It’s a new year, and as time marches on, the car-buying public forget more and more of the underwhelming, underperforming or just plain unappreciated cars that littered market over the past fifteen years. Automakers took steps into segments they had never really occupied (Volkswagen), scrubbed away their prestige (Chrysler) or decided that the giant American car market was just not worth bothering about (Mitsubishi). In this week’s installment, we look at more cars we will be photographing on the street in a decade’s time.
Mitsubishi Eclipse (fourth-generation)
Project Abandon America
The fourth generation Mitsubishi Eclipse, much like its Project America siblings Galant and Endeavor, started out with much promise but were left to wither on the vine. The stagnation of the latter two was more evident with the sheer glut of competitors in the mid-size sedan and mid-size crossover segments, respectively. With little direct competition, the Eclipse briefly enjoyed an advantage within its market segment, but it too was soon forgotten. One thing it never lost, though, were its looks.
Before we look at the nitty gritty, the horsepower figures and sales numbers and all that jazz, let us just enjoy the Eclipse’s lines. I truly wonder if any of our commentariat can disagree with me when I say this is one gorgeous car. It may be a bit of a big-‘un, but in the metal it doesn’t look it. Call it Audi TT-derivative all you want, but I think the Eclipse wears its curves better than the scrawnier TT. It’s like a sexy, curvy lady: healthy and voluptuous. The first Eclipse was sharp but not terribly original, aesthetically. The second was curvy, but in that blobby, amorphous 1990s way. The third was eerily reminiscent of the final Pontiac Grand Am. But this fourth generation? Compare and contrast to the overstyled Genesis Coupe, the bizarre Monte Carlo, the Solara-esque G6 coupe and the uglier, Solarier Solara itself. For people buying a mainstream coupe on looks alone, the bootylicious Eclipse was the ticket unless you preferred a more macho Camaro or Mustang. Not to mention, the interior was cleanly styled but sporty, and felt a lot more special than the sedan-derived interiors of the Accord and G6 coupes.
Sir Mix-a-Lot would appreciate this angle
Dynamically, the Eclipse was competent – certainly more so than the boulevardier third generation – but unexciting. Where the platform’s dynamics were competitive in the mid-size Galant and Endeavor, they were less appealing in the ostensibly sporty Eclipse. Despite its striking lines, the fourth generation was not a return to the glory days of the Fast & Furious Eclipse. Critics agreed it handled quite well-enough for a front-driver, but was let down by a hefty curb weight of 3500lbs, 62 percent of which rested over its front wheels. The gigantic turning radius that bothered my sister so much in her 380 (Galant) remained in the Eclipse, making tight maneuvers difficult. Where the more dynamic Japanese coupes like the pricier Z and RX-8 faltered, however, the Eclipse shined. The Rubenesque Mitsubishi boasted a compliant ride which made it more suitable for cruising, a nice bonus for a car that wouldn’t embarrass itself when the road got twisty. One thing a buyer would want to make certain though, was to order the V6. The mediocre four-cylinder came with only 162hp and 162 lb ft of torque, whereas the V6 shaded it by 100hp and 100 lb ft. The four-cylinder GS was good for an 8.0 second 0-60 time, but opting for the V6 GT reduced that to a swift 6.0 seconds.
Almost no changes were made from 2006 until the Eclipse’s demise in 2012, other than a couple of extremely minor cosmetic tweaks. Sales started out strong, jumping up over the previous generation’s volumes to around 33k units in the first year, but as is common in the style-conscious sport coupe segment, initial demand tapered off. After a few years of sales over 20k units, 2009 saw Eclipse volumes hit a brick wall and fall to under 7k units and rapidly shrink thereafter. Although it was still a beauty at the end, and an available Evo-style grille and black roof kept things fresh, the affordable sport coupe segment had moved on. Hyundai’s Genesis Coupe launched in 2010, offering rear-wheel-drive and turbocharged or V6 performance in a fairly affordable package. Chevrolet’s reborn Camaro came packing a 300hp V6, and by 2011, so did Ford’s Mustang. Even the Japanese were re-entering a segment they had almost completely abandoned, with the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ launching the year after the sun set on the Eclipse. So, while the final Eclipse was a beautiful car, enthusiasts can’t miss it too much because this decade has seen the return of the affordable and exciting sports coupe. Sadly, Mitsubishi’s refusal to invest in its American models means the Eclipse is better off gone.
Buick Lucerne CXS & Super, Pontiac Bonneville GXP
The Northstar visits other constellations
When GM released the award-winning Northstar V8 in 1993, it was a revelation. This modern, double overhead cam V8 was quickly rolled out across most of the Cadillac range, and featured on Ward’s Best Engines List for several years. Pumping out 275hp and 300 lb ft in standard tune and 300hp and 295 lb ft in performance tune, it significantly outperformed the old HT-4900 V8. The “Northstar System”, a combination of the Northstar V8, traction control and road-sensing suspension, was a key component of Cadillac’s advertising campaigns in the 1990s. As the entire range adopted the system, Cadillac became synonymous with Northstar. No other GM brand got their hands on the Northstar V8 except Oldsmobile, which used smaller 3.5 V6 and 4.0 V8 variants of it to kickstart a brand renaissance that sadly failed.
