We live in an age of style, not design. All those homilies about form, function, and modern restraint have turned to dust, and instead we've embraced style-pure personal expression.
There's so much talk about style in our culture these days, it's no wonder car designers have become the new celebrities of the automobile business. They're part visionaries and part spin doctors, and they want us to know that exuberance and extravagance are the order of the day.
By and large, we're all for it. And brand- name, big-city style is within reach for those whose pocketbooks are rated only for suburban outlet malls. To prove it, we present the 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse GT and three rivals, all priced in the neighborhood of $25,000. With these cars, style is paramount, and the only question is whether or not the experience lives up to the promise of the designer label.
The Mitsubishi Eclipse is a champion of in-your-face style that challenges you with a futuristic shape. It recalls the organic, much-loved second-generation car, especially in the way the fenders reach out to grab the wheels. The roofline takes inspiration from the Audi TT, and there's a nice feeling of surface tension throughout the sheetmetal.
But once you get up close to the Eclipse, the presentation starts to unravel a bit. It's 2.9 inches longer, 3.3 inches wider, and 1.9 inches taller than the car it replaces, and the small-car proportions don't seem to fit the larger, Galant sedan-based platform quite right, especially since the lips of the fenders ride so high above the eighteen-inch wheels.
The Acura RSX is thoroughly clean and composed, a classic example of good taste in the modernistic idiom. Yet the RSX also shows the limitations of this restrained approach, because it looks a bit like a bar of soap that has been passed through the hands of one too many focus groups. The Type-S model, freshened for 2005, adds some much-needed character, with a new chin spoiler, headlights trimmed in black, revised taillights, a new rear bumper, and a spoiler on the deck lid.
Like the best of retro designs, the new 2005 Ford Mustang rediscovers what's timelessly good about the original without stooping to the level of a copy. The V-6 Deluxe coupe does a particularly great job of capturing the spirit of the '69 Mustang, because the 215/ 65TR-16 BFGoodrich Traction T/A tires fill up the wheel wells in a way that looks less artificial than bigger narrow-sidewall tires.
The Mini Cooper S is farther from pure retro than the Mustang, yet Frank Stephenson's design has all the energy of the original Mini. The elements of a traditional small car are all in place: the snub-nose, front-wheel-drive proportions; the big box of glass for good visibility; and the wheels pushed out to the corners for space efficiency. The surprise here is that the car looks neither cheap like ordinary transportation nor giddy like a toy.
Of course, for all the discussion of pure style in the automobile, there must be function, too. The first time you take the Eclipse GT onto the highway, it's clear this is a sound piece, less flimsy than before though not exactly carved from a billet of steel. There's a broad field of view through the windshield, and the upright sides of the cabin make the cockpit feel more spacious than the interior passenger volume of 81.6 cubic feet would suggest. On the road, the Eclipse's suspension is very well damped, and it doesn't pound the bump stops over rural potholes or freeway expansion joints.
That's because the Eclipse is really a big car beneath the small-car skin. The platform of the Galant lies under the sheetmetal, and Mitsubishi's 263-hp, 3.8-liter V-6 is doing business through the front tires. Nevertheless, the Eclipse still feels small in several annoying ways, such as when you discover there's no rear three-quarter vision at all or when you try to clamber into the rear seat.
Like the Eclipse, the Mustang is a big car at heart, and it's terrific on the highway. The driving position offers a great view through the upright windshield, and the 1960s-style interior trim transforms cheap plastic into a style statement. Overall, the Mustang feels tight and modern on the road, although there's a very retro-style slack spot in the steering's on-center calibration.
We're also prepared to say that a V-6 with an automatic transmission in the Mustang is no bad thing. The tingle of the 210-hp, 4.0-liter, SOHC V-6 recalls a tightly wound small-block V-8, as does its sharp bark through the exhaust, and the optional five-speed automatic proves very responsive. Meanwhile, the use of 65-series tires helps the Mustang's solid-axle suspension deliver excellent ride quality.
