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Booty Call

2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse Price: From $19,399 www.mitsucars.com

Those of us who pay attention to car design are rarely brokenhearted when a production model looks nothing like its concept-vehicle namesake. As automakers run the gauntlets of manufacturing feasibility, safety, and cost management to produce a saleable product, forward-thinking design language becomes part of a commercial pidgin, if it is retained at all. But sometimes a car sneaks by somewhat unmolested—you just don’t expect it from a company with plummeting sales and everything to lose.

At the 2004 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the flailing Mitsubishi Motors unveiled its Concept E, the idealized predecessor of the reworked Eclipse due out the following year. After the lasers were turned off and the smoke cleared, a bright copper-colored, low-slung wraith emerged, and it made tongues wag.

The car’s wide, raised hindquarters suggested powerful rear wheels; connected to the rest of the car by a narrow steel waist, the car’s haunches seemed ready to snap into motion. The sultry front windshield was enormous and melted into the all-glass greenhouse. This meld disappeared into the rear end, which, pointing upward, pulled the car’s line over the rear axle like taut skin over a muscular body. Gargantuan front-wheel arches stretched the headlights into a snarl.

The Eclipse has been Mitsubishi’s most successful car for the past 20 years, so nobody expected the struggling Japanese automaker, which recorded a loss of $4.4 billion in fiscal 2004, would gamble its North American future by letting this concept design amount to anything but a fever dream. The real Eclipse, we all knew, might feature one or two elements from the prototype in a watered-down, inoffensive sprucing-up of the existing model. It certainly would not be a direct descendant of the car Automobile magazine called “Frog Spawn on Wheels.”

But when the sheet was lifted at the production Eclipse’s unveiling the following January, it looked sexy as hell. Though it wasn’t as audacious as the Concept E, almost every change was justified, and faithful to the fantasy car’s themes. The overall impression was still of a mean street-eater: the formidable hindquarters intact, the windshield still giant. It was even the same color as the concept.

The main difference is in the front end, which was toned down to accommodate reality: Law mandates a bumper. Though concealed beneath a curvy plastic shroud, the safety feature elongates the hood and mellows the Concept E’s snarl into a frown. Where the ancestor’s fascia sloped into a pointed, flat-bottomed front splitter—a fierce under-bite that conjured the image of a lion feasting on the road—the descendant’s nose simply ends.

Moving astern, you’ll notice the production version’s significantly less dramatic wheel arches: These greatly change the way the front windshield works with the hood. On the concept, the fierce lines made for a jarring, but sublime, transition. The Eclipse still maintains some of that spirit, but what was a lion’s fat-cheeked maw has become an Elvis-like lip curl. The headlights also fell victim to reality, their lines purloined by nagging annoyances such as turn signals.

The pinched wasp’s waist is no more, which unfortunately erases the forceful separation between the rear and middle sections. Gone, too, is the rear windshield’s gentle slope, which gave the Concept E frontward weighting and a sense of forward acceleration.

The rear end, in all its callipygian glory, is a straight handoff from the Concept E. Though the funky, segmented exhaust vents are gone in favor of a single pipe, the view from behind still eludes any automotive precedent. That the Eclipse holds onto its predecessor’s beautiful backside saves the car from looking like a refresh instead of a redesign.

Mitsubishi was able to stay true to the Concept E’s ambitions, and that saves the company from looking like a dying giant gasping for a few more moments of life. Even toned down, the Eclipse is an attention getter—and not just visually: Only after a weekend with the 263-horsepower Eclipse GT was I able to accelerate from a standstill without peeling out. Maybe it was the screeching tires, but even though my time with the eye-catching coupe came two months before it was available, not a single woman sauntered up and whispered “nice car.” But men approved loudly.

Joe Brown is an associate editor at Popular Science.