At some point, possibly when GM had started development on the aborted Ultra V8 engine, it was decided that the other brands could also get some Northstar lovin’. Pontiac’s Bonneville was revised for 2000 and now closely related to the Cadillac Seville. However, sales had slipped over the years and by this point, the Bonnie’s Buick LeSabre platform-mate was outselling it threefold. The writing was on the wall for a nameplate that had sold for over fifty years, and GM decided to let it go out with a bang. In 2004, the lower-tune Northstar was placed in the Bonnie’s engine bay, and the cladding-overload exterior was smoothed out. The Bonneville GXP looked sharp, until you opened the door. Inside was the same fighter jet cockpit-style, overwrought, plasticky dash, with tacky white gauges and handsome two-tone seats the only changes. With an MSRP of around $35k, the GXP may have seemed like a good deal for a large sedan with a smooth V8, especially with a quick 6.5 second 0-60 time. There was one big fly in that ointment, however. The new, rear-wheel-drive Chrysler 300C stickered for a few grand less and came with a more powerful Hemi V8. While GM incentives knocked a lot off of the MSRP, the GXP Bonnie managed to shift only 6,613 units over its two years on the market. In 2005, the entire Bonneville range was axed.
The Northstar reappeared outside the Cadillac fold again in 2006 while Buick was consolidating its sedan range. The dated Century/Regal mid-sizers were replaced in 2005 by the LaCrosse, and the staid LeSabre and Park Avenue full-size sedans were nixed in favor of the 2006 Lucerne. One could be forgiven for thinking the new Lucerne was the same dull, stodgy, old Buick if they only saw the base, cloth bench-equipped CX 3.8 V6, but Buick delivered a pleasant surprise in the top-line CXS, a spiritual successor to the beautiful, import-battling Oldsmobile Aurora. While the de-tuned 275hp V8 was an option in the softly-sprung, mid-range CXL, stepping up to the CXS netted buyers a standard Northstar, fog lights, 18-inch alloys and another former Cadillac exclusive: Magnetic Ride Control. Riding on the revised G-Body now shared only with Cadillac’s DTS, the Lucerne was a big car by contemporary standards, but the addition of MRC made it handle with more grace than expected from a nose-heavy, FWD V8 sedan. Clean, vaguely European styling and a more modern interior completed the package, with the cherry on top being the reintroduction of Buick’s heritage VentiPorts. Four on each side meant you weren’t driving Grandma’s CX but rather, the cream of the crop. Of course, against its competitors, the Lucerne was lacking high-tech features that were becoming the norm. Rivals with V6s were also posting similar or higher horsepower numbers, and Buick was about to undergo another brand shift.
A 2008 revision brought a gaudier chrome grille to the Lucerne range, and the CXS became the Super. The Super received some aluminum trim on the dash and a higher (292hp) output Northstar, but kept the same 4-speed auto. While it was a small but sharp revision, the competition continued to march on. Chrysler’s 300 had a much more powerful V8 and a modern transmission; Hyundai’s new Genesis also offered rear-wheel-drive dynamics and an available, more powerful V8. Arguably the biggest threat, though, sat in Buick’s own showroom. The 2010 LaCrosse had an available 3.6 V6 that put out similar horsepower and torque, featured an extremely stylish interior and boasted an options list with the kind of high-tech goodies (rearview camera, xenon headlights, head-up display) premium car buyers were now expecting. Buick realized there was no longer a place for the Lucerne, and cancelled it for 2011. The Lucerne Super thus represented the end not only of the venerable Northstar V8, but also of front-wheel-drive V8 luxury sedans at General Motors. At least that era ended in elegance.
Rebadges Part 3
1981 was the year Chrysler decided its namesake division should play the Mercury to Dodge’s Ford by releasing the K-Car LeBaron. Almost every product since then has simply been a flossier Dodge, and the company is only now trying to reverse that to some degree, but the 2000s saw some of the heaviest erosion of their once prestigious image. When DaimlerChrysler shuttered the Plymouth brand, the decision was to give the planned Plymouth PT Cruiser to Chrysler. No doubt, Chrysler-Plymouth dealers would have been unhappy about losing such a promising product to standalone Dodge dealers. The PT Cruiser was a sales success and sold for many years (arguably longer than it should have), but its Neon mechanicals, low list price and plastic fantastic interior did not lend itself well to preserving Chrysler’s rapidly eroding image.
