(first posted 6/28/2016) Take a compact sports coupe designed and engineered in Japan, manufacture it in the United States through a joint Chrysler-Mitsubishi venture, and sell it in the United States and Canada under a new line of cars with no brand equity, consisting of rebadged Mitsubishis and Chryslers, as well as former AMC cars, two of them Renault-derived. Can you guess where I’m going with this story?
Yup! That’s the basic gist of the Eagle Talon’s creation story, Eagle being Chrysler’s perplexing attempt at an “import fighter” brand in the late-1980s to late-1990s. The Talon was Eagle’s halo car, and as a result, the car most people associate with the Eagle brand, if they even remember it today.
Introduced in 1989 as a 1990 model, the Talon was part of a trio of compact 2+2 sports coupes that also included the better-known Mitsubishi Eclipse and the all but forgotten Plymouth Laser. Produced in Normal, Illinois, the appropriately nick-named “DSM coupes” were the first product of Diamond-Star Motors, originally 50-50 partnership between Chrysler and Mitsubishi.
Engineering and styling was done large in part by Mitsubishi, with the coupes sharing little with the plethora of aging EEKs Chrysler was currently selling. Based on a platform derived from the Mitsubishi Galant, the Talon and its siblings rode on a 97.2-inch wheelbase and measured less than 173 inches overall. With a low nose, low roof, upswept beltline and fastback roofline, the DSM coupes exhibited sharp yet modern aggressive styling that helped make them usher in the 1990s, a decade that would prove to be far more expressive in automobile styling than the very conservative 1980s.
Initial models were quite sinister looking, with their pop-up headlights, thin running lights, and full-width taillights. The Talon was set apart from its siblings by its unique grille, wheel designs, and rear fascia with exclusive taillight clusters. It was also common for early TSi models to feature accent color ground effects and all Talons received higher-trim Eclipses’ wraparound deck lid spoiler and blacked-out A- and B-pillars for a bit of added distinction. Apart from these minor cosmetic differences, the DSM trio were more or less identical inside and out.
At least relative to the Laser, in some respects the Talon was positioned as the premier DSM coupe, initially lacking the base engine and offering features not available on the Laser such as optional leather front seat upholstery (with all-vinyl rear) and fog lights. Eagles also boasted a standard rear spoiler and in later years, standard air conditioning, whereas Plymouths didn’t even gain all-wheel drive until 1992. Mitsubishis predictably covered all bases.
Powering the Talon and its siblings were one of three inline-four engines, all made by Mitsubishi with no K-engines in sight! The base engine was the SOHC 4G37 1.8L making 92 horsepower and 105 lb-ft torque; an engine not available on the Talon until 1993 when the “stripper” DL model was added. Base Talons through 1992 were powered by the DOHC naturally-aspirated 4G63 16-valve 2.0L producing 135 horsepower and 125 lb-ft torque. With the addition of the DL, this model became the mid-level ES trim for 1993-1994.
The turbocharged 2.0L 4G63T was reserved for the top-spec Talon TSi, which was available in both front- or all-wheel drive. Output for the turbo varied slightly depending on transmission and drive wheels. Horsepower for the TSi with the standard 5-speed manual was 195, except in front-wheel drive models for 1990 when ratings were 190 horsepower.
All Talon TSis equipped with the 4-speed automatic were rated slightly less, at 180 horsepower due to a smaller turbocharger and fuel injectors. Regardless, all 2.0L turbos put out 203 pound-feet of torque. Talons with the 2.0L engine through 1992 and thereafter all Talons, were distinguished by their unique bulge on the driver’s side of the hood, reportedly required to stuff the 4G63 under there.
Suspension-wise, first-generation Talons featured MacPherson struts up front and a twist-beam rear setup. All-wheel drive models gained a fully-independent rear multi-link suspension, as well as limited-slip center and rear differentials. Anti-lock braking was an option from 1990-on, while power steering was standard on all but the 1993-1994 DL model.
