Home » Back In The 1990s, Mitsubishi Was Crazy Enough To Put A Lancer Evolution Powertrain Into A Tiny Minivan: Holy Grails

Back In The 1990s, Mitsubishi Was Crazy Enough To Put A Lancer Evolution Powertrain Into A Tiny Minivan: Holy Grails

Holy Grail Mitsubishi Rvr Hyper Sports Gear R Ts
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In the not-too-distant past, if you wanted an affordable sedan with the performance of a supercar, Mitsubishi was one of the brands willing to put you behind the wheel of a rally-inspired speed machine. The Lancer Evolution remains a legendary car, even almost a decade past its expiration date. If you wanted your Mitsubishi roadgoing rally car in any body style other than a sedan, your only choice was the Evolution IX wagon. Then there was this, the Mitsubishi RVR Hyper Sports Gear R, or the time when Mitsubishi planted an Evo drivetrain into a tiny minivan with a sliding door. Never sold in America, these cars were once forbidden fruit, but you can buy them today.

Like so many of our Japanese Holy Grail nominations, this story originates in the famous Japanese asset price bubble, when asset values in Japan were almost unfathomably high.

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You’ve seen the so-called Bubble Era talked about before, even here. Asset values, driven in part by speculation, were so insane that land in Tokyo’s sought-after neighborhoods reportedly became 350 times more expensive than comparable land in Manhattan. Wanted a golf club membership? In some cases, that was $3 million. Businesses also had access to cheap capital, which led to a buying spree so hardcore that there were fears that Japan would take over the world economy. As the New York Times wrote, some people took out loans valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in real estate. They expected healthy returns, only to end up deeply in the red when the bubble burst.

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Between 1986 and 1991, Japan’s economy expanded by about France’s gross domestic product, which was then worth about $956 billion. If you were lucky enough to have money during that era, you also got to enjoy breakneck technological innovations. The Bubble Era saw cars getting outfitted with active dampers, active sway bars, GPS navigation, and novel construction techniques.

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At the tail end of the Bubble Era, Mitsubishi catered to a growing market of active car buyers by building the RVR, a tiny van with a sliding door and off-road capability. Then, right before the first-generation model ended production in 1997, Mitsubishi lowered in the drivetrain from the Lancer Evolution, making one quick grocery-getter.

Mitsubishi Builds A Tiny Off-Road Van

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Mitsubishi was seeing growth in sales of activity vehicles. People were scooping up the company’s off-roaders including the Delica van and the Pajero SUV. Meanwhile, families were piling into the Mitsubishi Chariot MPV. Along the way, Mitsubishi noticed that the desires of its customers were shifting. Those customers still wanted to go off-road, but they wanted something a bit easier to work with than a Pajero.

Development started in the late 1980s with Mitsubishi presenting a concept RVR in 1989. The concept RVR had no roof, no rear windows, and had bars for doors. The RVR concept sported a waterproof interior, four-wheel drive, and a camera screen on the dashboard. This was Mitsubishi’s example of a small, youth-oriented RV.

Mitsubishi Rvr Concept 1

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Now, many of you in the audience will be quick to point out that this is hardly an RV. Well, “RV” had a different meaning in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s. These were recreational vehicles, but in Japan, that meant passenger vehicles for outdoor recreation. That meant off-road vehicles, vans, minivans, and wagons. It’s also noted that sometimes, the owners of these RVs did take them camping, and some Japanese RVs had seating that turned into beds. The term is less common today, but you’ll still see it on the Japanese internet from time to time.

For Mitsubishi, the goal was to make a compact easy “RV.” To do this, Mitsubishi took the platform of its larger Chariot MPV and chopped it down. The Mitsubishi RVR shares a lot of the Chariot’s components and is sized like a hatchback. However, unlike a hatchback, the RVR has a small sliding side door like a minivan does. Also like a minivan was the sliding door’s latching mechanism, which secured the door to the vehicle’s B-pillar. The resulting vehicle, which launched in 1991, looked nothing like the snazzy 1989 concept RVR, but it was also something unique, a sort of mini-minivan.

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As for the name, it means Recreational Vehicle Runner, and Mitsubishi explains why it tacked Runner onto the end of RV:

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The intention behind tagging Runner to RV in the model name was to indicate that it was a RV type model with outstanding and passenger-friendly driving dynamics. Its 2.0 L DOHC engine and fulltime four-wheel driveline delivered solid and comfortable on- and off-road performance. The RVR also boasted a new approach to packaging with its short-nose/tall-cabin minivan proportions providing outstanding space utility. The floor from the rear seat passengers’ feet back is totally flat. In addition, the rear seats have split-back, tumble, and full-recline features which enable a variety of seat arrangements. Together with the 300mm travel long slide rear seats and the sliding leftside rear door, these features create an interior which offers high flexibility in the ways it may be arranged to suit different situations.

