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EVOLUTION MEETS REVOLUTION: THE MITSUBISHI UK STORY

Added: 12 December 2017

High-performance coupes, rugged turbodiesel SUVs, world-beating homologation specials, plug-in hybrids… in the 43 years since Mitsubishi first imported cars to the UK, the Japanese maker has sold them all. But this year actually marks a more significant milestone: it’s 100 years since Mitsubishi’s first car, the Model A of 1917. The Model A was Japan’s first series-production car, and even then wore the distinctive three-diamond motif on its nose. You’ll know Mitsubishi translates as ‘three diamonds’ in Japanese, right?

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Japan’s first diesel engine and first four-wheel-drive vehicle followed in the 1930s, and in 1963 the Colt name was used for the first time. Then when Mitsubishi established a UK subsidiary in 1974, it became the Colt Car Company and, later, the Colt became a staple of the Mitsubishi range. The first Mitsubishi sold by the Colt Car Company would introduce another now well established name: Lancer. Mitsubishi still owns the original press car, a two-door coupe in near-perfect condition.

DRIVING MITSUBISHI'S 1974 LANCER COUPE

The Lancer looks both alien and can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it familiar, with shades of Hillman Avenger, Mk1 Escort and Morris Marina to its elegant, unadorned lines. Not necessarily the sexiest of names to drop, but all huge sellers – so as a kind of Trojan horse to give an unfamiliar marque a solid footing overseas, the logic was sound.

Open the driver’s door and you sit down low in black, flat vinyl seats stamped with what appear to be tribal tattoos, and you grip a thin bakelite steering wheel that frames three deeply recessed dials. This car feels on-point for the period: the 1.4-litre engine is peppy and sings tunefully, the variable-ratio steering is light, nicely weighted and feeds back faithfully the loading going through the front axle, and the four-speed gearbox slots through its ratios with a delicate little clink, even if does feel like it needs an overdrive. The leaf-sprung rear gets a little bumpy on a B-road, but generally it rides quite comfortably. If I were one of the early-adopting UK buyers, I’d have probably felt pretty smug.

The Lancer made a convincing case for its performance and reliability with top honours at 1974’s takes-no-prisoners Safari Rally. And when the second-generation Lancer arrived in 1979, the bloodline for what would become the Lancer Evolution had already begun, with the Lancer EX Turbo debuting soon after. That car has a cult following today, but it was a different kind of car that put Mitsubishi on the map for performance enthusiasts: the Starion.

DRIVING MITSUBISHI'S 1989 STARION 2.0

Introduced in 1982, at a time when Japanese manufacturers hadn’t established the distinctive breadth of design language we know today, the Starion looks like Mitsubishi’s twist on the American muscle car, and that makes it indecently desirable. 

There are five-spoke 16-inch alloys with a deeper dish on the rear, a Trans-Am T-Top-like chunkiness to the B-pillar and wraparound rear screen, and those pop-up headlights gift the front some sleek lines. Above all, it’s the blistered arches that bulge from the bodywork like Cato’s trying to karate chop his way out that really define the Starion – though a narrow-body version without the blistered arches was also available.

Inside, optional black leather seats with adjustable side bolsters are positioned low to the floor and embrace you snugly, and the period charm is ratcheted up by seatbelts attached to the doors (not the B-pillar), switches labelled ‘power windows’ and a turbo boost gauge that gets top billing at the centre of the dash.

Two different engines were offered, a 2.0-litre turbo four with 178bhp fitted to both body styles, and a later iteration that expanded the engine to an unusually large (for four cylinders) 2.6 and came only with the wide body. The 2.6 offered extra power as emissions regulations increasingly choked performance, but the 2.0-litre is widely regarded as the sweeter, more eager unit; in 1987, Mitsubishi billed it as the fastest 2.0-litre production car on the road. 

