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Rumble Seat 

TUCSON, Ariz.--By astronomical dictate, June 23 is the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. This date often occasions wild, sun-worshipping celebrations by primitive and superstitious tribes, like Californians.

Fortunately, Mitsubishi dealers should be fully stocked with the new 2001 Eclipse Spyder, a 2+2 gamma-ray collector based on the company's freshly redesigned sport coupe.

For Mitsubishi, these are heady times, well worth a pagan sacrifice or two. Annual sales in the United States expanded 37 percent to 261,254 in 1999, making it the fastest growing Japanese nameplate--never mind that much of its core product, like the Eclipse and Galant, are built in Normal, Ill. And more to come: At the Chicago Auto Show, the company announced Project America, an effort to base next generations of the Montero Sport, Galant and Eclipse off a single platform tooled at the Illinois facility.

For now, the Eclipse coupe, limned in brand-identifying "geo-mechanical" strakes and simplified arches, is flying off the shelves so fast that there is a shortfall of 3.0-liter V6 engines. The top-line powerplant represents 50 percent of the Eclipse mix; the hot mill in the previous generation, the turboed 2.2-liter, accounted for only 15 percent of sales. Confirming our suspicion that the new coupe comes off as more mature and masculine (the curvaceous Eclipse of yore got tagged as a chick car), the median age of Eclipse buyers is up from 28 to 33, and male buyers represent 51 percent of customers, up from 41 percent.

The Eclipse was engineered as a coupe and convertible, so the Spyder's drop-top conversion is a rather minor procedure. Unlike the previous generation, whose top was added after the car left the assembly line, the new Spyder is cobbled together alongside the coupe. On the line, reinforcing steel is added around the cabin as well as strut tower braces in the front and rear, making the new Spyder 60 percent stiffer in bending rigidity and 10 percent stiffer in torsional rigidity than the previous edition.

One of the things we liked best about the coupe was its overall gravitas, its dense materiality, hefty and solid doors and taut presence of the chassis. Not quite as fiercely stiff, the Spyder can fall prey to petty cowl shake and shudders over rough pavement, of which there is a plenitude in John McCain's glorious homeland.

The weight penalty for the Spyder is a modest 100 pounds, not enough to affect performance appreciably, at least not in the GT model, powered by the 200-hp, 200-foot-pound multivalve six; The GS, which we didn't drive, is powered by a carry-over engine, the 2.4-liter, balance shaft-equipped in-line four found in baseline coupes, producing 147 hp and 158 foot pounds of torque. We daresay the GS will feel a little logy in cabrio form.

As a nod to enthusiast drivers, the coupe's excellent five-speed manual transmission is standard on both GS and GT Spyder models. Both models can also be had with the company's four-speed automatic with adaptive-logic. Additionally, this transmission can be mated with the Sportronic Sequential Shift gate. Unlike some manumatics, the Sportronic will not force a shift at redline, but instead allows the fuel cut-off to intervene to save the valves. Sportronic works fine, but it is a pale substitute for the dexterous five-speed.

Inside, the coupe's handsome and serenely technical aesthetic remains unchanged. The cockpit is spacious yet comfortably enclosing. The compartment in which the top is stowed doesn't affect the 20-degree rake of the rear seatback, as opposed to the bolt-upright position of before. Rear legroom is up an inch over the previous Spyder, so that it is possible to fold a complaisant 6-foot-4 journalist into the back seat with a minimum of unmanly wailing. The Spyder's increase of 2 inches in wheelbase pays off particularly in truck space, up 2.1 cubic feet. The only real casualty in Operation Spyder is the loss of the ski pass-through, standard on the coupe.

The three-layer, headliner-equipped power top includes a natural rubber layer that, according to Mitsubishi, remains more pliable in extreme weather than the commonly used butyl. The rear window is defrost-wired glass. Two small electric motors handle the raising duties. Once the top is installed, the car's windows are raised and the twin-lip rubber gaskets are custom-fitted for better wind and weather deflection.

Out on the hot and dusty trails of southern Arizona, the top stayed put like a Tupperware lid, failing to billow or loft at triple-digit speeds. The four aluminum bows allow plenty of headroom, though they fail to capture the same pure curvature of the hardtop, so the Spyder's top-up looks suffer a little.

Never mind. Only Nosferatu would want to keep the top up, anyway. Lowering the top requires only a flip of the ski boot-like latches on the headliner, then 15 seconds of button-pressing. The top stack piles up fairly high above the rear decklid. The Spyder comes with one of those S&M rubber tonneau covers, which are fun at parties.

In other respects, the Spyder mirrors the equipment in the coupe: The suspension, MacPherson struts with offset coils up front, multilink in the rear, remains unchanged, as do the diameters of the stabilizer bars front and rear. Sixteen-inch alloy rims are standard on the GS, while 17-inchers serve under the GT. Four-wheel, four-channel ABS presides over the four disc brakes (10.9-inch in front, 10.3-inch in the rear of the GT).

Stock and standard goodies abound, including a comes-with 210-watt Infinity sound system that will crush your head like a walnut. The leather package is bundled with a six-disc in-dash CD changer. The Premium Package includes a four-disc in-dash CD changer with cassette, as well as such high-end goodies as power driver's seat, the Sportronic transmission and side airbags.

The full Monty Spyder GT tops out at $28,887 (base MSRP is $25,237), while the fully equipped GS runs $24,337 (a base of $23,347). Ah, to be young and have an unblemished credit record.

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