The interior of the Talon and its siblings were appropriately driver-focused in layout. Instrumentation was clear and comprehensive, with standard analogue gauges for speed, tach, fuel, temp, oil, and turbo boost. Controls for lighting and wipers were divided between steering column stocks and sporty-looking red-accented buttons arranged on either side of the instrument cluster.
Heating, ventilation, and air cooling were controlled via several large dials, a virtually idiot-proof and somewhat ahead-of-their-time feature most cars with manual climate control would soon adopt over the next few years. Only the radio, with its many tiny buttons and sliders, would be considered “complicated” to some, though it was probably not much of an issue for the younger demographic in which this car was aimed at.
Front seats offered the expected high level of support and came in several different fabric and leather upholsteries, depending on model and trim level. Rear seats were predictably tight and best reserved for smaller bodies. Somewhat curiously, air bags were never even made optional on first generation Talons, necessitating the often pesky motorized seat belts.
Despite sporty looks and reasonably peppy optional engines, front-wheel drive DSM coupes suffered from moderate torque steer, excessive wheel spin on hard acceleration, and a tendency to fishtail in quick turns. All-wheel drive models, on the other hand, greatly improved these maladies, offering far superior straight-line performance and cornering abilities alike.
Despite the all-wheel drive system’s added weight, zero-to-sixty acceleration was just as good at an impressive 6.5 seconds with the 5-speed manual. If there was any doubt that lower trim, front-wheel drive Talons were merely inexpensive compacts masquerading as performance cars, there was no question that the Talon TSi all-wheel drive was a true sports car.
Apart from a cosmetic exterior facelift for the 1992 model year, changes to powertrain and equipment levels were fairly limited over this generation’s five-year lifespan. Highlighting this facelift was the removal of the pop-up headlights for simpler, rather nondistinctive-looking composite units. Lower air intakes were also redesigned, and the hood and front fenders received tweaks to accommodate the larger headlamp openings.
Moving aft, the Talon received new rocker panels and lower body cladding for an even more aggressive appearance. A restyled rear fascia included new taillight clusters with amber turn signals for the “import” look. The license plate cutout was now located between the two taillights, with non-illuminated taillight surrounds still giving it the full-width effect. Bumpers and wheel options were also new.
The Talon lineup grew in 1993 to include the aforementioned base Talon DL, which featured the new-to-Eagle 1.8L Mitsubishi 4G37 inline-4. Non-turbo 4G63-powered Talons were now known as the Talon ES, while turbos were still the Talon TSi. Besides this, changes to the Talon were far and few between for the remainder of this generation. Along with the Eclipse, the Talon would be fully-redesigned for 1995. The slower-selling Laser, which never caught on, bit the dust.
In the end, the Eagle Talon was a competitive compact sports coupe offering an attractive value in base models, impressive performance in the TSi AWD, and sleek, aggressive styling across the board. Unfortunately, the Talon was always sort of an orphan, as both the car and the brand were locked in ongoing identity crises for their entire existences. Chrysler’s ill-conceived vision for a premier import-fighting brand never attained mainstream success or recognition. Never able to un-clutch its talons from the soil, Eagle in fact reached its summit with the Talon.
It’s highly questionable if Chrysler even had any real plans or long-term goals for Eagle, as the very thought that Eagle ever had a fighting chance is unimaginable. Except for unique taillights and badging, every Eagle after the AMC-based Eagle Wagon had at least one virtually identical Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, Mitsubishi, or Renault sibling. A disjointed, mishmash of vehicles and unmemorable advertising only added to the confusion.
Eagle permanently retracted its wings after a brief 4,304-unit 1998 model year, by which point the Talon was its last remaining offering. Though the whole Eagle experiment is an undisputed failure, if there is one thing about it that can be called some sort of success, it is the Talon. Forever living in the shadows of the Eclipse, against these odds, over the course of its nine-year production Talon sales amounted to 189,142 units, with 141,746 of them first generation vehicles alone. An impressive number for a brand with no clear purpose in life, the Talon’s sales and enthusiast following made it Eagle’s greatest and only hit.