 
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JUST 178BHP, BUT THE WORLD'S FASTEST 2.0 LITRE

That’s the engine in our wide-body model, another peach plucked from Mitsubishi’s heritage fleet. Coded 4G63, the single-cam, eight-valve engine is the predecessor to the dohc 16-valve motor that powers all Lancer Evolution models through to the IX. Change the oil every 3000 miles warns the sticker on the door casing; let the car idle for 60 seconds or more after a hard drive. Those were the days.

The Starion’s engine fires with a gruff, clearly turbocharged note, and hangs onto revs when you release the throttle, like the rev needle’s in zero gravity. Unfortunately this car isn’t quite on song, so the turbo kick that should take hold at around 2500rpm doesn’t arrive until 4500rpm. Perhaps that’s why the Starion feels much more GT than sports car, perhaps the sluggishness exacerbates the feeling of relatively soft suspension and a tendency to understeer; there’s certainly no chance of kicking out the tail on the power today. But evocative and of its era, a car to cherish and enjoy? I’d love one.

Was the name really a mispronunciation of Stallion, as legend suggests? It’s a plausible assumption, given the Starion’s positioning as a Japanese Ford Mustang, other Mitsubishi names with an equine bent, and the horse’s head that appears at the end of the period advert you’ll find on YouTube. But it’s notable that insiders put the emphasis on the second syllable, and the official word has it that Starion is a contraction of Star of Orion.

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DRIVING MITSUBISHI'S 1989 SHOGUN

Certainly Mitsubishi UK took no chances with its next big hit: the Shogun. The small SUV was renamed in some markets, when someone noticed the original Pajero badge would cause offence or laughter in the Spanish language. The UK settled on a name that meant Japanese military dictator: Shogun.

It’s hard to understate the impact the Shogun made when it launched in the early 1980s. Reliable, well equipped and strong value, the first Mitsubishi SUV to reach the UK proved an instant success. Years before the Land Rover Discovery arrived, the Shogun combined rugged off-road staples like body-on-frame construction and a live rear axle with a comparatively luxurious cabin, power steering, double-wishbone front suspension and a four-cylinder turbodiesel engine.

Though far from pioneering, the sawn-off shotgun proportions and a glasshouse that’s almost as deep as the bodywork of this short-wheelbase Shogun – long-wheelbase models came later – are immediately recognisable. You step up into a cabin and settle down into the sprung seat, the X of the mechanism compressing under your weight, adjustable in its cushiness. 

You notice the altimeter in the centre of the dash, a gimmick to illustrate the tilt angle of the Shogun like a bubble in a spirit level, and the huge grab handle on the passenger side that hints at wild off-road excursions. But it’s the two gear levers that are really suggestive of off-road prowess: the taller wand controlling the five-speed gearbox, its smaller sibling allowing you to flick between two- and four-wheel drive, and high and low ratios, just as you can in the L200 pick-up today.

ON TRACK? ITS NATURAL HABIT WAS THE DAKAR RALLY

With cushy suspension and relaxed power steering, the Shogun isn’t in its natural habitat door-handling around the Anglesey race circuit, but the turbodiesel pulls keenly at the kind of low revs where a Lancer Evolution snoozes soundly, and as a daily driver to check on cattle, navigate a bumpy farm track and lug shopping back from town, it must’ve seemed a comfortable, versatile all-rounder at the time. And as a retro off-roader today, it has bags of appeal.

Mitsubishi embellished the Shogun’s reputation with victory in the Dakar desert race in 1985, when French driver Patrick Zaniroli claimed victory in Senegal by the margin of 26 minutes from his team-mate Andrew Cowan. Mitsubishi is Dakar’s most successful car maker ever, but the Lancer was also a rally favourite, synonymous with Mitsubishi motorsport campaigns.

DRIVING MITSUBISHI'S LANCER EVOLUTION VI MAKINEN

Despite stretching to 10 evolutions (all denoted by Roman numerals, almost always referred to as simply Evo), there are four key generations of Lancer Evolution. The Evo I, II and III were all based on the same platform, and took the 2.0-litre 16-valve turbocharged four-cylinder engine and all-wheel-drive system – a formula that would define every Evo – from the larger Galant, which also found success of its own in rallying.

