared with sibling Galant, the engineering was all in-house, although Normal designed and fabricated. Dimensions continued to grow. Eclipse 4 started at 4,564 mm in length, topping out in 2011 at 4,583 mm. Heights were around 1,370 mm but for the car’s width, now at 1,834 mm was but a shade under that of a Ford Explorer, engendering more journalistic backlash. Weights too started at 1,485 Kgs for the 2.4 coupé, the V6 convertible a rather porcine 1,665 Kgs.

Eclipse sales had been fading for some time against better competitors, the car gaining a dated description. Mitsubishi realised the writing was on the wall for front wheel drive coupés as SUVs ramped up their unstoppable progress, requiring a shift in ethos. The final Eclipse left the Normal lines on 16th August 2011. Painted Kalapana Black, the highly specified model was auctioned for $35,000 in 2012 with proceeds heading east to the Japanese Red Cross for victims of the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and earthquake.

I think this SE edition looks rather handsome. Image: Wikipedia.

The fortunes of the Eclipse had a detrimental effect upon the Normal facility. Output had slumped to but a quarter of its capacity, even after introducing the ASX (sold as the Outlander Sport in the States), leading to the Japanese taking production back home with the loss of many of the 1,900 workforce. Production at Normal ended on 30th November 2015. Electric start-up, Rivian acquired the site from the liquidators in 2016 for $16M.

The Eclipse’s journey had gone from an effervescent yearling to something off the bridle – horse racing terminology for ‘not travelling at all well’. Stylistically, perhaps a blend of falling on its own sword, while backing the wrong horse in terms of public trends. A shame, for it was a fine mare.

Data Sources: Car and Driver/ oldconceptcars.com/ Mitsubishi.com

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

6 thoughts on “Equus Celestial – Part Two”

  1. Good morning Andrew. It is interesting to observe the progression of this design from the original concept to the final production version. The lemon yellow concept looks coherent and I particularly like the wheel arch treatment and the black inverted ‘U’ motif that appears on both the front and rear ends and the roof canopy. The stakes also look properly integrated into the design.

    The red car look much more ordinary, having lost the ‘U’ motif and and distinctive wheel arches and gained a much more conventional DLO, but the silver convertible is truly horrible, however. The strakes and front end look like bad aftermarket items, tacked on to a very humdrum design to give it some more visual interest.

    The production car is again coherent and not unattractive, albeit having lost everything that made the original concept so interesting and distinctive. I imagine that this journey from concept to production reality is not untypical, of course.

    Having just completed a piece about a concept car from a mainstream automaker that made it to production completely unscathed, the contrast is extraordinary and it makes me appreciate how unusual and welcome the latter is. The car in question will remain anonymous for now!

  2. Thanks Andrew. As Daniel commented under the first episode, the orginal Eclipse was another example of the rather fine design work coming from Japan in the late 1980s, the 200SX featured here earlier being another example. To me, one of my favourite cars, the Honda Civic MkIII also fits in that trend albeit a bit earlier and more angular:

    With successive generations, the Eclipse to me seems to sit ever more awkwardly on its wheels. The SST concept is a little too crude for me, and the whiff that is left of the rather bulgy wheel arches on the production version makes its wheels look absolutely tiny. The 2007 Honda Accord has the same problem:

    The rest of the Eclipse design looks to me like a mixture of rather nice geometric design and those strake-y details that looked dated almost immediately (to me at least). The last generation looks pleasing if a little nondescript, but also looks to sit a bit awkardly on its wheels, even in the rather nice white example from your last photo. Although the DLO harks back to the second generation, the general shape evokes a bit of Audi TT to me. Though not in any sense that they copied it, just as a pleasing shape for a small coupé, a genre that was already swimming against the tide of ever larger cars:

    In general, every manufacturer has seen the business case for a small coupé disappear, so the poor Eclipse’s eclipse (sorry) was written in the stars anyway (sorry again).

    1. The third generation Civic. What a lovely thing that was and how I took it for granted for too long. It’s been ages since I last saw one.

      I agree about the wheel arches on the concept. I also had the Pronto Spyder deja vu, but b234r beat me to it 😉

  3. The third generation was a major departure for the Eclipse in that the car became deliberately softer, with a focus on adding comfort. Interior space was a huge departure from before. Noticeably more shoulder room all around, and whereas being labeled a 2+2 was really pushing it in the previous generation, these has a real rear seat that not only was acceptable for a coupe, but actually relatively comfortable. No more legs on the seats and head craned down or to the side contortionism for 6’1” me. Not nearly as aggressively firm and noisy. Better material quality. Powertrains that were usefully improved for real-world driving. A dark red 2000 RS was a housemate’s car that I got to drive a significant amount of miles over the years, and the 2.4 I-4 was a huge step up from the old 2.0. At least on early cars, manual models actually had different tuning and produced more power than the automatics; can’t readily find the specs at the moment but it was something like an extra 9 horsepower and 5 ft/lb at a higher RPM, and it showed. That stick shift RS would simply get up and walk away from my Celica leading into a highway on-ramp. When I finally drove it, the appropriate spread of power was apparent. It pulled hard early on and stayed that way, a trait the previous peaky natured GS did not exhibit. Buyers responded with the changes, and they sold strongly. Over 200,000 in the first three years alone, in a marketplace that had largely abandoned coupes altogether at that point (Mitsubishi moved more of these Eclipses in the first two years than Toyota did Celicas for the 7th generation’s entire six year run). The styling was a big departure for the fans of the earlier cars, and I will admit it to be an acquired taste, but the whole direction Mitsubishi chose obviously was the right one when it clearly resonated with the people who were willing to put cash on the hood. It was the last man standing at what was once a large affordable sport coupe party when the fourth generation rolled around.

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