Mitsubishi might be on the ropes right now, but this is why we still root for the brand.
There was a time when Mitsubishi Motors ran competitively with the top Japanese car brands in both sales and esteem. While Mitsubishi still has sway on the Japanese market, currently the brand is an also-ran here in the US. However, since the scandal over fuel economy died down and being bought in by Nissan as part of the Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi Alliance, groundwork is being laid for a Mitsubishi comeback.
Cars have traditionally been only a part of Mitsubishi's business empire and, eventually, Mitsubishi Motors became an independent brand. Mitsubishi's automotive origins go as far back as 1917 when Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Co built the familiar-sounding Mitsubishi Model A. Due the Model A being so expensive compared to American and European models, only 22 were made. Moving forward in time, in 1934 Mitsubishi Shipbuilding and Mitsubishi Aircraft were merged and the company built the first Japanese passenger car with full-time 4-wheel drive. It was almost 50 years later the automaker returned to 4-wheel drive and led up to the first car on our list.
When the Evo X finally went out of production a few years ago, it was with a whimper and not the bang it deserved. Launched in 2007, the balls-to-the-wall rally-inspired road car was an engineering marvel powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine making 291 horsepower that was sent all 4 wheels. Despite being seen less often on the road as Subaru's rally-inspired Impreza road cars, mainly due to the high maintenance needed, the Evo X was an absolute beast both on and off-road.
Lesser known than the Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7, the Starion still had plenty going for it. Had it launched everywhere with the 2.6-liter turbo 4-cylinder that eventually made its way to most markets, it could have been mentioned more often in the same breath as its competitors are now. That engine made 197 hp and an even more impressive 234 lb-ft of torque. It was also the first Japanese production car to feature both computer-controlled fuel injection and turbocharging.
Whether you prefer to call the affordable mid-size SUV with old school sensibilities and styling the Pajero or Montero, the fact is that it's long gone from the US market. While not the safest in the rollover-safety ratings, it's ability off-road through the range of 4-cylinder and V6 engines makes up for it.
The Lancer nameplate goes back a long way, and so does its rallying heritage. The 1973-1979 year 1600 GSR version was only available in the two-door body style. In Africa, it claimed the nickname "King of Cars" after two wins at the Safari Rally of Kenya. The road version packed 108 hp while the race version's 4-cylinder engines were dialed all the way up to 169 hp.
The replacement for the Starion was the Eclipse, and if you could get one, the GSX Turbo was the model to own. It came with a 195-hp 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive. That doesn't mean the lower-spec front-wheel-drive cars were bad, in fact, even today they make fun tuner cars. The Eclipse was marketed as an entry to the mid-level sports coupe and named after an unbeaten 18th-century English racehorse. It's unfortunate the name was brought back for a middle of the road crossover.
For the first time around, the Galant went on a staggering 45-year production run. The VR-4 (Viscous Realtime 4-wheel-drive) performance version didn't last anywhere near as long, but it was a wonderfully fun mid-size sedan while it lasted. It's success in the World Rally Championship led to the Lancer Evolution when a rule change forced Mitsubishi to switch platforms.
While the VR-4 had turbocharged 4-cylinder engine for most of its lifespan, the final 8th generation performance Galant had a twin-turbocharged 2.0-liter V6 engine that delivered 237 hp to all 4-wheels. It topped out at 140 mph and made the sprint to 60 in 6.5 seconds, and all of it done in comfort.
As the 1990s started, Japan was only just starting to appreciate a premium-grade full-size sedan. While the Diamante may look like a BMW 5 Series from around the same time, it had little of the performance. What it did have though was comfort in spades through features like active suspension, which was a rarity back then. Also, white lace doilies on the headrests because, well, reasons. Unfortunately, later generations of the Diamante became average family sedans.
The Evolution cars that stand out the most are the very last one, the Evo X, and the Evo VI. It represents the rallying peak of the Evo, if not necessarily the peak of the performance. Tommi Makinen took his fourth World Rally Championship title in the car in 1999, and then Mitsubishi fell off the rallying map. Then there are the looks. The Evo VI is the most aggressive evolution of the Evolution, as well as the one that looked the most purposeful. While the inline-4 produced the Japanese automaker's gentleman agreement 276 hp, its 274 lb-ft of torque was developed at just 3,000 rpm.
The most recognizable version, the Tommi Makinen Edition, came with the same power output but the maximum torque became available at 250 less rpm and featured extra body bracing, a lower stance, a revised front bumper, and the iconic red paintwork with WRC-style stripes.
Mitsubishi made one of the greatest sports cars of all time in the form of the 3000GT. It was the Japanese GTO. In fact, it was literally the Japanese GTO because that's what it was called there. It was a 300-hp, twin-turbo, all-wheel drive, four-wheel steering monster of a car with active aerodynamics that could nail 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds. In VR-4 spec, it was faster than a Honda NSX at half the price. Although, granted, it could get costly in maintenance. It was underrated in the 90s when it hit the market, and it is underrated now. By extension, the 3000GT was also one of Dodge's greatest cars as it was also badge-engineered as the Dodge Stealth.