You’ll see early Evos advertised in the UK, but they weren’t officially imported. Rival Subaru was already bringing in the Impreza Turbo, though, making its name in the World Rally Championship, famously with Colin McRae clinching the 1995 title. But the late 1990s was to be Mitsubishi’s turn to dominate the WRC, in an era when Group A rules insisted that 2500 closely related production cars had to be built before a car could compete.

CELEBRATING FOUR CONSECUTIVE WRC DRIVER'S TITLES

Tommi Mäkinen kick-started the success when he drove an Evo III to the 1996 championship. The Evolution switched platforms for the IV, V and VI from 1996, and later began to come to the UK through the Ralliart dealer network. These cars turned the transverse engine through 180 degrees and offered Active Yaw Control, which juggled torque across the rear axle in accord with steering input, yaw angle and throttle position.

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Mäkinen drove these models to three more consecutive championships in ’97, ’98 and ’99. To honour his success, Mitsubishi produced the Tommi Mäkinen Edition. Detail changes were subtle and mainly cosmetic, though Mäkinen models did also get lower suspension, faster steering and a titanium turbocharger turbine for swifter response. Often referred to as the 6.5, today these cars are incredibly sought after.

Even at low speeds, the Mäkinen feels like a serious machine, with weighty steering, a meaty clutch, restless ride, terrible plastics and seats that perch you far too high but grip like velcro. But this is also a car full of character and feel with an addictively rowdy edge: there’s gritty detail to the steering as it shrugs off its weight with speed, and a sense of unencumbered lightness as the Evo stops, accelerates and turns.

THE MAKINEN: LIKE PULLING THE PIN ON A GRENADE

There’s little performance below 3500rpm, but continuing beyond that is like pulling the pin from a hand grenade, and you ride a visceral kick of turbo boost to 6000rpm. On track, you instinctively keep the Evo in that window, flicking up and down through the gearbox with its short ratios but stiff engagement, blipping the throttle as you stand hard on the excellent Brembo brakes.

All-wheel drive means there’s no fuss in getting power to the ground, and yet the Evo is still an incredibly playful machine, turning in keenly, with its well-controlled but noticeable body roll giving you options to play with the weight transfer and oversteer through turns. It’s such a unique driving experience, no wonder these cars are so coveted.

The Evo switched platforms again for the VII, VIII and IX that followed from 2001 to 2007, and this era’s slightly longer wheelbase, updated design and relatively upmarket interior set these cars clearly apart; the advent of new WRC rules also removed the direct link between road and stage, explaining how we saw Marcus Grönholm rallying a Peugeot coupe convertible of sorts. The Evo continued to compete, but the success of the Group A days couldn’t be replicated. Shame, because the road cars still feel phenomenal.

DRIVING MITSUBISHI'S EVO IX MR FQ-360

New technology included an active centre diff, and the increased dimensions and extra equipment inevitably added weight, if only a little: at 1400kg, the Evo IX FQ-360 carries just 40kg more than the Mäkinen, but punches 90bhp harder. That extra power – along with a more grown-up feel that retains much of the earlier cars’ raw personality – makes it even more thrilling to exploit the handling balance on track and, for me, the IX is the better of the two cars.

 
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In FQ-360 guise, the IX was the last Lancer Evolution before a new, more rounded version arrived on an all-new platform. Sadly, the new X was the last of the breed, as Mitsubishi steered away from high performance and combined its expertise in SUVs with plug-in hybrid drivetrains. But the new focus also paved the way for a remarkable resurgence in recent years, and there’s a fair chance you’ll know someone who owns an Outlander PHEV. Introduced in 2014, it quickly became Britain’s best-selling plug-in hybrid in 2015, with 11,000 units shifted. It’s still doing the business today.

DRIVING TODAY'S ICON, THE PLUG-IN OUTLANDER

The PHEV uses a 2.0-litre to drive the front wheels, with an undernourished-sounding 119bhp, but it also adds a 60kW electric motor on each axle to boost performance and bring four-wheel-drive capability without a propshaft connecting front and rear axles. The 11sec 0-62mph time might disappoint, but there’s certainly a strong shove in your back through the mid-range and plenty of poke for overtaking.

