Last week, as you probably know by now, Nissan bought a majority stake in Mitsubishi, marking what will hopefully be the end of a long and painful slide for the automaker. The last few years have been tough for the Japanese manufacturer, but this could be a turning point. As is the case for many of us gearheads, Mitsubishi was a “cool” company when I was growing up — or at least an exciting one.
With aftermarket-friendly vehicles, they had a bit of a hand in the explosion of the tuning world and also were responsible for classic early-2000s product placement in which an Evo and a couple Eclipses took on near-character like roles in some of the Fast and the Furious franchise movies. That’s just a small snapshot of a brand that is made of so much more.
Mitsubishi built cars that were fun and offered owners the ability to tailor the cars to their liking, something that cannot be said of the company today. Mitsubishi seems to be lost, riddled with a lineup as in need of revamping as it is a kick of adrenaline. What models would help the company get back on track, find its 1990’s excitement and win back the fan base it once had? I have some ideas…
Somewhat unfortunately, we first have to take a quick look at the cars Mitsubishi is currently selling:
- The i-MiEV: A decent idea poorly executed, but it’s car I know so little about that saying just that reflects its lack of prominence.
- The Lancer: Clinging onto a generation so old that its competition probably even feels bad for it. This iteration of Lancer has been around for nine years — nine!
- The Mirage: A “good” car in that it’s just that; a car and not much more. It’s the definition of simple and inexpensive transportation and, while it serves its intended purpose, it’s not exactly setting the sales world on fire.
- The Outlander and Outlander Sport: Both are handily outclassed by everything they compete against, giving them poor chances of success. The new PHEV Outlander is a great concept (and it’s always good to see plug-in CUVs rather than thirsty gas-only counterparts), but it’s going to have a tough time selling well given its unproven quality and durability. Even if it does manage to move a decent number of units, I wouldn’t count on it to save Mitsubishi by itself.
- The Lancer Evolution: Sadly just out of production but never out of our hearts. The Evo held onto Mitsubishi’s last bit of exhilaration from its heyday of making cars for people who loved driving, modifying, and racing. Though it still lives on Mitsubishi’s website, the Lancer Evolution has now gone the way of the dodo and, with no slated replacement, for that we mourn. Pour one out for our friend the Evo; it was a legend and will be missed dearly. The near-impossibility of finding an unmolested used example doesn’t help ease the pain, but that’s another can of worms entirely.
The death of the Evo doesn’t mean the brand is dead though. In fact, there’s so much history and so much heritage to work with that it would be pretty darn easy for Mitsubishi to build a lineup based entirely around nostalgia. What they really need to do is return to their sporty, honest, affordable performance roots that made the company so popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. Roll with me here… let’s see what would make Mitsubishi great again.
Eclipse. Mitsubishi urgently needs a halo car to stand out and point the company in a good, strong, defined direction. What was once an affordable, easily accessible coupe that had a ton of potential but was fun out-of-the-box, the Eclipse was and would be perfect for luring in younger sports-car buyers and older coupe-hunters alike. Without it, Mitsubishi is a company that is missing out on one of its most storied and exciting vehicles, and that’s without so much as mentioning NOS or danger to manifold.
Mitsubishi needs the Eclipse, and I don’t think they’ll enjoy success without it. Keep the recipe simple as it was in the past: two doors, four available driven wheels, liftback body, simple and quick, and as long as it’s styled well, it’ll sell. Consider it an instant brand ambassador. Forgot how great the Eclipse was? Just ask friend of Hooniverse Matt Farah.
Montero. For a long while Mitsubishi sold an honest, no-frills SUV. They haven’t done so since the Montero went out of production, and it’s a niche that is in need of a new, rejuvenated entrant. Add in a hybrid powertrain (stolen from the Outlander PHEV) or diesel option and the company could have a breakout success. If you want a new SUV with serious off-road capability you’ll need to buy a Jeep, a Range Rover, a Toyota Land Cruiser (or Lexus GX), a G-Wagen, or a 4Runner. While those options are all good (great, even), only two are priced below the $40k mark to start—and that’s where the Montero could thrive.
Back to the original formula: inexpensive all-weather and off-road capability with plenty of room and at a reasonable price. Include serious 4WD with a proper transfer case, understated macho styling, and a level of equipment that isn’t overwhelming, and it could be a winner.