The RVR became a hit in Japan, with buyers opting for the little car and its sole sliding door. In Japan, the RVR saw competition from the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rasheen, Subaru Forester, and Toyota RAV4. Some of those may have been better off-roaders, but none of them had a sliding door.

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If the RVR looks familiar to you, it could be because this is one of those rare events where the base vehicle was sold in America. Chrysler and Mitsubishi were still friends with each other at the time and as a result, we got the RVR as the Dodge Colt Wagon, Eagle Summit Wagon, and Plymouth Colt Vista Wagon. Mitsubishi also sold it in America as the Expo LRV. In most other parts of the world, the RVR was sold as the Space Runner, which is the coolest name of all of the RVRs.

Sadly, America never got the more spicy variants of the RVR. Our examples came with the 1.8-liter 4G93 four making 113 HP or the 2.4-liter 4G64 four making 136 HP. It wasn’t all a lost cause, though, as our models did come with available four-wheel drive and a manual transmission.

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In most markets, the RVR was marketed as a smaller alternative to a minivan. Mitsubishi’s idea was to sell this to young adults and couples who wanted the practicality of a minivan, but didn’t want the size of a minivan. In an effort to relate to the youth, advertisements featured Bugs Bunny and the car chilling near the beach, which I’d definitely trade for snow!

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MotorWeek‘s John Davis was impressed, noting “no other affordable vehicle today has the Mitsubishi Expo LRV’s full measure of have fun practicality.” Though, in his review, he feared that American buyers might pass it up for being too unique.

By August 1993, Mitsubishi launched the RVR Open Gear, an RVR without the sliding door, or any rear door at all, but an automatic targa top that made the RVR a bit closer to that 1989 concept. If that’s your jam, perhaps that would be the Grail for you.

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There was also the Sports Gear, which added a brush guard, skid plates, fender flares, skirts, a roof rack, and a rear-mounted spare tire for those mini-minivan off-road adventures. We didn’t get the Open Gear, Sports Gear, or the RVR’s available turbodiesel engine. That car had advertisements featuring Bugs Bunny doing outdoorsy things such as visiting waterfalls.

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Dealership options for the Sports Gear added more off-road bits from lighting and bug shields to mud flaps. You could also get woodgrain plastic trim if you wanted a dash of luxury.

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Another notable variant is the Super Sports Gear, which gets a detuned intercooled 4G63T turbo four from the Lancer Evolution and the Galant VR-4. When paired with a manual transmission, a Mitsubishi RVR Super Sports Gear makes 227 horsepower and 213 lb-ft of torque. Plus, you still get those cool off-road bits. For some, that’ll be their grail. Sadly,  four-wheel drive versions of the RVR did not come with lockers, but I bet the compact 4×4 was still plenty of fun in the sticks, especially with early Evo power!

The Grail

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However, if you just want all-out brutality from your tiny minivan, there is only one variant of the RVR you’re looking for. Thomas nominated the Mitsubishi RVR Hyper Sports Gear R for today’s grail, the one-year-only version of the first-generation RVR with a 4G63T, but with more horses galloping and coupled to a dramatic body kit.

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In 1997, the final year for the first-generation RVR, Mitsubishi released the RVR Hyper Sports Gear Z and RVR Hyper Sports Gear R. Visually, both cars were the same, featuring a bold body kit, graphics package, and Recaro sport seats. You were also able to get them with that sweet rear tire carrier.

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The big difference between the Z grade and the R grade was under the hood. The Mitsubishi RVR Hyper Sports Gear Z got a 4G63 2.0-liter four making 158 horsepower and 137 lb-ft of torque. That’s not bad, but the RVR Hyper Sports Gear R blows it out of the water with a 4G63T 2.0-liter four good for 247 horsepower and 227.8 lb-ft of torque. That punched power to all four wheels through a manual transmission.

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Opting for the Hyper Sports Gear R also netted you a limited-slip rear differential. In other words, it was more or less a Lancer Evolution III with a sliding door. If you fancy your speed with an automatic, that came with a power penalty that brought you down to 228 HP.

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Technology came in the form of a digital climate control system, ABS, and disc brakes on all wheels. The RVR Hyper Sports Gear R wasn’t huge on luxury, but you did get a power sunroof and power mirrors.

Sadly, I could find no professional reviews for the RVR Hyper Sports Gear R and the best YouTube video I found was of a modified example. Check that out below:

I did find a dyno test of a stock Mitsubishi RVR Hyper Sports Gear R and with a cracked manifold it managed to put 234 HP down to its wheels, which is pretty great!

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These do seem to be a rare single-year special trim level. However, I couldn’t find any production data, no recent auction data, and no examples currently for sale either in Japan’s auction systems or common Japanese marketplaces that I know of. I thought Pennsylvania Japstar Imports was selling a Hyper Sports Gear R, but as it turns out, that listing hasn’t been updated in at least two years.

