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Diamond Stars


Story By Alan Cesar

“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”—Shakespeare

William S. was right: If someone’s miserable enough, they’ll hop into bed with just about anyone. Loneliness has spurred many a rash action. And like the lonely man, in the mid-’80s Chrysler and Mitsubishi were sitting around, moping, waiting for someone—anyone—to knock on their dealership doors.

Chrysler had enjoyed a brief flash of popularity thanks to the K-car and all its spinoffs. The humble little K-car (and about a kajillion government dollars) had helped the manufacturer escape bankruptcy in the late 1970s. They had managed to milk the little platform for everything it was worth—and then some—but by 1985 they were running out of options.

Compared to Mitsubishi, however, Chrysler was on a roll. The Japanese company just didn’t have anything U.S. buyers were interested in, and they were having a harder time importing their vehicles because of “voluntary” import quotas. To protect the U.S. auto industry, Washington had strongly suggested Japanese carmakers limit the number of cars they imported. Toyota, Honda and Nissan quickly began building U.S. factories to sidestep the quotas, but Mitsubishi wasn’t ready. They didn’t have the capital, and they couldn’t raise it without selling more cars. It was a vicious circle.

Since both companies were staggering along like the last two people in a bar at closing time, it’s not too surprising they woke up one morning to find themselves in bed together.

DSM Is Born

Beneath the sharp body lines, engineers packed some serious technology, including all-wheel drive plus a turbocharged, twin-cam engine.

Considering the circumstances, both automakers appeared happy to be together, and the result of the union—Diamond Star Motors Division—promised to benefit both parents. Chrysler could expand its aging product line and borrow some nice engineering. Mitsubishi would sell more cars without worrying about pesky import quotas.

Both companies would be able to make the most of their limited resources by working together on design, engineering and manufacturing. Normal, Ill., was chosen to be the home of the joint venture, and construction on a new manufacturing plant began immediately, with plans to produce up to 240,000 cars a year.

While the girders were going up, Chrysler and Mitsubishi hunkered down to work out the details of the new, common design. Mitsubishi’s Galant sedan gave up its chassis (in shortened form), as well as engines, gearboxes and much of the suspension, and Mitsubishi handled most of the interior design and basic engineering. Chrysler did most of the exterior design.

By the end of 1989, production of the Diamond Star triplets—Plymouth Laser, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Eagle Talon—was in full swing. The Normal plant was cranking out quite a few Mitsubishi 3000GTs, Galants and Dodge Stealths, too. Each of the triplets was a near clone of the others, and each offered virtually identical trim packages, covering several different tiers: basic, decent, fast and Unholy Acceleration. Diamond Star was aiming to please everyone, from secretary to speed racer.

For economy-minded buyers, DSM offered a wheezy, normally aspirated, 92-horse, SOHC 1.8-liter engine. Typically coupled with an automatic, and in the hands of someone who wouldn’t know a shift point from needlepoint, these were thoroughly snooze-worthy cars, but they did offer a lot of style at a bargain price. Next up the ladder was a 2.0-liter, 135-horsepower, twin-cam engine, which was zippy, but not exactly ground-pounding.

And then there were the turbo models. Their 195 horses of boosted, twin-cam 2.0-liter engine suddenly turned the Diamond Stars into very serious cars.

Finally, Diamond Star had an ace up its sleeve in the form of a viscous coupling all-wheel-drive system. Grafted onto the turbo models, it produced awe-inspiring traction and acceleration. Nothing else in a Diamond Star’s class came close.

Suddenly, Chrysler and Mitsubishi were no longer lonely. The cheap and cheeky coupes were a hit, and a ready audience of buyers came courting. And why not? The new models looked like more expensive coupes and often outran them.

Quite simply, the turbo cars were among the fastest four-cylinder cars on the planet, and a pure performance bargain, too. Straight from the dealer, they could hit 140 mph and turn a quarter-mile in a tick under 15 seconds. With all-wheel-drive, they could hold on, too, as nothing short of an Audi quattro offered a comparable drivetrain—yet the Diamond Stars would outrun a quattro. For that matter, a top-line, turbo DSM would walk away from contemporary Mustangs and IROC Camaros, embarrassing many a V8 driver. With four wheels scrambling for traction, the little coupes could even out-sprint a Vette up to about 30 mph.

Demand for the cars was so great production could hardly keep up, and output at the Normal plant increased yearly. Originally, the AWD Talon was to be the only Eagle car produced, but a front-wheel-drive model was added to help keep up with the demand.

