What I'm Driving At

Nobody buys a two-door sport coupe because it's the practical thing to do. The attraction of a sport coupe is its fun factor. By the very nature of their architecture, sport coupes are lighter and more nimble than sedans with comparable engines; they tend to accelerate faster and brake shorter too. In terms of styling, they're the show-offs of the auto world--and that's another essential aspect of their appeal.In short, a sport coupe often serves as a manufacturer's performance and styling showcase. If the emphasis is on high performance, however, a high price is the predictably equal and opposite reaction. Some automakers recognize that not all car buyers can afford--or are willing to buy--the very best sporting hardware; but if the price is right, many will settle for just looking sporty and call it a day. Apparently, such is the marketing justification behind Chevrolet's Camaro RS and Mitsubishi's 3000GT. In comparison to their significantly more muscular siblings, both of these sporty cars feature denatured V6 power at an affordable price (always a relative term). But to look at them, with their sexy frocks and suggestive spoilers, their claddings and snouts, they're the image of exuberance--performance incarnate.In other words, both of these coupes know how to strike a pose. Mitsubishi's 3000GT is one of the contemporary auto world's most extreme expressions of flash and dash: Scoops and nacelles swirl and flare; feline headlights glare from behind leering, transparent eyelids; a basket-handle spoiler is poised and taut--ready for the 200-plus mph speeds that require such a degree of aerodynamic downforce. With a scant 161 horsepower, of course, the base model 3000GT won't be taking flight anytime soon; but, as they say, 'tis better to have and not need....For its part, Camaro--classic, venerable, 30-year-old Camaro--has helped define the all-American performance image ever since Chevy unveiled the first one in '67. The RS (for Rally Sport) appearance package was born the same year to provide a styling compensation for V6-equipped Camaros outmuscled by the V8-powered Z28 model. From its bulging, sinewy origins, Camaro's styling has evolved gracefully into today's sweeping ballistic shape. The RS body trimmings add a discreet eyebrow spoiler over the trunk lid, chunky side cladding under each door, and a vaguely sinister air dam up front that appears ready to draw the entire car down in a road-hugging vacuum. In reality, though, it's ready to chip and break at every sproing against sidewalk or curb.With a remarkable duplication of purpose, Mitsubishi and Chevrolet have each configured a sporty coupe that, in deference to price, combines emphatic style with diluted pep. There the similarity ends--in virtually every way. The Mitsubishi 3000GT is a questionable attempt to make less out of more; the Camaro RS, to turn less into more. The Mitsu is a front-wheel-drive "puller" in search of a motivating force; the Camaro, a rear-drive "pusher" that has definitely found its niche.Mitsubishi's challenge--which it ultimately fails--is to safeguard some of its assertive image with at least a hint of performance. The three-liter, single-overhead-cam V6, which this base-model sport coupe borrows from the new Montero Sport SUV, is simply insufficient for the job. The aforementioned 161 horsepower manages only an ambling gait that, in contrast to the car's styling overstatement, is almost comical. Granted, it's easy to drive; in fact, the combination of quick-revving throttle response and the car's positive, crisp-shifting five-speed is definitely its main achievement. But while you're shifting up the scale, there's not a lot of scenery passing by the window. This is a far cry from the car's role model, the 320-horsepower 3000GT VR-4, whose twin-turbo powerplant needs four-wheel-drive just to harness all its gumption.But the point is supposed to be price, you say. Granted, compared to the VR-4's sticker of $45 grand, the 3000GT looks a lot better at $28,195 (as tested). Yes, the optional 10-CD changer is nice (although the stereo system overall is a little bass-heavy); yes, the cockpit is comfy and chock full of conveniences (although the front seat belts incite a brief tug-o-war each time you want to secure them). And yes, the car even handles quite well, thanks to its wide track, indy suspension, and low center of gravity (although preserving momentum takes precedence over pushing the limits of traction when cornering). What's unclear, however, is why the Camaro RS can equal or surpass the lion's share of these same accomplishments for $6,250 less--at an as-tested price of $21,945, to be exact.Take the Camaro's 3.8-liter V6, for example; it makes a healthy 200 horsepower that's rich in acceleration-boosting torque. Its pushrod design doesn't have the Mitsu's quick-rev personality, and its power is sapped a bit when mated to an optional four-speed automatic transmission; but even so, the Camaro is stout where the Mitsu is slack. The superior feel of rear-wheel-drive only emphasizes the point. The Camaro's ride is less sophisticated, and uneven surfaces tend to fluster the car's handling; but there's a visceral, virile feel that's, well, sporty--which is sorta the point, isn't it?The characteristic GM-ishness of the interior is inescapable, of course; you sit on--not in--a Camaro's front buckets. There's that infuriating bulge under the front passenger floorboard (to accommodate a catalytic converter). Knobs and other switchgear are Cro-Magnon compared to some of the gee-whiz layouts from Japan and Europe; by the same token, it takes only one guess to figure out how everything works.One driver's sport coupe is another driver's sled, so it's really a matter of taste whether one prefers the unfettered versions of Mitsubishi's exemplary 3000GT VR-4 or Chevrolet's gut-wrenching Camaro Z28. Each of these honest-to-goodness sport coupes certainly has its partisans. It doesn't follow, however, that a successful hi-po sports coupe will automatically translate into a low-po, bottom-dollar facsimile. Ultimately, there's a simple reason why the Camaro RS succeeds where the base-model 3000GT doesn't: When performance takes a backseat, it's price--not panache--that matters more.

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