The cars we loved.
The sporty coupe market is a tight one around the world. Always falling in and out of fashion, manufacturers struggle to keep up with market trends more suited to fashion turnover cycles than auto design. Often global players are careful not to replicate any product in the same market. For Mitsubishi and its high volume sporty coupes, that meant that North America’s car would be different from that of most Asian markets. Whether or not we lost out depends on your preferences. We had our Eclipse and Japan had its FTO (Fresh Touring Coupe). With a funny name like that it could only be a Japanese market item (not to be confused with the sporty Galant FTOs from the 70’ which meant Fresco Turismo Omologato). The FTO was originally intended to be a Japan only car but strong demand in the UK the form of grey marketing prompted Mitsubishi to sell the car officially in parts of the UK and New Zealand of all places.
Why there was so much demand when any number of home-grown coupes offered better performance and arguably looks? The FTO was about the size of an Eclipse and shared a similar mission, but unlike the second generation Diamond Star cars, it could be had with a V6 that produced 197 hp at its most powerful and was right hand drive only. Otherwise, the model range was textbook Mitsubishi with an entry-level GS , and a middle and top GR and GPX respectively. The GR models were very similar to the Eclipse GS in that it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference from it and the top model GPX without close inspection.
The FTO was rather conventional in most aspects. It was a front wheel drive four passenger coupe that seated two comfortably. It was somewhat odd looking, with organic lines that recall the crossing of a bloated tadpole and the Nissan GTR. The design was certainly ahead of its time and counter to design trends of the 90’s. The odd proportions looked both clunky and substantial in a powerful sort of way. That might explain why it was intended to be a JDM product only, but would not explain the big demand in the UK on looks alone. The biggest departure from the US Eclipse was the configuration and engine line up. The FTO had a more proper coupe profile, in that it had a trunk vs. the hatch design of the Eclipse. It also featured a V6 engine vs. turbocharged fours. The Eclipse would abandon turbocharging for V6 power in 2002, shortly after the FTO was canceled.
Of the three basic versions, the GS was often stripped down stripped down with manual roll up windows and a 1.8 l four-cylinder engine. With 123 hp, it was the economy leader of the bunch. The two other models came with a 2.0 l V6s. At the time of production, it was one of the smallest sixes available (and still is). In the middle was the GR with 168 hp. Besides having larger wheels and fog lights, it came with all the standard kit that could be expected including power windows, air etc. The top model the GPX featured advance valve timing controls from the same 24 valve V6, but produced 197 hp. The small V6 would explain some of the car’s appeal in places where taxes are levied on cars with engines larger than 2 liters. There were very few cars in the world with V6s that small then or now. That distinction made the hot FTO the forbidden fruit of sports coupes in places like England where the taxes were more severe.
Vs. the Eclipse the FTO used more advance technology, especially in the use of its transmission. The 5 speed manual was standard Mitsubishi fare, but the automatic was a semi auto. Basically a Triptronic type system that allowed for steering wheel mounted shifts without a clutch or could be switched to a full auto operation. It was advanced in that it sensed the terrain and performed shifts accordingly. The Eclipse on the other hand had a simple 4 speed automatic system (the 5 speed manual systems were similar).
The FTO was lauded for its handling prowess. On paper the FTO looked impressive, but in actual practice it was slightly better than middle of the road in some ways and more suited as a grand tourer than all out street brawler. Even with its light weight and nearly 200 hp it was not the quickest car in its class with a 0 to 60 time of 7 seconds. The V6 engines allowed for a smooth uneventful power delivery all the way up to 140 mph top speed. By contrast turbo powered Eclipses were known for slight turbo lag and then a sudden rush of high revving power. The FTO, unlike the Eclipse was a more original design. It was never shared by any other car like the partnership that spawned the Eclipse. Despite its unique design and exclusivity, it was the turbocharged Eclipses that won the most acclaim for Mitsubishi in the 90’s coupe wars.
It’s arguable as to which looked better, but judging by sales alone the Eclipse was by far the hands down winner. The FTO was Japan’s Car of the Year in 1994, the year it enjoyed the highest sales numbers. A number of special edition cars were introduced following the award in 94′. Some tuned by race car drivers, others with special paint and plaques. Most special editions were based on the GPX model, which was replaced by the very lightweight, almost stripped down GPR after 1997. In 97’ a mild restyling enlarged the front air intake of all models, making them look slightly more aggressive.
Inside the use of cheap plastic persisted (just like the Eclipse) and was mostly untouched. Even after a few special editions, the numbers went down almost in half each year until the end in 2000. By that time the second generation Eclipse was about to wind down. There was a experimental electric version of the FTO called FTOEV which set a record in 1999 for traveling 1,200 miles in 24 hours. The lessons learned from the FTO were passed down to other cars in the Mitsubishi line, mostly its other sport coupe the Eclipse.
Perhaps one of the most influential role that the FTO played in the development of Mitsubishi’s other compact coupe was the move away from turbo fours to naturally aspirated sixes. The third generation Eclipse entered the scene with a V6 as its top engine option, just as the production of FTO’s was winding down. The change resulted in a more linear power delivery, but unlike the FTO the new Eclipse was heavier and has grown heavier ever since. A new FTO would be good about now, maybe it could re-introduce the lightweight tossible fun factor that used to be the central to the Eclipse, but for everyone this time.