Shotgun marriages are usually short-lived, however, and the Diamond Star honeymoon was soon over. Chrysler sold out its share of the Normal plant in 1991, beginning a long, slow divorce. The Mopar boys weren’t in a hurry to back out—they didn’t mind the sales figures one bit—but they were slipping one foot out the door.

Meanwhile, the DSM cars just kept selling. For 1992, all three got a light facelift with faired-in headlights replacing the pop-up units and reworked, more aerodynamic bodywork. Buyers could also get anti-lock brakes with a limited-slip differential, a combination that hadn’t been offered together prior to that. A revised, tougher engine was introduced midyear.

Further upgrades came along in 1993, when the turbo models received bigger brakes. Chrysler backed out of the partnership a bit more, though: After sticking around long enough to help design the second generation, they pulled the plug on the relatively slow-selling Plymouth Laser, and busied themselves selling DSMs rather than designing them. They sold off their Mitsubishi holdings, effectively ending any active sort of partnership, and left Mitsubishi to it.

The second-generation cars—now just Eagle Talons and Mitsubishi Eclipses—followed the successful formula of the first generation, but managed to be both more aggressive and more accommodating than their predecessors. Released for the 1995 model year, these cars featured brasher bodywork covering a longer, lower, wider chassis. Turbo engines were chock full of enhancements, including a revised bottom end, a faster-spooling turbo, and an extra 15 horsepower.

Inside, the DSMs moved upscale, getting downright cushy compared to the lean and mean first generation. Surprisingly, curb weight was up only about 100 to 150 pounds, at about 3200 for the full-boat, AWD models. Top speed remained in the 140 mph range.

A convertible Spyder model was also offered at Mitsubishi dealerships beginning in 1996. The drop-top carried about 150 pounds of extra metal to reinforce it, and was offered with a base 2.4-liter, single-overhead-cam engine or the 2.0-liter turbo (but no all-wheel drive). Other than that, changes to the second generation were few, far between and generally minor—another face-lift for 1997, and that’s about it.

Like a husband asking for a divorce after he’s already moved out, Chrysler announced in 1996 that it had no intention of renewing the DSM partnership once the agreement ran out in 1999. The second-generation cars came to an end with the expiration of the original agreement, and that was that. Chrysler shut down the Eagle division altogether, and Mitsubishi decided to go it alone, introducing an all-new Eclipse which bore little resemblance to earlier DSM models. The third-generation Eclipse was moved “upscale,” and somewhere in the move it lost its turbo and all-wheel drive.

“If misery loves company, then triumph demands an audience.” —Brian Moore, Canadian-American novelist

Despite year-to-year changes, Diamond Star power came in two basic flavors: naturally aspirated and turbocharged.

For cars born of necessity, the DSMs were real winners for Mitsubishi and Chrysler, offering a nearly unrivaled blend of power, value and looks. Dealers sold them by the ton. The trick now, as the earliest models approach 15 years old, is to find the ones that weren’t sold to wild-eyed teenagers, or haven’t fallen down the neglected-used-car sinkhole.

Luckily, so many Diamond Stars hit the market that plenty of good ones are still available. They also continue to have a devoted audience and tremendous aftermarket support.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that all the DSM models have a few quirks potential buyers should be aware of, and in general they never reached the build quality Honda and Toyota owners take for granted. Good ones are out there, but so are a bunch of ragged, worn-out money pits.

With so many variations available, the first thing to figure out is which DSM you want. For the first-generation cars, base models were the Eclipse GS, Talon DL and Laser RS. These got the 92-horsepower, 1.8-liter, eight-valve, single-cam engine.

Twin-cam nomenclature gets a bit confusing, as the Eclipse GS and Laser RS could be base models, or they could have the 135-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine. Twin-cam Talons are easier to spot—they sport ES badges. Mitsubishi still stuck with GS (or GST) for the turbo models, while Eagle offered the Talon TSi and Plymouth had the Laser RS Turbo.

Finally, Mitsubishi badged their AWD version the Eclipse GSX, while Eagle and Plymouth just added AWD to their turbo designations.

On the second-generation cars, the puny 1.8 was dropped, so even base models got a 140-horsepower, 16-valve engine. The base Eclipse became an RS, while bottom-line Talons were unbadged. There was no base Laser, or any other Laser, for that matter.

The midlevel models no longer boasted a better engine, only more options (and weight) on the Eagle ESi and Eclipse GS.

Turbo and AWD models kept their first-generation nomenclature.

Performance-wise, the base models are thoroughly boring, but they do have the benefit of being relatively lightweight. Midrange non-turbo models are nice cars, if a bit piggy for their power.

