The Eagle Talon TSi AWD Is an Underappreciated Classic
It was a turbocharged, parts-bin slice of awesome.
The Eagle Talon TSi AWD, like the bird and claw for which it is named, is a regal scavenger. A product of the confounding confluence of marques and vehicular partnerships bundled into the Chrysler Corporation in the late '80s—including Dodge, Plymouth, Jeep, Mitsubishi, and the hodgepodge refuse of the American Motors/Renault alliance that became known as Eagle—the car rummaged for componentry and branding in the giant multinational conglomerate's parts bin and came up with a delicious meal: a near-200-hp, turbocharged, sharp-handling, good-looking, all-wheel-drive sports coupe.
"At that time, sporty coupes were a huge part of the market, from entry-level cars up all the way through mid-priced and luxury," says Nate Berg, director of product planning at Mitsubishi North America. Berg is also the serial owner of four Diamond Star Motors (DSM) cars, as the Talon and the other two members of its domestically produced (in Normal, Illinois) cohort—the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Plymouth Laser—were known. "Combining that with our company (at the time, we were huge into motorsports and especially rally racing), this was really kind of the perfect blend of the market and us, to bring out sporty cars and build off of our history."
I LOVE THE '90s: The Talon's exterior serves as an immediate reminder of where automotive styling was just a couple of decades ago.
The cars were an immediate success. The first generation (1990-94) offered a variety of potencies, layouts, and price points—a 92-hp, 1.8-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder version was the base; a 135-hp, 2.0-liter 16-valve DOHC was a step up; then the 190-hp turbo, all three with front-wheel drive. But the TSi, with its 195-hp (later models reached 210 hp) 2.0-liter turbo-four and all-wheel drive, was the halo car, shining down on the rest of the lineup with its exotic (for the time) powertrain, blistering performance, proven racing chops, and affordable price. Transmissions were either a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual.
At about $16,500 (about $30,000 in today's money), the Talon TSi AWD could hustle to 60 mph in just 6.6 seconds, on par with a contemporary Fox-body V-8 Mustang GT 5.0 and almost a second quicker than the all-wheel-drive BMW 325iX, which cost nearly twice as much. The cars immediately garnered a spot on automotive "best of" lists and won comparison tests against hot Japanese stalwarts like the Honda Prelude and Nissan 240SX. Customers snapped them up. More than 100,000 of the triplets were sold in 1990, the first model year. One-third of them were Talons.
Will Ebbett was one of the many kids impacted by those cars back when they were new. "A local doctor from where I grew up had an all-wheel-drive Talon, a 1990," the 39-year-old says from his home in northern California, where he works as a slot-machine repairman at a small casino. "That's what kind of opened my eyes to the cars."
Different engines were available, but the ones with approximately 200 hp made the car quick for its day.
He bought his first DSM, a red all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Eclipse turbo, in 2001 for $1,800 and proceeded to "take it apart and rebuild everything," including the engine, transmission, clutch, and suspension bushings. In the process, he started accumulating various spares. "Whenever I found an all-wheel-drive DSM turbo, which was twice," Ebbett says, "I would buy it to use for parts."
He never got to finish his project. "I lost that car in one of the fires up here, in 2015." But he didn't lose the DSM addiction. He kept seeking a replacement. In March 2018, a friend sent him photos of a low-mileage 1990 TSi. "When I saw the odometer, it said 81,000 miles, and I was like, 'Is that real?'" Ebbett drove out to the seller's place with a trunk full of spare parts to investigate.
The car didn't run, but Ebbett was familiar enough with the key issues of DSM cars to have completed some predictive diagnosis in choosing his parts hoard. He trailed along a spare battery, main relay, and ECU and swapped in all three. "I finally got it fired up, and I drove home that night on cracked tires," he says. "It was a local car, too, purchased at Sutter Creek Dodge, so I left the license-plate frames on it." He paid $1,200.
He's since put much more into the car. He replaced the turbo with a larger model, upgraded the exhaust manifold, put in a flywheel and clutch kit with a street disc, and added a manual boost controller. "But I'm trying to keep it looking stock so that it doesn't attract too much attention," he says.
As Ebbett alludes to, one of the great joys of these cars—like many Japanese cars of the era—is their stout engineering, allowing for ready modification. "Cars that have an engine block that can handle 400 horsepower at the crank without any internal modifications are kind of crazy," he says. "You tell V-8 Camaro guys that have LT engines about that, and they're shocked."
The simplicity of adding more power is both a blessing and a curse. "We say the good thing is they're easy to work on, and the bad thing is they're easy to work on," says Mike Welch, the owner of Road Race Engineering, a shop in Southern California that opened in 1994 as a general import performance specialist. The shop has focused almost exclusively on DSM cars—and their descendants—since 1996. "We joke that DSMs have been making mechanics out of normal people since 1990. Once you start doubling the power and doubling the torque, stuff starts breaking, blowing up, melting."
Welch's shop used to do significant business selling simple, well-engineered modification parts. This was aligned with the DSM community creed of sharing the hacks necessary to increase power rather than keeping them proprietary. "The DSM demographic that we see is people in or just out of college, tech nerd kind of guys," Welch says. "They grew up building their own computers, and they bought the car with the intention of modifying it in the same way."
But with the advent of breathless amateur YouTube tutorials and inexpensive knock-off components, the business has flipped. "It used to be two-thirds parts manufacturing to one-third installation. Now it's the opposite," Welch says. When asked to pinpoint what has changed, he says, "Mostly, it's just idiots bolting on cheap parts. The problems we see are all self-inflicted."
READY FOR FLIGHT: A cockpit-style interior gives the Eagle Talon a clean, enthusiast-oriented driving environment.
Although the cars are becoming more rare and prices seem to be appreciating, they're still available and worth considering. Talons were made in two generations from 1990 to 1998, with a total production of more than 200,000 units. The early cars with the flip-up headlamps and two-tone fuselage/cockpit paint jobs are most well known (and most pleasing to our eyes), but changes over time were relatively minor, so the advice, as for almost any car, is to find the best one you can afford. Still, there may be a caveat to trace the ownership history a bit more fiercely here than there is with other vehicles.
"The ones that are alive are the good ones, the ones that haven't been thrown out and abandoned," Welch says. "But you have to look carefully. A lot of these cars are 25 years old and have been hacked on by 27 different owners."
Ebbett, for one, has hedged his bets on rarity or increasing values. "I was thinking, like, 'Are they going to get expensive?'" he says with a laugh. "It's a good thing I have my own little junkyard."