The Importance of Being Mitsu


The Mitsubishi Evo, much as we love it, is the only ‘halo car’ the company has. The trouble is that the Evo has been a cult success: so mythologized that its parent has almost been forgotten. It’s an Evo far more than it’s a Mitsubishi, and little of its mojo has ever rubbed off on the rest of the range.

Perhaps this is because they’re too far apart. The Evo has always been a no holds barred, banzai supercar-slayer, while the bulk of Mitsubishi’s global range has been automotive white goods: functional, reliable, clever in their way, but a little dull.

And Mitsubishi could really have used the help on occasions. Despite the explosive growth of the Japanese car industry in the seventies and eighties it has never achieved the colossal scale and global footprint of Toyota, or the reputation for obsessive-compulsive engineering of Honda, or the stable links with a foreign carmaker that Nissan now enjoys with Renault. Like Toyota, it had a brief false start making cars before the war – its very first was a four-wheel drive saloon, spookily akin to the Evo – before getting sidelined into war work and taking its time to find its feet in Japan’s extreme post-war austerity, finally hitting its stride in the sixties.

Mitsubishi Motors is part of the vast Mitsubishi keiretsu, a very Japanese way of doing business in which a ‘family’ of firms with the same name, shared origins and often with cross-shareholdings co-operate. They share the red, three-diamond ‘propeller’ logo; actually not a ship’s propeller as many think, but an abstract rendering of a Japanese clan symbol.

The keiretsu’s greatest product was probably the Zero naval fighter of the Second World War. It was noted for its extreme speed and manoeuvrability, again an odd precursor of the Evo’s attributes. It’s always easier for the winning side to take pride in their war machinery but we doubt Jaguar or Bentley would try to sell Spitfire or Lancaster special editions to Germany. But this didn’t stop Mitsu making a ‘Zero Fighter’ special edition of the Evo (below).

The keiretsu also stepped in to buy out Mitsubishi Motors after a torrid financial time in the nineties and noughties, the nadir coming in 2000 when it admitted that it had covered up safety defects for 20 years. In 2004 former president Katsuhiko Kawasoe, who had resigned in 2000, was arrested with 10 others after two more deaths brought more cover-ups to light. The massive sales slump after the 2000 revelations forced DaimlerChrysler to end its relationship with Mitsubishi Motors.

But there is more to Mitsu than the Evo, scandals, red ink and misjudged special editions. Its small cars are often terrific, evidenced by the i. The i-MIEV was one of the first of the current crop of half-decent electric cars to get to market. The Pajero off-roader (despite sounding like the Spanish slang for masturbation, another misjudged name) is well-regarded in places where people depend on such things, and there have been sleeper performance car hits like the Starion coupe of the eighties, or the big 3000GT, or the very under-the-radar hot VR4 versions of the Galant (above). Trouble is, too few have noticed: we’ve all been distracted by the noisy thing with the big wing.