Lancer Evolution. You knew this was coming… the world needs an Evo, and so does Mitsubishi. It essentially defines the performance side of the brand (or at least what it was), and the absence of the Evo is the equivalent of Jeep stopping sales of the Rubicon. Seems like blasphemy, right? Without an Evo, the gaping hole in Mitsubishi’s lineup needs to be filled by something equally thrill-inducing and honest in its bare-bones performance mantra. Without the Evo there’s nothing to challenge the WRX/STI, save for maybe the Golf R or Focus RS (both of which are supposedly fantastic). Mitsubishi’s fan-base could draw in large numbers of buyers if it’s properly executed. This means sticking to its inexpensive sedan roots, trick electronic diffs, a big turbo on a 4-cylinder, rally-and-road worthy suspension, and the aero and bodywork to match. None of the hybrid nonsense sparked by rumors. Just the good old Lancer Evolution layout we came to know and love. Without the Evo, the performance world is a much more boring place, and the same goes for Mitsubishi.
Lancer. Right, the base Lancer. They obviously need to update and upgrade the volume-mover sedan, but with Nissan’s help it could be a task that happens rather quickly and with enough R&D to make sure all goes well. Give the car the basics and nothing more, just like it used to be. Keep the price low and the options sheet simple. It doesn’t have to compete with the A3 and CLA like so many other small cars are trying to, it just has to be light, simple, decent to drive, and have some sort of weird, outlier appeal to it.
A new Lancer would be the foundation of a company-wide turnaround. An OZ Rally model could be a fun throwback, and an AWD Sportback would give the mostly-unchallenged Impreza something to fret about. Either way, a good Lancer has to happen or the success of the company will not.
Starion. Front-engine, rear-wheel drive? Here’s the only place I would suggest platform sharing with Nissan. Take the chassis of whatever the 370Z successor is, re-body it, open the back up enough to add two rear seats, give it Mitsubishi’s own engine choices, alter the interior, tune the suspension to their liking, and wha-bam: Starion. Not vital for Mitsubishi’s survival, but a fun nameplate to bring back given the opportunity.
3000GT. A higher tier sports-GT coupe would be a good way to give buyers another option once they graduate from the Eclipse/Starion. The 3000GT could easily retain the heavy, powerful style of the original car, and keeping the V6/V6TT setup would help it keep its performance credentials. An additional model fitted with a hybrid-electric combo could provide some added performance and efficiency, but as long as the 3000GT has two seats and remains a sports car capable of Grand Touring duty, it’ll do. Like the Starion, this model isn’t crucial but it’s another way for Mitsubishi to have a full, thriving lineup.
Pajero / Pajero Evolution. The two-door off-road market is absolutely dominated by the Wrangler, given its lack of competition. The re-introduction of a Japanese alternative to the Jeep in the American market, something even with a fixed roof and less off-road cred than its would-be American competitor, could give Mitsubishi a piece of the pie currently only being taken advantage of by one automaker.
In the past we have had other options like the Rodeo, Amigo, Bronco,, K5 Blazer, VehiCROSS, and even FJ Cruiser, but with those no longer around the Jeep has the field all to itself. A Pajero making use of a low-range transfer case, locking diff(s), and a manual option all in a tidy package could have the potential to make waves in the monopoly that is the two-door off-road segment. An Evolution variant with a turbo four-cylinder or sizable V6 could be a budget alternative to the Local Motors Rally Fighter or Bowler Wildcat, something streetable but wholly aggressive and capable of most any terrain you can throw at it. Even without the Evo, the Pajero could give Mitsubishi something to work with in an untapped market, giving them an edge they currently don’t have.
Galant / VR4. Last but not least, Mitsubishi could benefit from a mid-size sedan. There’s nothing the company sells right now that fits this segment and it’s been empty for a while, so the re-introduction of another memorable nameplate would be the right way to start. Bring back the VR4 with a twin-turbo V6 and all-wheel-drive and it could be an absolute rocket at a not-so-sky-high price. Regardless, Mitsubishi needs a mid-size sedan; offering a faster version is a win for everybody.
Though Mitsubishi is a massive company that does a substantial portion of its work and sales outside the automotive industry, as of late it’s been a struggle for them when it comes to cars. But they’re not necessarily down-and-out, and there are ways to make a comeback and become better than ever in the process. The nostalgia is there, as are the proven nameplates. They just need the time, money, and development to get things going.
That sounds like a lot that needs to fall into place and it is, but just one small success could trigger the snowball effect. I’d suggest starting with the Eclipse. It’s among the most missed of Mitsubishi’s long-lost favorites and it would do nicely given the lack of inexpensive AWD performance-oriented coupes on sale today. If there is ever a time for Mitsubishi to get back on track, that time is now. They may have hit rock bottom but they don’t have to stay there.
Nissan, if you’re listening, give your new purchase a bit of money, the freedom to bring back old marques, and maybe a few of your GT-R and Z-car engineers. They may be able to do wonders, and I’d sure love to see Evos and Eclipses around again. Mitsubishi was once a thriving company, but now it’s lost its way. With Nissan’s help, things could turn around.