When Mitsubishi Made a Classic Jeep

Mitsubishi has made its fair share of icons, especially when it comes to SUVs. The Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero has been a seasoned rally competitor, and it’s an affordable off-roader, too. But there’s one classic SUV that Mitsubishi made that’s little-known in the US. Which is a little surprising, considering it’s based on the Wrangler’s descendant. Before Jeep made the Wrangler, there was the CJ, or ‘civilian Jeep.’ But Jeep wasn’t the only one who made it. For 45 years, Mitsubishi continued to make a CJ classic Jeep. And you can now get your hands on one.

What exactly is this Mitsubishi Jeep?

1985 Mitsubishi Jeep
1985 Mitsubishi Jeep | Duncan Imports

As Autoweek and The News Wheel describe, in 1953 Willys gave Mitsubishi permission to produce the CJ-3 Jeep for the Japanese market. Although sold as the J-series Jeep (no relation to the US J-Series) this wasn’t some kind of kit-car knockoff. The Mitsubishi Jeeps were properly-licensed SUVs, with the famous seven-slot grille and everything. Only the logo was Mitsubishi’s 3-point diamond.

1985 Mitsubishi Jeep side
1985 Mitsubishi Jeep side | Duncan Imports

Like the Willys Jeep and contemporary CJ models, the Mitsubishi Jeep had four-wheel drive, complete with transfer case. And because it was based on the later CJ-3 model, the Mitsubishi J-series also had vinyl seats, full lighting, a folding soft-top roof with vinyl windows, and…that’s about it. Remember, this is less than a decade removed from the original WWII Jeep. Some versions of the Mitsubishi J-series didn’t even have proper doors.

1984 Mitsubishi Jeep interior
1984 Mitsubishi Jeep interior | Duncan Imports

Did Mitsubishi add anything to the classic Jeep formula?

1975 Mitsubishi Jeep J38 delivery van
1975 Mitsubishi Jeep J38 delivery van | Duncan Imports

Later versions of the Mitsubishi J-series did offer more amenities. For example, the 1975 J38 delivery van had leather seats, a fully-enclosed metal body, a 4-speed automatic transmission, and a radio. And Gear Patrol describes some J-series’ coming with special paint jobs, such as black with gold-and-white stripes.

1975 Mitsubishi Jeep J38 delivery van interior
1975 Mitsubishi Jeep J38 delivery van interior | Duncan Imports

But one of the key features that Mitsubishi added throughout the J-series’ 1945-1998 production run was turbodiesel engines. Originally, the J-series Jeep came with a version of the Willys 2.2-liter gasoline four-cylinder. However, Mitsubishi later fitted its own 2.7-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder. There was technically a naturally-aspirated diesel Jeep available in the US from 1958, according to Four Wheeler. But Mitsubishi, not FCA, was the first to put a turbodiesel in a Jeep.

Should I buy one?

Considering the Mitsubishi Jeep was based on a 1950s-era design, buying one—especially one without proper doors—means living with the safety risks. Especially the lack of airbags.

However, if you really want a rugged, ultra-utilitarian off-roader, this is one of the segment’s pioneers. All but the very last Mitsubishi J-series are at least 25 years old, making them freely importable. Prices are also fairly low. While the delivery van and more ‘luxurious’ models can cost almost as much as a new Wrangler, the more basic J-series’ come in at around $10,000.

Although, at that price, buyers may question the decision to buy a Mitsubishi Jeep over a US-market CJ. Buying a US Jeep cuts down on the uncertainty of the foreign-market powertrain, for one. And you don’t have to deal with right-hand drive. But then again, you can’t buy a CJ-3 with a turbodiesel.