Given a full charge, the PHEV can manage up to 32 miles in pure EV mode, and travel at over 70mph without burning a drop of fuel. But it’s with the business maths that the PHEV really scores, especially its 7% Benefit-in-Kind rating, which saves some company car drivers thousands. A more recent update has seen combined mpg climb from 148 to 156mpg; yes, a stretch target in real-world driving, but keep it charged, do short trips and you’ll see the benefits.

As a family car, the Outlander PHEV makes a lot of sense, with acres of space, great comfort, and interior quality and refinement that’s a giant leap on from earlier products. And while it inevitably can’t make your nerve-endings fizz like an Evo, the Outlander targets a very different kind of driving experience, one that’s likeable in its own way and better suited to stress-free longer journeys with its supple suspension and easy acceleration. 

The brakes – key to harvesting wasted energy, remember – feel too fierce at first, the steering a little wooden, but there’s something very satisfying about wafting away silently in a large SUV powered by nothing but electricity.

WHICH LEGEND TO TAKE TO IRELAND?

But as we wrap up our day at Anglesey, it’s Mitsubishi’s high-performance history that tugs harder on my heart strings. And when I’m asked to pick one to take over to Ireland to continue our Six Nations tour, there’s an obvious choice. Read on for the next leg: an adventure in the brilliant Lancer Evolution MR FQ-360.

1974 LANCER COUPE

1974 LANCER COUPE

The Lancer kickstarted exports to Europe

Engine 1400cc 8-valve 4-cyl, 92bhp @ 6300rpm, 90lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission 4-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension MacPherson strut front, leaf-sprung rear
Performance 8.7sec 0-50mph, 97mph, 39.1mpg
Weight 815kg
Length/width/height 3980/1525/1360mm

 
1989 SHOGUN

1989 SHOGUN

The SUV that dominated Dakar and built the brand’s 4x4 legend

Engine 2346cc 8v turbodiesel 4-cyl, 80bhp @ 4000rpm, 125lb ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Suspension MacPherson strut front, live rear axle, coil springs
Performance 15.3sec 0-60mph, 87mph, 28mpg
Weight 1568kg
Length/width/height 3995/1679/1839mm

 
1989 STARION

1989 STARION

Mitsubishi’s take on the US muscle car, a rear-drive coupe that upped the stakes

Engine 1997cc 8v turbo 4-cyl, 178bhp @ 6000rpm, 213lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension MacPherson strut front, independent rear
Performance 7.1sec 0-60mph, 142mph, 24mpg
Weight 1220kg
Length/width/height 4400/1745/1275mm

2000 EVO VI MAKINEN

2000 EVO VI MAKINEN

Built to mark Mitsubishi’s fourth WRC drivers’ title

Engine 1997cc 16v turbo 4-cyl, 276bhp @ 6500rpm, 275lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Suspension MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
Performance 4.4sec 0-60mph, 150mph, 23.5mpg,
Weight 1360kg
Length/width/height 4350/1770/1405mm

 
2006 EVO IX

2006 EVO IX

Devastating performance, and the finest example of the Evo bloodline

Engine 1997cc 16v turbo 4-cyl, 366bhp @ 6887rpm, 363lb ft @ 3200rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Suspension MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
Performance 3.9sec 0-62mph, 160mph, 21.6mpg (est), 344g/km
CO2 (est)
Weight 1400kg
Length/width/height 4490/1770/1450mm

 
2017 OUTLANDER PHEV

2017 OUTLANDER PHEV

Europe’s – and the UK’s – best-selling plug-in hybrid

Engine 1998cc 16v 4-cyl with one 60kW electric motor per axle. Total output: 200bhp
Transmission 5-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Suspension MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear
Performance 11.0sec 0-62mph, 106mph, 166.2mpg, 41g/km CO2
Weight 1860kg
Length/width/height 4695/1800/1710mm

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