Is Mitsubishi Testing the Waters Again with the Eclipse.

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If you arrive late at a party, then you either need to make a grand entrance or slink in through the back and pretend to have been there from the start. The Eclipse Cross takes the low-key approach. It feels pretty much like the encapsulation of the segment averages, although that could be welcome news for the Mitsubishi dealers who have been struggling to sell the subpar Outlander and Outlander Sport. I have for quite some time tried to study the modern car engineering but it keeps giving me headaches as most of the new brands and models only last for a few years after all those years and design and testing. Some car names die too soon, others cling to life with the tenacity of cockroaches, and a few even return from the dead.  That’s the case with the new cars badged as an Eclipse, The mostly undistinguished two-door once built at Diamond-Star Motors, a Mitsubishi/Chrysler joint venture. There were rabid fans of the earlier iterations, but the final, 2012-model-year Eclipse is unlikely to find itself referenced in online lists of.

The Future of Crossover, its moniker, however, obviously possessed enough marketing for Mitsubishi to resurrect it for this new crossover: the Eclipse Cross. The official excuse for the name is the sloping roofline, which, the company reckons, means this qualifies as one of those coupe/crossovers, a less expensive variation on the theme established by the BMW X6. A dual-pane sunroof offers to bring more light into the cabin, but eats deeply into available head space.

Despite Mitsubishi’s claims that the Eclipse Cross represents a radical new direction for the brand, it’s fair to say the similarities it shares with the Outlander Sport and the Outlander are more marked than the differences, especially when it comes to its design. The front graphic seems to channel both the Lexus NX and the shiny dental work of Richard Kiel’s Jaws character from the James Bond films. Beyond that, pretty much all is generic crossover, including the gray plastic wheel-arch cladding, which must have once seemed like an original idea. It slots between the Outlander Sport and the Outlander in the hierarchy, sharing its 105.1-inch wheelbase with both, its 173.4-inch overall length splitting the difference between them. Novelty, such as it is, comes from a new downsized power plant: a turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-four with the internal code 4B40, an aluminum block and head, variable valve timing, and direct injection.

It is well expected that the power plant in the hood will not be enticing for most of the USA market and they declines to provide U.S. specs for this engine, yet it does say this will be the only mill on offer. The Europe standard production car claims 161 horsepower at a low-flying 5500 rpm, accompanied by 184 lb-ft of torque available from 1800 rpm. It’s possible the U.S. version will have a modest increase in the power figure. A trend that we see all over the brands in the U.S. markets.

It might have it sportive side in some markets, as they will be getting a six-speed manual gearbox for the basic front-drive version, all U.S.-market cars will use a standard continuously variable automatic transmission, with the separate option of all-wheel drive. Mitsubishi describes this as Super All-Wheel Control, the same name given to the clever torque-tweaking system it offered on the Lancer Evolution X (the company even puts a sticker on the rear window to boast about it). But the two systems are entirely unrelated: The Eclipse Cross’s is part-time with a clutch on the rear axle, and it can divert up to 45 percent of available torque rearward when slip is detected at the primary drive axle, which is the front one.

The novel element is a liftgate with two separate glass parts, allowing a rakish roofline without impinging on rear-seat practicality. This makes for a rear aspect reminiscent of the Toyota Prius or the less charitably Pontiac Aztek. Although it looks as if visibility should be compromised, actual vision through the rearview mirror is barely diminished from what you’d find with a one-piece rear window.

Perceived quality in the interior moves up by a couple of notches when compared with the Outlander—and a couple of dozen notches over the cheapo cabin of the Outlander Sport. But it still majors in dark, hard plastics, and much of the switchgear has been relegated to the hard-to-see lower areas of the dashboard. The tech factor is high, with our fully loaded test car having a 7.0-inch touchscreen, a 360-degree-view camera system, adaptive cruise control, and a head-up display that projects onto a pop-up plastic reflector atop the instrument cluster. There’s also a touchpad controller between the seats, similar in feel to Lexus’s Remote Touch Interface and similarly fiddly to operate. The top-spec infotainment system we tested has both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, but it doesn’t have any native navigation system.

Like most turbocharged small-displacement fours, the new engine delivers its best at low rpm, with little discernible lag and impressive initial urge when stepping off the line. This comes at the expense of feeling tight and breathless at higher revs; even with the gas pedal pressed against the firewall, the little engine won’t willingly venture beyond its 5500-rpm power peak, although the tachometer’s redline is marked at 6000 rpm. The CVT is decent enough by the standards of such things, with programmed stepped ratios to cut down on the food-processor impression when hard acceleration is requested. But these pretend ratios are convincing only under gentle use; the gearbox slurs upshifts at higher revs, even if you choose to take control by using the manual mode. The combination of the non-gearbox and the torquey engine also created some surging at low speeds—there’s little idle creep and the car tends to lunge as soon as the throttle is pressed.

We didn’t get to drive the front-wheel-drive version, although the AWD system managed to find all the traction it needed on the smooth Spanish asphalt where our test drive took place, rarely being called upon to send torque aft. There was no chance to try the switchable Gravel or Snow modes. All-wheel drive perhaps mitigated the Eclipse Cross’s tendency toward understeer as its modest limits approach, and the electrically assisted steering is almost entirely devoid of road feel. On the plus side, ride quality was pliant over the few bumps we could find, and cruising refinement was good at highway speeds.

The Eclipse Cross is well constructed and well equipped, and it feels entirely capable of coping with the duty cycles that will be asked of it, but it does all this with little distinct personality beyond “unexceptional crossover.” While Mitsubishi’s recent absorption into the automaking Borg that is the Renault-Nissan alliance will doubtless add engineering expertise, what the brand really needs is an infusion of character.

The Eclipse Cross packs in more features than many in its price range, but a strange touchscreen-touchpad duo highlights the crossover’s inherent conflict. The features are helpful, but not substantially intuitive and have limited usefulness.

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