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Nashville Scene Nifty, Crafty Spyder

New 2001 Mitsubishi Spyder weaves a tale of fun

By Marc K. Stengel

MARCH 6, 2000:  The sky was deep porcelain blue. The Galiuro Mountains east of Tucson were a velvety brown scrub. My winter wan forehead was searing toward adobe red under a merciless Arizona sun. I thought at the time that I was test-driving Mitsubishi's new-for-2001 Eclipse Spyder. I realize now that I'd been lured unawares into a curious piece of performance art in which this fetching car and I were the only moving elements in a static, bubble-like "spacescape" defined by serene desert, timeless mountains, and open air.

Beyond the obvious celestial connotations of its name, the Eclipse Spyder betrays more than a hint of the Starship Trooper aesthetic that is at once anachronistic and futurist. Based on the successful redesign of the hardtop Eclipse (reviewed here last September), the convertible or Spyder version of this affordable sporty coupe retains the part-industrial/part-organic strakes and gills in its bodywork to which Mitsubishi has given the suitably Jabberwocky description "geo-mechanical."

Personally, the adult in me finds all these fins and epicanthic folds a bit rococo and distracting--not to mention the hours with a toothbrush to perform a decent detailing. I will gladly abide them, however, for the sake of the near miraculous makeover of the new Eclipse's interior. What was once a collection of semi-recumbent pods for driver and three passengers has matured into legitimate, sporty seating for four that pays dividends in both comfort and visibility.

Empirically, the interior gains 1.5 cubic feet overall compared to the previous Spyder version. The extra rear legroom is laudable out of all proportion to its nominal increase by a mere one inch. There is more trunk space, too, so that the total of 7.2 cubic feet now rivals that of some small sedans.

I especially like the command-and-control position of the driver's seat and the collection of instruments and controls arrayed conveniently about. Taller drivers (6 foot-plus) among my colleagues at the Spyder's media debut tended to cast suspicious glances at the upper edge of the windscreen that met them at forehead level; but this five-and-a-half footer appreciated for once being able to maneuver seat height, steering wheel position, and backrest angle for clear views to front and sides as well as into the instruments binnacle in the dash. Best of all, the push-button controller for the automatic top is at ideal fingertip reach.

Flip two "ski-boot-type" latches at the front of the heavily lined cloth top (with solid glass rear window, no less) and, zizz, flip, the sky is, quite literally, the limit.

There are two versions of the Spyder: a 2.4-liter four-cylinder GS making 147 horsepower, and a GT model with a single-overhead-cam V6 making 200 horse. (Spotter's tip: Look for the 16-inch wheels on the GS, versus the 17-inchers on the GT.) Both models offer either standard 5-speed manual transmissions or an optional four-speed auto with a "clutchless manual" Sportronic feature. The GS is spirited enough if not especially aggressive in acceleration; sticking with the 5-speed helps, of course.

The GS' chief attraction, however, is price: From base to fully loaded, the stickers range from $23,837 to $25,437 (including a $490 destination charge). For a refined, full-featured 2+2 convertible with this much pizzazz, that's a price range that deserves a tip o' the hat.

It goes without saying, of course, that I spent the bulk of my fantasy funds evaluating the higher-end GT models, where Mitsu's 3.0-liter V6 delivers smooth-revving power and torque that are virtually perfectly calibrated to a front-drive roadster of this size. Eclipse partisans of yore still bewail the loss of a twin-turbo option; I say good riddance to that slap-happy power train and its wheel-hopping misbehavior in need of a Ritalin fix. The V6 is nearly as powerful as the twin-turbo-four anyway, but much more progressive (and predictable) under hard acceleration. If you're determined to skin the front tires at every stop sign and light, you still can. Personally, I'd opt for the optional premium package that tosses in traction control and ABS along with a nifty Infinity sound system with 6-CD in-dash changer.

The big treat in driving the GT was the stable cornering poise, thanks largely to the new front independent suspension featuring offset coil springs. Together with the multi-link independent rear, the front end resisted plowing through hard-braking heavy corners. For higher-speed sweepers, a momentary back-off at throttle tended to settle the suspension rock solid, allowing a gentle, stable squeeze back up to full power throughout the radius of the turn. Mitsubishi's crisp-shifting 5-speed manual was perfectly suited to this maneuver by allowing snap-downshifts into the heart of the power band. I found the Sportronic pseudo-manual shifter reasonably effective at this, too; particularly in terms of its near immediate gear shifts. There were moments, though, when both up- and down-shifts were abruptly harsh and distracting. There's nothing, I suppose, like an authentic, traditional clutch for feathering a little finesse into one's gear changes.

As the redesign of its hardtop sibling has already proven, the redesign of the Eclipse Spyder must be regarded as a laudable--and essential--coup in the ground-up revitalization that Mitsubishi is presently enjoying. The mood is definitely upbeat at Mitsu HQ these days, thanks to record-busting sales results across virtually all model lines last year, but specifically with Eclipse. The advertising extols us all to "Wake up and drive," but I'd submit, as well, that Mitsubishi has itself awakened to the reality that roadsters like the Eclipse Sypder aren't supposed to be toys for kids with nowhere to go but should rather behave like decent cars for adults who'd like to have fun getting where duty calls. Particularly in this regard has the Eclipse Spyder finally arrived.

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