In early 2016, Mitsubishi shuttered its Normal, Illinois plant after years of dwindling sales and a shrinking footprint in the American marketplace. The company has become so small in the last few years that it’s become little more than an afterthought, and in recent years, the automotive press has began to circle, sensing that the death watch has begun.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the early 2000s, the Illinois plant was cranking out over 200,000 cars a year, thanks to strong showing from models like the Eclipse, Galant, and Outlander. It opened the plant in 1988 in a partnership with Chrysler, under the name Diamond-Star Motors, a company that offered both Mitsus and captive import Chrysler models. The American brand pulled out in 1992, but Mitsubishi carried on for another decade or so before the real problems started.
As bleak as it may seem, good times may be just around the corner. The company has seen sales increases every year since 2012, and with nearly 100,000 sold in 2016, sales have increased 60% since then. Customers are responding to the entry-level Mirage and the competitively-priced Outlander Sport, and with a new full-size Outlander gaining steam, the brand is clawing its way back to relevancy.
As the company rebounds, here are eight classic Mitsus to remind us that the company is capable of great things.
1. Mitsubishi Lancer 1600 GSR
The Lancer is about as prestigious a nameplate as Mitsu has, and it’s been a rally winner since it debuted in 1973. In 1600GSR form, it dominated some of the sport’s most grueling courses, winning Africa’s Safari Rally twice, and Australia’s Souther Cross Rally four times. We got it stateside as the Dodge Colt, albeit in a much more sedate econobox form.
2. Mitsubishi Starion
When Mitsubishi made its U.S. debut under its own name in 1982, the Starion was one of its first models. Designed to take on heavyweights like the Nissan Z-cars, Mazda RX-7, and Toyota Supra, the rear-wheel drive grand tourer was also sold as the Conquest by Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler. By 1986, it received an aggressive wide-body kit, an intercooler, and in hot ESR trim (or TSi if it was Chrysler-badged) it could make up to 188 horsepower and 234 pounds-feet of torque, pretty impressive for a Japanese sports car of its day.
3. Mitsubishi Eclipse
The Eclipse (aka Eagle Talon/Plymouth Laser) debuted in 1989 as a replacement for the Starion/Conquest, and it has since gone on to become the gateway to tuning culture for thousands of young gearheads. It was born out of agreement between the company and Chrysler (Diamond Star Motors), where American models (badged as both Mitsus and Chryslers) would be built at an all-new plant in Normal, Ill. Atop the lineup was the GSX Turbo, a 195 horsepower all-wheel drive monster that loved to rev, and could scramble from zero-to-60 in the low-seven second range. The Eclipse disappeared after four generations in 2012, but by then its glory days were long behind it.
4. Mitsubishi Galant VR-4
While the all-new ’88 Galant won the coveted Japanese Car of the Year award, Mitsubishi still couldn’t hold a candle to the Honda Accord or the Toyota Camry in sales. But with its new Galant sedan, it could be optioned as the turbocharged 195 horsepower all-wheel drive VR-4, a slightly more civilized version of company’s factory-backed rally cars – but only slightly. After 1992, Mitsu shifted its racing focus to the smaller, lighter Lancer, but the Galant VR-4 soldiered on through ’02. If you’re looking for the origins of the mighty Evo, look no further than the original VR-4.
5. Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4
The 3000GT VR-4 isn’t just one of the greatest Mitsubishis ever made, it’s one of the greatest Japanese sports cars of all time. Despite looking nearly identical to the base 3000GT and the Dodge Stealth, the VR-4 was known in Japan as simply the GTO, and with good cause: It was a 300 horsepower, twin-turbo, all-wheel drive beast that could scramble from zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds. With a starting price at $30,000 (in 1991), the VR-4 was quicker and more powerful than an Acura NSX, and cost half the price. If you’re talking everyday supercars, you can’t forget to mention Mitsubishi’s criminally underrated contender.
6. Mitsubishi Diamante
Mitsubishi won its second Japanese Car of the Year award in 1990 with the Diamante, a premium sedan designed to take on the Acura Legend. Reaching U.S. shores in 1992, it held its own at a time when the Japanese premium car market was still in its infancy. While later generations eventually lost their way (it was discontinued in 2005), the first generation car, with its BMW-style shark nose and uncluttered design looks just as good today as it did 25 years ago.
7. Mitsubishi Montero
When the Montero debuted in 1982 (it was known as the Pajero in other markets), it was built to compete against SUVs like the Isuzu Trooper, Suzuki Samurai, and Jeep CJ-7 at a time when SUVs were still built more for off-roading than highway cruising. The Montero (A.K.A Dodge Raider in the ’80s) was popular around the world for being able to handle inhospitable terrain without breaking the bank, and thanks to Mitsu’s excellent four-wheel drive system, even had some success rallying. While it was never available stateside, the company even built a Pajero Evo in 1998.
8. Mitsubishi Evo X
If we’re honest, this entire list has been a struggle not to just list all the Evos. Of course, Evo is short for Evolution, as in Mitsubishi started with a garden-variety Lancer back in 1992 and has let it evolve into a top-of-the-food chain rally monster. In its 10th and final form (it’s been discontinued after 2016), the Evo has a turbocharged/intercooled 2.0 liter inline-four delivering 291 horsepower to all four wheels. Whether on the highway or on some of the most unforgiving terrain on the planet, this final Evo can launch from zero to 60 in under five seconds, and stay planted to the road in any conditions.
With the discontinuation of the Evo, and the closure of Mitsu’s sole American factory, it really does feel like the end of an era. But Mitsubishi has weathered storms before, and with growing sales and a new lineup on the way, we’re looking forward to seeing what one of Japan’s most unique automakers will come up with for its second act.
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