Another Plymouth product that was kicked over to Chrysler was the Voyager, available only in short-wheelbase form, with a four-cylinder or V6 engine. Chrysler dealers didn’t want to lose volume, so they got this poor brother to the Town & Country, which they sold from 2001 until 2003. Although this generation of minivan was well-received, and praised for solid dynamics and space efficiency, critics were not fond of its somewhat patchy reliability and fairly low-budget interior. Base models suffered even more demerits with a four-cylinder engine with 150 horsepower and 167 foot-pounds of torque to propel an almost 4000lb minivan. This “power” was put through a THREE-speed automatic transmission, one of the last of its kind. Mercifully, the low-budget Voyager nameplate and its dated drivetrain were discarded in 2003, replaced by a short-wheelbase Town & Country. However, that was almost as downmarket, and there would be a few years yet of black-plastic trim Chryslers. Fleet special 300 2.7s may now be history and the 300’s base price is higher, for example, and there is a much more convincing 200 coming, but it will be an uphill battle for the Chrysler division.
Much like Hyundai and Saturn, Volkswagen finally reached a point where it realized offering a minivan might be a good idea. After all, the trendy twenty-somethings who bought Jettas in the 1990s were now having families and minivans were still selling, albeit in decreasing numbers. In one of the few instances of Volkswagen recognizing and quickly filling a hole in its lineup, the Routan was launched. Volkswagen, however, didn’t base its first modern minivan on an existing platform, or import its European market Sharan. Instead, a deal was made with Chrsyler in which its minivans would be rebadged and sold by VW dealers. In addition to slapping their badge on the front of a Caravan, Volkswagen fettled the interior, exterior and dynamics. But while Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan were solid offerings, the Routan was a let-down after Volkswagen tantalized the public with the Microbus concept of 2001, a striking, retro design that no doubt would have been a huge success in the heritage-crazy 2000s.
The changes that made a Mopar minivan a Volkswagen Routan were not earth-shattering, but a nicely made over interior helped to differentiate it from its platform-mates. Surprisingly, though, there was one major change: Chrysler’s Stow ‘n’ Go and Swivel ‘n’ Go seating were not included. At least the third row folded flat into the floor. A new dash was installed, albeit with Mopar switchgear, and there was a new, higher-quality headliner and door panels. Considering just how grim Chrysler interiors were up until around 2011, these were welcome changes. Unfortunately, the weak base powertrain was carried over from the Mopar vans: a dated 3.8 V6 with 197hp/231 lb ft boat anchor that got worse fuel economy (16/23 vs 17/25) than the uplevel 4.0 V6, which netted a much healthier 251hp and 259 lb ft of torque. Regardless of engine, however, Volkswagen had at least improved the Routan’s dynamics with stiffer springs and dampers and revised steering, making it usefully superior to its siblings.
For 2011, the Routan, Town & Country and Grand Caravan all gained the vastly superior 3.6 Pentastar V6. The latter two received same chassis tweaking as well as vastly better interiors. All three were now more competitive against their rivals but the Routan still lacked its siblings’ Stow ‘n’ Go and Swivel ‘n’ Go seating. With sales in the 10-15,000 annual units range, despite prices slightly lower than the popular Honda Odyssey, the Routan failed to set sales charts on fire and was quietly shelved, with no replacement yet planned. It was interesting for Volkswagen to enter a segment that had been in decline for quite some time, rather than try and secure a mid-size crossover for its lineup, something they still don’t offer. Their other North American market maneuvers in the past decade also cause head-scratching: a small crossover that’s German-made and is thus too expensive for the segment; overambitious dalliances in the luxury sphere (Touareg, Phaeton, Passat W8); and now, a two-pronged model lineup, with all the nice, slightly premium German stuff sold alongside the competent but utterly bland Americanized Jetta and Passat. Having driven a new Passat, I felt that, despite a smooth ride and pleasant powertrain, it had an interior blander and lower-quality than the Chrysler 200, usually enthusiasts’ whipping boy in the mid-size segment. It’s just one more example of Chrysler’s rising star, and of Volkswagen’s continued stagnation in the US market.
Like the Routan, Hyundai’s Entourage filled a hole in that brand’s model line-up. Hyundai didn’t need to outsource, however, instead rebadging the homegrown Kia Sedona. Where Volkswagen invested in different front and rear fascias and a nicer dash, Hyundai did the quick and dirty. You’d really be hard-pressed telling the Entourage apart from the Sedona on the street, and the interior also offered no obvious visual distinction. Other than some minor trim differences and the lack of a short-wheelbase variant, the Entourage was just a Sedona with a different badge. Buyers either didn’t know about it or didn’t care, because it sold well under half what the Sedona did, and shared showroom space with the vastly more popular Santa Fe (available with seven seats). The Entourage was cancelled after just a few model years.
What models, obscure or popular, do you expect will merit a second glance in ten years’ time? Discuss…