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2011 Mitsubishi Eclipse. (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
2011 Mitsubishi Eclipse. (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

2011 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS

Eclipse hard to get a handle on Add to ...

Mitsubishi's Eclipse Coupe and its soft-top Spyder sibling return for 2011 - after a 2010 model year hiatus - with only some minor exterior and interior alterations but some significant improvements in the handling department that up their sportiness quotient considerably.

This fourth generation of the Eclipse, which arrived for the 2007 model year and was freshened in 2009, has always looked great; a compact and condensed visual package that really looks the sports coupe or convertible part.

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And these front-drive four-seaters have always delivered on performance and price, available in affordable and fast-enough four-cylinder GS form, starting at $24,498 for the coupe or $33,295 for the more potent and pricier 265-hp, V-6 GT-P. The Eclipse Spyder GS is priced at $30,498 and the GT-P at $33,998.

Inside the 2011 Mitsubishi Eclipse.

The four-banger versions, however, came up a bit short in terms of mechanical refinement and handling that would have lived up to the promise of their sports car looks. The mechanically unchanged 2011 GS still lacks the former, but one essentially minor tweak and an equipment upgrade have certainly sharpened its handling edge.

The 2.4-litre, single-overhead-cam, four-cylinder engine motivates the GS with a matching 162 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. Not bad numbers, only really eclipsed by the similarly priced Hyundai Genesis coupe's 210 hp. Other coupes that might be seen as rivals get by with 140-hp-plus.

But this big-ish four spins up on the key with a not particularly pleasant mechanical clatter and when it lights emits a harsh, hollow, breathy sound from its exhaust system - that to be fair I suppose, some might deem sporty. This motor doesn't come across as a particularly enthusiastic revver either, although it does distribute its torque over a broad enough range.

The shifter for the five-speed manual gearbox helps, clicking off quick and neat gear changes. And if you have a heavy-enough right foot and a deft right wrist to flick between ratios, the Eclipse will scoot down the road quickly enough to be interesting. It did take a little while to get into the car's shifting rhythm around town, though. The revs hang up irritatingly between shifts and getting everything in sync required a little familiarity.

And despite (newly standard for 2011) stability and traction control systems, poking the throttle hard un-weights the front end, causing the tires to easily lose their grip, noticeably so on damp pavement. The front suspension also loses its composure under hard straight-ahead launches, exhibiting rampant axle-tramp.

The Eclipse's structure appears stiff enough and the McPherson strut front and multilink rear, with a strut tower brace up front and anti-roll bars at both ends, sounds up to the job, but something - geometry, damping? - needs sorting out.

All Mitsubishi has done to make a significant improvement in the Eclipse's handling for 2011 is simply lower it by 15 mm and fit fatter tires. But these two things, combined with quick-ish ratio steering that has acceptable feel and firm springing, has resulted in enthusiastic new levels of response.

The tires are now P235/45 R18 (versus the 2009 model's P225/50R17) performance-oriented all-seasons mounted on wide 18-inch alloy rims. This generous amount of rubber allows the Eclipse to change directions with improved agility and precision.

At sensible speeds on a back road, it's good fun and would likely acquit itself well at a track day or not kill too many cones at an autocross event. Brake pedal feel is progressive and the system will handle any driving they're likely to be exposed to on the street without complaint.

Getting into the Eclipse's sporty-looking and well-bolstered front seats requires only minor contortions but the tighter (but just usable) rear quarters require some limberness. Space under the hatch is a useful 445 litres.

The interior layout is conventional and basic, but nicely done with a leather-wrapped wheel and some brightwork to up the tone level. Equipment is what you'd expect for 25 grand, the audio and climate control systems work well and it's quiet enough at speed. There's a wide array of airbags, too. Ride can be a little harsh over broken surfaces, but isn't punishing. Outside mirrors are located too far rearwards for shorter drivers.

You can upgrade with a $3,300 package that adds a sunroof and Rockford Fosgate audio system, steering-wheel controls, temp readout and compass, auto-dimming mirror and rear-view camera.

A very sporty-looking little coupe that offers decent enough performance, handling and interior amenities, but which is getting overdue for a remake to bring it to a higher level of mechanical sophistication.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

2011 Mitsubishi Eclipse GS

Type: Sports coupe

Base Price: $24,498; as tested, $25,848

Engine: 2.4-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 162 hp/162 lb-ft

Drive: Front-wheel

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.6 city/7.4 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Hyundai Genesis Coupe, Kia Koup, Ford Focus Coupe, Honda Civic Coupe, Chevrolet Cobalt Coupe

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