Mitsubishi Eclipse concept
Story and photos by Laurance Yap
Los Angeles, California - Even though they're often precursors of upcoming production models, I'm not much of a fan of concept cars. What frustrates me about them is that they're generally such a tease. "Here are some of the design features and shapes you may see on the road soon," their makers seem to say, "with big wheels and brakes that you're never going to get, cool paint we're never going to offer and a powertrain that only exists in our dreams."
Get sucked in by a concept car and you're just setting yourself up for disappointment when the real thing arrives: its curves will be toned down, its stance will be all wrong (thanks to a realistic ground clearance and real-sized tires), and it just won't fizz with the same excitement that you did when you first saw the concept version. The Porsche Boxster lost some of its curves and its cool interior on its way to production; the new Dodge Viper doesn't have the concept's front splitter and stylish, high-quality interior; and even the Ford GT, which looks almost exactly like the concept presented last year, has steering column stalks from a Focus and a parts-bin stereo faceplate.
Mitsubishi, whose Eclipse Concept-E was one of the stars of this year's Detroit auto show, swears that their new orange beastie is different. Design chief Olivier Boulay and a team of designers working in the company's California studios swear up-and-down that this is essentially the car you will see on the streets sooner than you think. In fact, they even go so far as to say that it's 85 percent there. But all automakers claim that about their concepts and most of them still manage to disappoint us - who's to say that Mitsubishi is so special?
To prove that they're serious, they've offered to let us drive it. Not just on some parade route where we're limited to walking speeds so we can get the headline and the requisite action photography, but on a speedy slalom course set up in the massive parking lot of the Los Alamitos horse-racing track. Do they know what they're getting themselves into?
Indeed, there we were, screaming around in this multi-million dollar concept with the tires squealing and the engine coolant sometimes boiling over: the Concept E is way more fully developed than your average concept car, if still far from being the real thing. Why can we push so hard? Because though it's still not in production-ready mode yet, this Eclipse is based on a solid foundation, the "Project America" platform that in slightly different arrangements also underpins the Galant sedan and Endeavor SUV. So it's got the same quick, responsive steering, the same surprisingly settled ride (despite, here, those steamroller 20-inch tires), and a long, long wheelbase that gives the concept its unique, stretched-out look.
A lot of concepts are powered by theoretical powertrains with even more theoretical power outputs. Not the Concept E. The hybrid drive system, with a 3.8-litre V6 and an electric motor driving the rear wheels, is real. Up front, the modified V6, sourced from a Galant with only external modifications to make it breathe (and sound) better produces 270 horsepower, and the hybrid rear-drive system, developed by Rod Millen Specialty Vehicles, adds 150 kw, for a total of about 400 hp, which gives credence to the company's "Ferrari performance at a bargain price" claim.
The "E-Boost" electric system - the primary reason we're here - is entirely separate from the gasoline engine save for a few sensors and electronic bits that it uses to talk to the gas engine. Which means it would actually be a lot easier than incorporating a conventional all-wheel-drive transfer case and a driveshaft to the rear under the Eclipse's sleek skin. It works like a seamless turbocharger on the rear wheels, not only providing a whole lot more power when you flatten the metal gas pedal, but also helps to balance out the car's handling, even allowing for a twitch of the rear if you lift off the gas and then floor it in a corner. One other benefit, as we discovered when the gas engine died, is that the Concept E can run on electric power alone - and given that 150 kw works out to almost 200 hp, it actually runs pretty well that way.
Which makes it really too bad that we probably won't ever see the E-Boost system on a production Eclipse. It isn't that the system doesn't work brilliantly - it does - it's that battery technology isn't at the point yet where packaging it would be practical. Even with its entire trunk virtually filled with battery packs, and with additional power housed in the transmission tunnel, the Concept E could only do a handful of laps around the course before the batteries were fully drained. So fully, in fact, that after one stint, I found myself trapped inside the un-air-conditioned, glassed-in four-seat passenger compartment, boiling to death because the electric door releases wouldn't work.
Still, when you start thinking about that 85-percent figure, and start to figure on the amount of engineering that went into just the rear end of this concept car - working with modified Lancer Evo parts and a massive electric motor, the Millen guys took six months to get the system working - then you realize how much of the rest of the package you will be seeing on a showroom floor not too long from now.
The interior, for instance, works surprisingly well, and you can easily imagine it in production with a few more switches and not-quite-so-exotic materials; on the outside, the designers swear up and down that the overall shape is an accurate representation of the production car, with the exception, perhaps, of the complicated door shut-lines and the hyper-kinetic neon lights. A couple of years ago, I wouldn't have betted on the massive wheels and giant Brembo brakes making production, but these days, you can even get a Nissan Sentra with 17-inch tires and Brembos, so who knows?
Just how cool the production Eclipse ends up being will kind of depend on not only how much Mitsubishi decides to fiddle with the Concept E, but also where it decides to do its fiddling. But speak to the company's designers and engineers, and you come away convinced that they're hell-bent on doing the right thing. What you see here in front of you may not accurately represent the mechanical package that Mitsubishi will introduce next summer, but this is the look of the new Eclipse. And we can only hope, after this brief drive, that the new Eclipse will have a taste of the way the Concept E drives as well.