Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene A Galant effort

Mitsu rolls out '99 ES

By Marc Stengel

JULY 6, 1998:  The road between Portland and Salishan Lodge on the north-central coast of Oregon furls over seaside escarpments like a magic carpet with an evergreen fringe. When the mountain highway descends abruptly into the precincts of Cannon Beach, a broad, flat drape of sand fans out to meet the ebb tide, and giant, stolid cairns of volcanic rock rise to attention through the surf mist. These are the silent sentinels of the continent's Western edge. Two hundred years ago, these dutiful pickets disclosed to Lewis and Clark the terrestrial limits of manifest destiny. Last week, they stood at respectful attention as Mitsubishi challenged the limits of the status quo by introducing an ambitious remodeling of its best-selling sedan, the midsize Galant.

Galant is a bread-and-butter car for Mitsubishi, and for the '99 model year, the company hopes to sell 60,000 of them--a 40-percent leap beyond last year's reported sales. This ambition is as bold as the circumstances are dire: For the first five months of '98, Galant suffered a 27-percent sales slump compared to the same period last year. Compounding the excruciation is the historical viciousness of competition in the midsize sedan category. Mitsubishi will parry the horns of its dilemma with twin, energetic thrusts. The new Galant, which only began arriving at dealerships July 1, is dramatically modified, and it is aggressively priced.

Faceted, angular sheetmetal is the first indication that Galant has grown up. Gone is the older model's uninspired jelly-bean shape. For '99, Galant jumps in size from "compact" to "midsize," and in doing so it preens in a self-confident strut to showcase its slippery aerodynamics (with only 0.29 coefficient of drag). The grille narrows to an aquiline beak over a sporty fascia pierced with hawk-eyed foglamps. At rear, the trunk lid reverses angle abruptly to give the hindquarters a cocky, athletic pose.

With this new Galant, Mitsubishi is targeting American automotive preferences head-on. Like the model it replaces, the '99 Galant is built in Normal, Ill. But now it features an interior designed in California for exclusive use in North America, and it also features two new engines and a suspension design available only in the U.S.

Underhood, Galant offers Americans the choice of a 2.4-liter four-cylinder rated at 145 HP, or a single-overhead-cam 3.0-liter (making 195 HP), the first-ever V6 available in a Galant. The inline-4 powers the base DE model as well as a version of the mid-level ES, and in either case, buyers can opt for a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed auto. The V6 mates only to the auto and is available in the ES model, the upscale LS version, and, appropriately, the unabashedly performance-oriented GTZ sport sedan model.

Actually, the combination V6/auto transmission powertrain is my favorite feature of the new Galant. Optimum Shift Control (OSC) circuitry delivers especially crisp upshifts without jarring, while downshifts glide effortlessly into lower gear. Sensors "read" the road and "listen" to the engine, so that the appropriate gear is selected for a given throttle position at a given angle of ascent or descent. Moreover, manual shifts into and out of overdrive--for taking advantage of back-road twisties--are smooth and uncomplaining, much like "semi-auto" transmissions such as AutoStick and Tiptronic. At the car's introductory press conference, in fact, a reporter asked Mitsubishi spokesman Kim Custer if the hungry-looking GTZ sport sedan would eventually acquire some sort of semi-auto shifter. "Not this year," was Custer's too-sly reply.

Whereas Galant's two new engine choices give the car American-style throttle response and torque characteristics that it has never had before, a new MacPherson strut design for the independent front suspension actually denatures somewhat the previous car's handling personality. According to Mitsubishi research, American drivers--and their roads, it seems--value on-center steering feel over fast-response turn-in. Makes sense, actually, for a nation of Interstaters. MacPherson struts do indeed track a straight line somewhat better--or at least without as much "twitchiness" as the old Galant's more thoroughbred multi-link layout. What's lost, however, is a bit of the Galant's "tossability" for true enthusiast drivers--just when a barnstorming V6 is newly available, no less. The change is more of a nuance than a disappointment, however; it's not long behind the wheel before you sense just how solid the new Galant feels on a scenic cruise.

