I was in college when the second-generation Mitsubishi Eclipse made its debut for model year ’95. Having been a fan of the previous, first-generation of Diamond-Star coupes (which also included the Plymouth Laser and Eagle Talon), I was slow to warm to these new ones. The first cars were so cleanly styled, so smooth, so pretty. The new Eclipse and Talon (there was no new Laser for ’95) looked more aggressive, muscular, and mean. I didn’t care for them much at first… then something happened.
Let’s take a moment to remember Mitsubishi’s white-hot streak of coolness and elevated relevance in the U.S. market starting in the late 1980s which lasted about fifteen years (with the exception of the Lancer Evolution, which finally made its way to our shores for 2003 to do battle with the Subaru Impreza WRX). The Galant was a competitive, well-styled alternative to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry which were starting to become omnipresent, and there were lots of subcompact Mirages running around. The Montero was a credible SUV with real off-road capability.
Mitsubishi sales in the United States peaked in 2002 with close to 346,000 units sold, the third consecutive year in which this make sold more than three hundred thousand vehicles here. Just two model years later, however, Mitsubishi sales in the U.S. would be less than half that figure, at just 162,000 units, and would continue to fall. (Sales have rebounded somewhat, however, with 118,000 units sold in 2018.)
Starting in the late ’80s, though, Mitsubishi’s crown jewel, in my eyes, was the Eclipse. I’ve always been more of an American car fan, but I’ve long had a soft spot for the slew of Asian sporty coupes of the late-’80s through the mid-’90s. My perception was also that it had been the Toyota Celica that led the pack by default, offering the best combo of looks, performance, and affordability, the latter being a very important consideration in the youth market. The Honda Prelude offered more optional features and technological doodads (all-wheel steering!), but the Celica seemed to be the benchmark import-branded sports coupe for Everyman, not just those with a few extra bucks to spend.
Then the second-generation Eclipse happened. It’s really hard for me to remember when my indifference toward them changed to all-out admiration, but it did. It wasn’t even so much that the Eclipse did anything particularly well that the competition didn’t. It was something much more intangible – the impression I had gotten by observation that many of my “cool”, upwardly-mobile peers had selected the Eclipse over other cars of its kind.
I had owned a lightly-used, ’94 Ford Probe in my twenties, and the thing I remember most about the arrival of the new, ’95 Eclipse was how daring its shape seemed at the time in comparison to that of my new-to-me sports coupe. Even if it took me a while to warm to the new Eclipse’s more aggressive shape, there was no question in my mind that Mitsubishi’s stylists had taken more chances than Ford’s. There was the dramatic sweep of its well-integrated hatchback with its compound-curved glass, the pinched, triangle-shaped rear quarter windows, sculpted sides, and a pleasingly chunky tail. Many external design elements of the second Eclipse seemed almost blade-like, including the shape of the taillamp lenses and backup lights.
I was that person at the time who read car magazines and used car pricing guides with the intent of comparing my current ride with other cars in its class. Despite being priced about the same, when new, as the same-year Eclipse, my Probe’s resale value always seemed substantially lower (a good 10 – 20%) than those of the same-year Eclipse. (I would often shrug this off by correctly being thankful for the cool car that I had.) The Eclipse was a car that held its resale value relatively well due to high demand.
It’s not really that hard to draw a comparison between a new-design ’93 Probe / ’95 Eclipse matchup and one between a ’74 Mustang II and a ’76 Plymouth Arrow. I’ll further qualify this by saying I’ve always been vocal (against popular opinion) about liking the Mustang II hatchback in many forms. The Plymouth Arrow (born as the Mitsubishi Lancer Celeste in Japan), however, is a car I consider to be one of the best-looking small hatchbacks sold in the U.S. in the ’70s, period, and its styling has endured extremely well to these eyes. The above picture of this blue example is Exhibit A of the Arrow’s striking, mini-Barracuda fastback side profile.
Aesthetic tastes are inherently subjective, but I’ll opine that the Arrow’s arrival to the States for ’76 (having made its debut for ’75 in its home market) would be another example of Ford having trotted out a new edition of a small, sporty car leaving time for Mitsubishi (with the help of Chrysler Corporation) to subsequently introduce what is arguably a much more modern-looking example of the same, basic idea. The “Silent Shaft” engines available in the Arrow over its five model-year run (in displacements of 1.6L, 2.0L and 2.6L) also made for a much smoother, more pleasant driving experience under acceleration, than probably any normally aspirated 2.3L four-cylinder Mustang, ever.
I hadn’t yet made any significant mention of the Lancer Evolution series of sport sedans only because I consider those to be a different kind of car, altogether. It’s true that the levels of performance of the “Evo” would embarrass some Corvettes manufactured just a few years prior. (In 2003, the editors of Consumer Guide clocked a Corvette with the 350-hp engine and a six-speed at 4.9 seconds from 0-60 mph; Car and Driver reported just 4.1 seconds from the Evo.) However, I’m more into a balance of aesthetics and ability than all-out performance, and I’m also a Coupe Man. I probably will always be both of those things. I respect the Evo, but nothing about the way it looks will ever move me. I can say that with finality.
The second-generation Eclipse, though, will always look hot to me in the way my mind’s eye often sees onetime crushes from my young adulthood. Also as with old flames, it’s sometimes really tough for me to see the shape they’re in today, like the Eclipse’s once-mighty parent company, Mitsubishi. Their current U.S. market product lineup (Mirage hatchback, Mirage G4 sedan, Outlander, Outlander Sport, and Eclipse Cross – the latter three being CUVs) is okay, and I’m not trying to knock the quality of these vehicles (with which I have no experience) or the judgment of the consumers that have purchased or leased them. It’s just that in their onetime quest for import sales domination, Mitsubishi had seemed so invincible, once like I felt around the age when I first came to appreciate what I consider to be Mitsubishi’s last (to date) home-run in the styling department.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, October 6, 2019.