The Acura RSX Type-S has all the rightness of a small car from Honda, and you can feel it as soon as you're behind the wheel. In fact, the RSX feels even smaller than it looks, although a hatchback gives the car an extra dimension of utility. The interior is very well done in the modern style, while the cockpit controls are artfully formatted to make the driving experience as intuitive as possible.
For all that, however, the RSX is simply too intense to drive slowly. The 2.0-liter engine has to climb to 7800 rpm to deliver all the goodness of its 210 hp, and while this is not bad in theory, the unmusical thrashing beneath the hood isn't inspiring, even though new acoustic insulation takes the edge off the unpleasantness. The Type-S rides well on smooth pavement, but the bumps will send unhappy jolts through the stiffly sprung, short-travel suspension.
The same could once be said of the Mini Cooper S, largely because the stiff sidewalls of its run-flat tires made the car hop down the freeway on its short-travel suspension. Yet now the 195/55VR-16 Dunlop SP Sport 5000 DSST tires are far more comfortable in everyday driving than we remember from before. Meanwhile, the cabin of the Mini continues to have the cleverness of a European kitchen, a miracle of design in which everything looks terrific, has six functions, and fits together like a puzzle.
We must confess that looking good while driving fast is really important to us. And the Eclipse GT is a genuinely quick car, as our test results prove. The combination of lots of mid-range power from an eager V-6 engine, a very clean-shifting six-speed transmission, and 235/45VR-18 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires gets the car from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and takes it to 100 mph long before its competition. And yet the Eclipse GT really isn't the best of sporty cars. It's too heavy, a whopping 3540 pounds, even heavier than the Mustang. The Mustang V-6 resembles the Eclipse GT in its preference for wide-open motoring. It's the slowest car in this group by a substantial margin, it has the least amount of cornering grip and the longest braking distance, and the 65-series tires that make the car so good in the real world are largely responsible. Still, the Mustang feels very good, perhaps because the weight of this rear-wheel-drive car is pretty equally distributed between front and rear.
Nothing about the Mini Cooper S promises speed, because there's nothing that looks big enough, from the narrow sixteen-inch tires to the 1.6-liter engine. But that's just the point, as the Mini also lacks weight, and its 2668 pounds give it a big advantage in this group. The smooth-running supercharged engine works willingly through the crisp six-speed transmission, and the Mini is quick to the quarter-mile mark, clings very well to the pavement in the corners, and reaches 135 mph.
There's no debate about the seriousness of the RSX Type-S when it comes to fast driving. This car has always been keen, and yet the chassis of the revised RSX is substantially more rigid, while the Type-S's antiroll bars are substantially stiffer, and there's a chassis brace between the front suspension struts. All this makes the Type-S's steering pinpoint sharp. This is a driver's car, and you know it as soon as you grab the leather-wrapped steering wheel and feel the light, crisp action of the transmission linkage.
Driving these cars reinforces the fact that the talk of a decline in enthusiasm for small, sporty coupes is so much hype, because there's always room for lots of style in a personal package. The Mitsubishi Eclipse GT makes a big statement in a car that's just right for everyday driving, but it's a little too big for real driving excitement. The Ford Mustang V-6 is the best ride yet for a trip to the ice cream store on Saturday night, but it's better if you don't want to get there quickly. The Acura RSX Type-S is a pure driver's car, but you have to drive it so hard that it can wear you out.
For us, the Mini Cooper S is the best of these cars. Completely utilitarian yet utterly stylish, the Mini Cooper S is the most personal expression you can buy for twenty-five grand, especially because its broad range of accessories ensures that no two cars are alike. Meanwhile, it drives like sports cars that are three times more expensive and turns every trip into an adventure.
The design guys have reminded us with these sporty cars that it's possible to make big-time style available to everyone, and the Mini Cooper S proves how great the result can be.