True, the new car features 32 percent more torsion stiffness and 7 percent more bending stiffness than the model it replaces. Just the same, much of Galant's sense of substantiality derives from its interior. Although it's hard not to prefer the available leather upholstery to the plush velour, seating is supportive and comfortable, with just the right adjustments in just the right places. Rear seat room accounts for the lion's share of the new Galant's growth in stature: This is a legitimate five-seater that rates the same or better in virtually every interior dimension when compared to arch-rivals Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Mazda 626, and Nissan Altima. Moreover, a 14-cubic-foot trunk (12 percent larger than before) finally brings the Galant into cargo parity with this august assemblage.

Thoughtfulness abounds--and counts: A cable in the trunk releases the 60/40 split rear seats so you don't have to run a Chinese fire-drill between rear door and trunk to fold down the seats. Both high-beams and optional fog lamps reset to low-beams and off, respectively, every time you restart the car. And--yes!--the center and side armrests for front occupants are now the same height. My only real complaint with the interior is a little higher volume of wind and road noise than I was led to expect by various touts during the press conference.

And then there is price. Into the midst of the car kingdom's most unforgiving category, the '99 Galant strides with prices ranging from $16,990 for a base, four-cylinder DE with automatic, to $24,350 for the radical-looking GTZ, complete with wing spoiler surmounting the trunk. (The $420 destination charge is, of course, an unavoidable "extra" in every instance.) Mitsu is pinning its hopes on the ES versions of this car and accordingly has increased "content"--i.e., goodies--while actually decreasing prices. The result, for example, is a $17,990 sticker for a four-cylinder ES with auto, which tallies $450 lower than the lesser-equipped '98 model it replaces. Dress up either the four- or six-cylinder ES model with Premium option packages to reach $20,500 or $21,990, respectively; or simply take the de luxe route to an LS for $24,250.

In every case, no matter the price or the list of fixins, it will be incumbent upon Mitsubishi to lure warm bodies into its cars for test drives. In a world dominated by Accords and Camrys, Galant too rarely makes its way to the top of the shopping list. Given a chance to make a direct, personal impression, however, Mitsubishi's all-important midsize sedan may well evolve from a mild-mannered, gallant gesture into a brand-saving, valiant effort.

Mixed messages

In an ominous gesture for our times, Lexus has agreed to recall its new GS300/400 line of sport sedans to solve potential interference problems between on-board cellular phones and the cars' sophisticated stability control systems. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), this cross-talk migraine is the first proven instance of electromagnetic interference with computerized vehicle controls. Lexus spokespeople are scratching their heads and staying mum, but they reportedly have fingered as culprit a defective solder joint in the cars' yaw rate sensors. "Yaw" is term used to describe a vehicle's horizontal rotation, and Lexus' computerized stability system compensates for excessive yaw with a combination of automatic braking and acceleration actions, as required. Following anecdotal accounts of phantom handing irregularities in Japan and Europe, Lexus voluntarily announced the recall in hopes of putting a stop to party-line eaves-dropping among its sensitive vehicle components.

Stamp of disapproval

The trade publication Automotive News reported last week that at least three new Web sites have surfaced to spew venom and vitriol against partisans of sport/utility vehicles. The Sport Utility Vehicle Anti-Fan Club (http://www.howard.net/ban-suvs.htm), the Ultimate Poseur SUV Page (http://www.poseur. 4x4.org), and the Roadhog Info Trough (http://www.suv.org) represent an aggregate attack upon SUVs' perceived crimes against nature, good taste, and neighborliness on the road. It's about time. SUVs continue to shatter the sales records of virtually every car company that makes one; and yet, as everyone knows, no success (particularly of a vehicular variety) is ever complete without an accompanying whine in the background.

Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com or by fax at (615) 385-2930.

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