SAN FRANCISCO - Nice as they were, the Ford Probe, Isuzu Impulse, Mazda MX-6, Nissan 240SX, Subaru XT and the VW Corrado all disappeared from the sporty coupe market, a segment with attractive entries but lousy sales of late.
Likewise, Honda Prelude and Toyota Celica sales are soft. And General Motors Corp. appears set to end the Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro lines.
Then there's the Mitsubishi Eclipse.
Other car companies are backing away from the sporty coupe segment in this era of trucks and SUVs. But Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America Inc. (MMSA) is marching forward with its edgy new 2000 Eclipse.
The upcoming new model is a third generation of a car which debuted in 1989 and was first redone in 1995.
Mitsubishi Motors' Cypress, CA design studio created the coupe's new sculpted look. They call it "geo-mechanical." It takes cues directly from the automaker's SST concept car.
That includes an arty roof design and horizontal door groves. The chassis structure is all-new, too.
2000 Eclipse engines are more powerful than before, both in horsepower and torque.
"Buyers in the U.S. prefer torque," Steve Kosowski, the Eclipse's senior product planner, says at a 2000 Eclipse press debut in San Francisco.
Engine choices are a 2.4L 4-cyl. SOHC with 147 hp and an optional 3.0L SOHC V-6 with 205 hp. The former replaces a 2.0L DOHC, the latter, a 2.0L Turbo 4-cyl. DOHC.
MMSA bills the V-6 Eclipse as the replacement vehicle for the departing 3000 GT, a luxury performance car that looked good on the street but did terribly in the showroom, selling just 4,164 units in all of 1998. That's down from a high of 15,230 units in 1994 when Dodge re-branded it as the Dodge Stealth.
"We stayed with the 3000 GT for a long time," says Kim Custer, MMSA public affairs director.
Eclipse sales in 1998 totaled 57,955 units, a drop of about 1% from year-ago.
Mitsubishi executives say they expect the 2000 Eclipse will reverse that trend, and surpass the 60,000-unit mark. The Eclipse is the company's most popular model.
"The 2000 Eclipse did better in clinics than any product we've ever had," says Pierre Gagnon, COO and executive vice president of MMSA. "The scary part is that customers think it's a $30,000 car. So we have somewhat of a communications problem to deal with there."
In fact, the price ranges from $17,697 for the RS model to $21,187 for the V-6 GT version. Additional premium packages and accessories such as a sunroof and spoiler can cost up to $3,500 more.
The Eclipse's few remaining competitors in the sporty sedan segment include the Mercury Cougar and the Acura Integra.
Mr. Gagnon notes that MMSA's parent company lost money last year for the first time in its history. So did MMSA.
"Obviously, that's a shock...," he says. "I must say I was very nervous last year."
But he says the company is back in the black. Sales increased eight of the last nine months and "this could be a record sales year," he says.
Meanwhile, he says Mitsubishi is redoing stores with a new image and the technology to go with it.
He explains, "The customer base is very Internet-savvy, very informed, and customers will be able to get that information when they walk into a store."
In the past, MMSA has focused a lot on conquest sales. It now plans to do more with its customer base to keep the buyers it already has, says Mr. Gagnon.
"Three years from now our dealership network will be completely different," he says.
Mitsubishi's U.S. dealer ranks currently stand at 500 with 100 open points across the country, mainly in major centers.
"Our strategy is not to grow by adding many more dealers," says Mr. Gagnon. "We went on an adding-dealers kick in 1989, and added some when we shouldn't have."
Mitsubishi dealers are not as profitable as Toyota and Honda counterparts, "but we're working on that," he says.