What oriental strangeness is this?
Mitsubishi's FTO, that's what, and it's more lively than juggling swords with the Yakusa in a karaoke bar.
Words by Brett Fraser
Photography by Peter Robain - (these *may* follow)
Finally, the tacho needle nudges the 8200rpm rev limiter, and all of a sudden the blurry, distant corner is a sharply focused cause for concern. I've been so wrapped up in reaching the limiter, (not an easy task), I haven't clocked just how quickly the speed has built up. Time for a modest bout of panic braking.
Fortunately the brakes take a huge bite out of the entry speed, and what initially seems like a minor emergency, turns into a half-reasonable approach to the corner.
It's an important lesson learned in the study of the Mitsubishi FTO GPX, a compact and rapid 2.0-litre V6 coupe, currently available as a special import only through London-based Intercar. And that lesson is that the FTO isn't a car you just jump into and expect to get the best out of: nope, you have to work hard at getting it on the pace. But if you do work hard, it'll play hard, and after a good thrash you'll lock the car knowing you had a good time.
Many Japanese sportsters can be driven instantly to the limit by Mr. Bean, but before the wheels stop turning you realise you'd gladly trade some of the poke for more of a partnership with the car.
It's strange, in a way, that the FTO should be like this, because Mitsubishi isn't exactly well-known for producing 'driver's' cars - its mutha-coupe, the 3000 GT, bristles with more computer-controlled gadgetry than you can wave a mouse mat at, but for all its force and firepower, leaves you cold.
The FTO is less of a technological marvel than its big brother (although, as I'll outline in a sec, it does have a clever engine), and is all the better for it. It's a Fiat coupe rival, and is almost as striking to gawp at. Like the zany Italian, it's special, and looks like nothing else in its class. That said, you can spot the influence of the Porsche 928 around the tail lights, and the headlamps could have been lifted from the Ferrari F512M.
It's a tidy size, the FTO, narrower than a Rover 220 Coupe, and about as long: it looks like a pygmy supercar. Fortunately you don't have to be one of the little people to drive it, because although the cabin's of cosy dimensions, even our 6ft 2in lensman, Peter Robain, is able to get comfortable.
Whereas some European coupes share facias with their saloon or hatchback counterparts (BMW 3 Series, Vauxhall Calibra, Renault Megane), the FTO's is unique and continues the sporty exterior theme. So perched centrally on top of the dash are a pair of auxiliary dials in a hooded binnacle, and a 'transmission tunnel' separates driver and passenger, even though the car's front-wheel drive. The sportiness is neither oversold or underdone.
Finding a good driving position is easy, then it's time to fire up the little V6 24-valve, 2.0-litre engine. Mazda makes a smaller V6 than this, a 1.8, but what's remarkable about the Mitsubishi motor is that it pokes out 200bhp. Yep, that's 200bhp. From a mere 1998cc. Part of what makes this output possible is a variable valve timing system, called MIVEC (Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing and lift Electronic Control System). It's similar to Honda's VTEC system in that it alters both the valve timing and the amount of valve lift by using different sets of cam lobes - a mild set for better low-end torque, and a wilder set kicking in for top-end thrust. But the FTO's engine is even smarter than Honda's VTEC: it also gets what's called a modulated displacement facility, which stops the cams working in two of the four (eh!?) cylinders for improved fuel efficiency in low speed urban driving.
As with VTEC, the system might sound like it could run for President, but it's not perfect. Below 2000rpm there's next-to-nothing going on. From there up to about 5250rpm, the performance starts to build more noticeably, but still at a dawdling pace. At 5250rpm, or thereabouts, the naughtier lobes begin doing their thing, although there's not such a marked step up in performance or engine note as there is in a VTEC Honda. That rather fools you into thinking that the action's never going to happen, but suddenly, there you are, engine shrieking at maximum rpm, and that corner a lot closer than you thought it was.
Keeping the engine in the upper reaches of its power-band is the trick, the challenge, even, of hard-charging in the FTO, because there's no torque to rely on, as there is, say, in a VW Corrado VR6. But keep the thing zinging and you'll rip along at heart-racing pace; sure, it's hard work, but it's worth the concentration and effort. In fact, having to think about what you're doing makes you feel more in touch with the car, a crucial element of the FTO's appeal.
Excellent steering and lively handling put further ticks in the FTO's credit box. Not only is the steering accurate and quick, it's got a really chunky feel around the straight-ahead, a rarity in these power-assisted times. As for the handling, it starts off with modest understeer, before settling into a nicely balanced, neutral state, and then, if you're really determined or are simply going too fast, the tail will nudge wide; lifting off mid-corner produces the latter effect, without having to bother with the former.
There's more body roll than you'd expect of a car which looks like the FTO does, but then again the ride quality is much better than you'd expect of a car looking like this.
While the ritzy Mitsubishi isn't right up there at the top of the coupe league - the Fiat Coupe and VW Corrado VR6 outclass it - it is among the Highly Desirables. For someone looking for something a bit different, it could be the ideal choice.
So far, the only way to get an FTO is through personal import company Intercar - Nick or Simon Lerner will be more than happy to sell you an FTO GPX for £25,800 (My, how times have changed!), (tel: 0181 203 3399).
Meanwhile, it seems likely Mitsubishi will start bringing in small numbers of FTOs itself (in 1996 - really!?).
Go on lads, you know it makes sense!
||200bhp @ 7500rpm
||147lb ft @ 6000rpm
|Date on sale
||Now, from Intercar