The turbo models, on the other hand, are a transformation. They’re no longer nice cars, they’re good cars. Once the right car has been spotted, the biggest concern is whether or not that wildly effective powertrain is still in good shape. Generally speaking, Diamond Stars were pretty reliable, but the serious problems seem to center around the powertrain.

The transfer cases were subject to a recall on all 1990-’98 models with AWD. They’re prone to oil leakage from a brass plug in the transfer case yoke. Once enough oil leaks out, the transfer case can lock up—at speed. Very bad stuff, there. Luckily, transfer cases and yokes are warranted for the life of the car.

Second-generation cars have another driveline problem all their own: “crank walk.” Excessive thrust bearing play on a batch of defective, out-of-spec cranks led to a phenomenon in which one of these cranks that is moving all around inside the block slowly destroys important bits. It’s tough to diagnose, and not easy to fix, either. Mitsubishi’s best answer, while never directly acknowledging the problem, was a tricky scheme of matching particular bearings to particular cranks, depending on the exact date of manufacture. Make sure the bottom end is good.

Gearboxes are typically notchy, but strong. Worn synchros and a car that pops out of fifth gear are signs of expensive gearbox troubles in the not-too-distant future. And don’t even bother with a slushbox car.

Finally, timing belts must be replaced on schedule, at least every 60,000 miles, if not sooner. Some of the Mitsubishi-sourced timing belts weren’t of the highest quality. Two separate recalls were issued on timing belts, one for 1990-’91 cars, and a second for 1992 models. Second-generation cars got better belts, but they still need to be replaced on schedule.

In general, good maintenance, including oil changes all around, is key to a long-lasting Diamond Star. Body-wise, make the usual checks for rust and collision damage.

If any ripples in the bodywork or other questionable things turn up, move on to another car. It’s just not worth it.

Finally, Diamond Stars were just never built to the same standard as some of their competitors. Fit and finish lag behind the industry leaders, and the coupes are prone to rattles and squeaks. All the more reason to buy the best car you can find.

“Moderation is a fatal thing… Nothing succeeds like excess.”—Oscar Wilde

Most enthusiasts have taken to the turbo powerplants, as they respond well to common, boost-enhancing modifications.

Let’s face it, when these cars were new, people bought Talons, Eclipses and Lasers for two reasons: because they were cheap and cute, or because they were cheap and fast. Considering the turbo models were so quick out of the box, it didn’t take the aftermarket long to figure out there was a huge market to make them even faster.

These days, Diamond Stars can crank out enough pavement-scrambling, stomach-churning raw power to make Iggy Pop change his tune to Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.

It’s all about boost, and more of it. Which means the first step in tweaking a Diamond Star should be installing a boost gauge you can actually rely on. By most accounts, the stock gauge is about as trustworthy as a politician’s promise.

Letting the engine breath a bit better is the second step. A silencer behind the mass air flow sensor can safely be removed to get rid of one restriction, and while you’re yanking out stuff, pull the stock air filter out and replace it with a better-flowing design, like a K&N, or pull the whole airbox and install a cone filter. For best results, cone filters should be shielded from hot underhood air and have cool air routed to them.

At the other end, useful gains can be realized by reworking the exhaust. A more open aftermarket catalytic converter is a good idea, along with larger, 2.5- or 3-inch pipe and a free-flowing muffler. Stock exhausts weigh a ton and don’t flow particularly well, so there are worthwhile improvements to be made.

Once you’ve got a good eye on the boost and the means to get the air in and back out again, dialing the boost up from the stock 11 psi is easy: just make the wastegate open a bit later. Simply removing the restrictor in the boost solenoid will raise the boost to 12 or 13 psi. To go up a bit higher, replace the boost solenoid with a freer-flowing valve, or carefully restrict flow to the wastegate.

Caution and careful use of that spiffy new boost gauge are the key ideas here. Playing with boost can be addictive, but it can be expensive, too. The boost gauge is your friend.

The blow-off valves found on the second-generation cars don’t like extra boost. Fitting the blow-off valve from a first-generation car is the cheap, easy and reliable fix.

Getting boost is easy. Controlling it is the tricky part. Anything over 15 psi is generally considered pushing it, and the further you push it, the more you need to watch it. In addition to boost gauges to monitor all that pressure, quite a few low-buck cockpit pressure controls have been devised, too.

The fact is, a couple hundred bucks is enough to make a DSM run low- to mid-14s in the quarter mile, since they need nothing more than opening up the turbo and letting it breath a little deeper and a little longer. Work at it a bit, and Diamond Stars can easily get into supercar territory.

