I never believed the cliché about Americans having romances with cars until it happened to me. I'll never forget the first time I saw her. Crossing the parking lot of Loew's Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson, my eyes fell on a swoopy black Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder GT. I was immediately drawn to her sexy shape, strong V6 heart and come-hither lowered top. Without a word between us, I sensed the Spyder shared my lust and wanted nothing more than my hands wrapped tightly around her leather-skinned wheel.
I was staying at Loew's as a guest of Mistubishi. Selling automobiles in America has a lot to do with communicating brand image. We see cars as a means of personal expression as much as grocery haulers or commuting devices. Car makers understand this and know they can convey images to the public through writers like me. Automobile manufacturers' are fond of programs called "ride & drives." Scribes are flown to a cool location, installed in a swanky hotel and fattened on rich delicacies. They're shown a presentation detailing cars' engineering and styling features, given a route map and handed keys to the manufacturers' new pride and joy.
An outreach like this makes sense for Mitsubishi. Until quite recently, their course through the American marketplace was as eccentric as a shopping cart with a nutty front wheel. Seemingly unable to settle on what they're about, they've confused their brand image. Maybe Mitsubishi has been too busy to focus. They're one of the world's industrial giants, making everything from canned tuna to sea-going oil tankers. It's taken them awhile to appreciate the subtleties of the American market, but if you've seen one of their hip, new rock and roll commercials you know they're finally getting it. The 2001 Eclipse shows their new-found dedication--it's designed, built and sold only in America.
I checked into the hotel the night before my test drive. The room had two beds, each bearing eight pillows, making a grand total of sixteen fluff bags. Seems to be a trend--the more luxurious the hotel, the more pillows they stack up. I picked the bed near the window, threw seven percale-clad foam slabs on the floor and flopped.
The next morning, I was forced to return nine professionally cheery "Good mornings" before finally reaching the safety of the dining room, where, parched from all the greetings, I lunged for a glass of water. By my second day I'd invented a game of seeing how I could avoid returning the constant barrage of "hello's" and "how are ya's". There was the "cough and look away" strategy, the "intently counting my change" gambit, and my personal favorite, the "staring into space while spelunking a nostril" trick.
Mitsubishi's current ad slogan is "Wake up and Drive" and that's what they had planned for us, but not before sitting us down to a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh-squeezed orange juice and sliced melon. Afterwards we were escorted downstairs to the parking lot where a brace of shiny new Eclipse Spyders sat glistening in the sun, showing off shiny paint jobs and sassy curves. A roadrunner appeared as if on cue to ham it up for the photographers, but it couldn't distract me from the object of my affection - the sleek, black Spyder had to be mine. I lowered myself onto her softly-skinned leather bucket seat and grabbed the joystick. The Spyder purred with contentment as I pulled out of the hillside lot for a drive to the Saguaro National Monument. Rocketing through the desert at barely-legal speeds, listening to Lenny Kravitz sing about "flying away", I felt high, like I wanted to roar onto the highway and head for a California beach to watch the sunset with my new playmate.
But I had a route map to follow, so I focused on the job at hand and cut a groove through the winding roads outside Tucson. The rock-solid Spyder felt like it was carved from a single hunk of steel, which makes sense - instead of being a chopped conversion coupe, it's the first topless Eclipse to be designed and built as a convertible from scratch. Its rigid new structure gives the Spyder an in-touch-with-the-road feel that I can only describe as German. The car's high-end styling, triple-layer power top with glass back window, and 200 horsepower V6 offer a lot of value for its $25,000 price tag. One could easily pay an additional $15,000 for a European competitor.
It's the first Eclipse to be available with a V6, which means it's loaded with gobs of low-end torque and thus well suited to American driving styles. Five-speed manual transmissions are standard, but for those who'd rather not shift for themselves, there's an available Sportronic transmission which you can leave in full automatic mode or shift manually.
The Spyder V6 was a blast. I wanted to take it home. Badly. But the Mitsubishi people, as nice as they'd seemed up to that point, force-quit my budding relationship and handed me the keys to their all new 2001 Montero sport-ute.
After the low-slung, curve-hugging Spyder, piloting the high-riding, slab-sided Montero felt like driving a small metal building. Though its unibody and excellent suspension gave the truck a quiet, well-mannered highway ride, we headed into the desert for an off-road course. So off-road, that at one point the nose of the vehicle pointed downwards precipitously enough to lift a rear wheel off the ground. The sturdy Montero walked over it like speed bump. This is no "pavement-only" pretender, but a true off-road champ. Sold in 170 countries, the boxy brute boasts of 17 years of trophies from the grueling Paris-Dakar rally.
The 2001 model I drove is an all-new rig with a longer wheel base, more power and more comfort features. It drove like a champ and bumping along the off-road course was a kick, but I never felt "involved" with the Montero. Maybe that was impossible with my heart still longing for its first love, the Eclipse Spyder GT.