MOAPA, Nev. -- A sand-swept strip of pavement zigzags through the Nevada desert chiseled between rows of raw-rock peaks near the Moapa River Indian Reservation.
Steering the ultimate cool coupe concept from Mitsubishi of Japan, tweaked in torque and tuned with lively suspension settings plus a malleable automated manual transmission on tap, we comb the map for the most snaky course possible to take us from the neon gulch of Las Vegas to the red boulders and yellow sands of a raw desert.
What we seek is a severe road challenge -- hard curves, big bumps, flats for speed and long grades to power up.
What we discover is a course that exceeded every expectation -- but so does Mitsubishi's final issue of the Eclipse sporty 2+2 coupe trimmed in new SE special edition.
The final Eclipse?
After a 22-year run as Mitsubishi's iconic sports coupe in North America, Eclipse production ceases with the models of 2012.
Mitsubishi unleashed Eclipse in 1989 as a 1990 model with turbo-charged power in a small hatchback package which spawned descriptions like "pocket rocket" and "boy racer."
Construction of the first and all subsequent issues of Eclipse occurres at an Illinois plant. Building a Japanese car in the American heartland and lacing it with significant domestic equipment became the strategy for Mitsubishi to hedge rising car prices in U.S. dollars against Japan's yen.
In 1995, Mitsubishi's California designers pulled off a second-generation rendition for Eclipse and two years later applied curvy styling bulges up front. Then in Y2K the third design arrived.
The fourth and final design for Eclipse came in 2006 -- it was new from rails to roof with a wider track and longer wheelbase, a stiffer unibody structure, more room for riders in the cockpit and more spark from four-pack and six-pack engines.
That Generation 4.0 design for Eclipse extends to the conclusive models of 2012.
Designers at the Mitsubishi Research and Design Center in Cypress, Calif., created the sleek sheetmetal package for the final Eclipse and refer to the styling as geo-mechanical, with a blend of distinct geometric patterns and edgework from hard mechanical forms.
The body looks like designers took a chunk of metal molded in the shape of an aerodynamic egg, then mashed the top forward section to fashion a flat slope for the face and whittled away flanks to vertical planes, leaving rolled shoulders over round wells drilled for big wheels. They added a raked windshield which resembles the streamlined canopy of a screamer F-18 Hornet fighter jet, along with teardrop clear lenses at corners up front to shield pairs of gleaming projector headlamps.
The resultant fluid car body, daring and bold in a format guaranteed to delight the eye, dresses the 2012 Eclipse, which appears in four trim grades.
Eclipse GS is the bottom-price edition with a four-cylinder engine tied to a five-speed manual gearbox or optional four-speed automatic with Sportronic sequential shift control.
The single-cam 2.4-liter in-line-four has the Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing and lift Electronic Control (MIVEC) and produces 162 hp at 6000 rpm with 162 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
A short-throw manual stick moves effortlessly fore and aft, with smooth clutch engagement and easy down-shifts.
The four-speed automatic contains an adaptive controller tied to a computer which quickly learns a driver's habits and manipulates shift patterns to suit the driving style. With Sportronic manual mode, the shift lever slides laterally into a side gate, where to-or-fro stick action bumps up or down the gear ladder one notch at a time.
Eclipse GS-Sport model totes the 2.4-liter plant and four-speed automatic transmission. Standard equipment includes a sunroof, leather upholstery with heated front seats and power controls for the driver's seat, a rearview camera, Bluetooth hands-free phone connection, HID headlamps and foglamps, heated side mirrors and a 650-watt Rockford Fosgate premium audio system with nine speakers.
Eclipse SE special edition carries all content of the GS-Sport but wears special exterior features like black side mirrors and dark-finish alloy wheels.
Eclipse GT is the top trim rigged with a powerful MIVEC V6 and a five-speed electronic automatic transmission with Sportronic shifting.
The single-cam V6 displaces 3.8 liters and soars with 265 hp at 5750 rpm plus 262 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm.
The GT adds a large spoiler on the tail, aluminum scuff plates on door rails, leather seats with heat elements, automatic air conditioning, eight-way power controls for the driver's seat, alloy pedals, the sunroof and that Rockford Fosgate premium audio system.
Ride quality for Eclipse is comfortably smooth yet firm in a sporty manner. The independent suspension puts MacPherson struts up front with offset coil springs and a low-mount multi-link design in the rear with coil springs.
Steering -- with speed-sensitive power governing the rack and pinion mechanism -- reacts quickly and provides excellent feedback.
Brakes consist of big discs tied to an anti-lock brake system (ABS), electronic brake force distribution (EBD), active stability control (ACS) and traction control (TCL).
Mitsubishi's price points for the 2012 Eclipse begin at $19,499 for GS and $24,699 for new SE trim.