A rabid fan base is out there to guide you, good Web resources are available (in particular, www.dsm.org), and vendors are ready and willing to take your money for all sorts of go-fast goodies.

Going fast on a drag strip is one thing, but managing to turn is something else entirely. Diamond Stars have jingled their spurs around a few cones, too.

First-generation turbo cars have a handicap, though. Their variable-ratio power steering has been known to cut out during certain autocross situations, when there’s an odd mismatch between engine speed, vehicle speed and wheel angle. The problem can be overcome, but by most accounts the second generation is the better bet for autocrossing.

Either first- or second-generation cars benefit from more rubber, and quite a few wheel/tire combinations have proven themselves on Diamond Stars. Among the stock 16-inch wheels, some variants are considerably lighter than others, so it pays to check them out. Running up to 265/45R16s on the stock wheels is pretty common. Going to 275s on 17-inch wheels can be done, but there are some rubbing problems to overcome.

Fat aftermarket anti-roll bars also make a huge difference on the track. An AWD Diamond Star isn’t light, and the big bars keep the sides from scraping the pavement. Readily available coil-over conversions featuring stiffer springs and upgraded shock absorbers do wonders for the car’s handling and tweakability.

Again, there’s a widespread fan base that’s already tried pretty much everything, and a huge aftermarket; these are your friends.

“ ‘Marriage’: This I call the will that moves two to create the one which is more than those who created it.”—Friedrich Nietzsche

Nobody expected much out of Mitsubishi and Chrysler’s shacking up. Both had played perennial runners-up for so long that few paid much notice. Sure, there were successes: Chrysler had built a reputation for hot turbo engines, but the cars those engines were in weren’t pulling folks off Toyota and Honda dealerships. Mitsubishi had, um, the Starion—Jackie Chan drove one in “Cannonball Run,” and that was cool, right?

So nobody really saw it coming. The newlyweds holed up in Illinois, raided their respective parts bins and came up with a entry-level coupe with über-coupe performance. How do you follow that opening act? In Diamond Star’s case, you don’t. For reasons only the boys in the boardrooms can know, they didn’t even try. One shot, wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, and that’s that. They were one-hit wonders.

The automakers could have capitalized on their success. They could have kept reworking the successful formula. They could have applied the formula to a hot little mass-produced sedan and scared BMW owners across the continent. But they didn’t.

They left 10 years of good cars, tons of potential, and a pocket full of might-have-beens. Still, it’s better than most shotgun marriages manage.

How Much?

For the most part, the Diamond Star cars follow the usual depreciation cycle, meaning there are deals out there for nearly every budget. The more desirable versions of the last cars—convertible and all-wheel-drive turbo models—tend to top out with asking prices hovering around the $15,000 to $18,000 level. Prices naturally decrease from there, as the second-generation all-wheel-drive turbo cars will bottom out somewhere just north of $5000.

Prices for the first-generation models will generally continue that trend, with nice, clean cars topping out around the $5000 mark. Lesser cars will obviously cost less, and both turbo and naturally aspirated early cars can be found for $1500 or less. Depending on your view of things, non-factory modifications can either increase or decrease these vehicles’ worth in the used-car market.

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Comments

View comments on the GRM forums
captainzib
captainzib HalfDork
4/28/09 12:26 p.m.

Loved the article, sending to everyone I know who looks at me when I talk about my car and asks, "What's a DSM?".

Vigo
Vigo PowerDork
10/3/10 8:41 p.m.

Hmm, this came up on the new front page.

Hard to believe these cars were ever asking $15k once they rolled off the dealer lots.

Also, i have to say a lot of the statements regarding Chrysler in the opening paragraphs were... a little revisionist here, a little inaccurate there, and a lot exaggerated in other places.

Although, it is interesting to compare the derision pointed toward $1.5 billion in loan GUARANTEES (not loans) in 2003, and the attitude towards the more recent, more direct, and much larger government intervention..

lawdogg
lawdogg None
12/18/11 5:17 p.m.

Great article! I wanted to point out, however, that 3000GTs & Stealths were not produced in Illinois. Both were manufactured at Mitsubishi's plant in Nagoya, Japan. They are not technically DSMs.

shelbyz
shelbyz New Reader
1/31/13 9:13 a.m.

Excellent artice. Just wanted to comment on the part that says "don’t even bother with a slushbox car".

This was commonly accepted when this article was written. Nowadays however, some of the fastest drag DSM's are running built automatics.

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