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You might have better luck finding the RVR Hyper Sports Gear R’s successor. The RVR entered into its second generation in 1997 and its high-performance variant is the Sports Gear X3, which still had the Evo powertrain but didn’t look nearly as nutty as its predecessor. It’s also notable that while the RVR originally left America in 1996, it made a return in the 2011 model year as the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. Yep, the ancestor of the Outlander Sport is a weird micro van!

If you happen to find a Mitsubishi RVR Hyper Sports Gear R, it’ll be like finding a needle in a haystack, a really fast needle. It’s sort of amazing Mitsubishi even went through the work to make the first-generation RVR. It was the kind of car for the person who wanted a minivan, but didn’t want all of the minivan size. It’s wild enough that Mitsubishi saw a market there, then it’s just plain silly to couple it to a bunch of power, and the world is better for it.

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1997 Mitsubishi Rvr Hyper Sports
J-Spec Imports
1997 Mitsubishi Rvr Hyper Sports (1)
J-Spec Imports

Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at mercedes@theautopian.com or drop it down in the comments!

(Images: Mitsubishi, unless otherwise noted.)

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Nic Wechter
Nic Wechter
5 months ago

I own a Hyper Sport Gear R they are a very rare car. About 1600 made only in 97 only 600 or so of those had a manual transmission. By now most have been parted out for their driveline and fishnet Recaro front seats, very few still on the road.

the HSGZ and R also came in unique colours, white (most common) black (less common), green/grey (extremely rare) and Red (only 4 were red)

Pretty sure the HSG never had sunroof as an option, and they also don’t have the factory roof rails on most other RVR models of this generation

Mine has had a rough life and is cosmetically rough but it runs great and i’m restoring it.

Happy and answer any q’s or take pics for anyone curious about the HSGR

There was also the Wild Gear, which IIRC is basically just a slightly lifted sports gear with a crazy 80 decal package down the side.

Also looking for one of those HSG specific spare wheel covers, hit me up if you see one for sale 🙂

Last edited 5 months ago by Nic Wechter
Myk El
Myk El
5 months ago

Definitely one of the best choices in the “If you were only allowed one car to do everything” games.

Uberscrub
Uberscrub
5 months ago

I had an Eagle Summit in College and a few years after. Maybe the favorite car I’ve ever owned. I called it the a micro van. With AWD and snow tires it was the best car in the U.P. of Michigan, over 30mpg on the highway. Fold, then flip the middle seat forward against the front seats and have enough room for everything I needed at school, including a futon, bikes and a kayak on the roof.

My friends called it the Molester mobile, i didn’t like that name too much. I did offer a pretty girl some candy to come take a ride in it, we have been married for 8 years now.

I knew there were JDM turbo option, didn’t realize they were that bonkers. I would love to have another, but that car does not fit into my life anymore, maybe as a 5th vehicle.

Ben Chia
Ben Chia
5 months ago

These things are cool as heck! I love their naming convention too:

Sports Gear
Super Sports Gear
Hyper Sports Gear

Timbales
Timbales
5 months ago

I remember driving a used Dodge Colt, but I couldn’t get past the odd shade of lavender blue it was.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
5 months ago

Soooo, who has swapped the running gear into a colt or summit? The want is strong!

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
5 months ago

(Finally, a true holy grail)

“You have chosen… wisely.”

Last edited 5 months ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Zac H
Zac H
5 months ago

My grandmother had a purple and silver two-tone Eagle Summit from new. We called it her “mini minivan”. As a kid, my favorite feature was the gigantic storage pocket in the back seat fixed/no-door wall. It was always full of random fast-food toys and junk we had stashed in there and forgotten about during the last visit, and it was fun to dig through and rediscover stuff. Hadn’t thought about that car in forever!

GirchyGirchy
GirchyGirchy
5 months ago
Reply to  Zac H

My parents almost bought one! We test drove a Colt Vista, I remember liking it. Tons of room inside for what it was. They ended up buying an Aerostar instead.

TriangleRAD
TriangleRAD
5 months ago

I always liked the “mini-minivan” style of the Colt Vista/Summit/Expo. There was also the Nissan Axxess (aka second-generation Prairie) that was similar in size. Years later Mazda sort of hit upon the idea again with the Mazda5.

But an Expo with an Evo drivetrain? Yes please!

Last edited 5 months ago by TriangleRAD
Tim Cougar
Tim Cougar
5 months ago

I’ll have an Open Gear, please.

Last edited 5 months ago by Tim Cougar
Nic Wechter
Nic Wechter
5 months ago
Reply to  Tim Cougar

There is also the “Super open Gear” which has the same running gear as the Super Sport Gear (turbo engine, hood scoop, top mount IC)

Nic Wechter
Nic Wechter
5 months ago
Reply to  Nic Wechter

Just doing a bit of research the super open gear was the rarest model of RVR

Only 224 ever made, 179 auto and 49 manual

Sergey Pan
Sergey Pan
5 months ago

“Bang wagon” by Japanese

Wangan Tuned Kei Car
Wangan Tuned Kei Car
5 months ago
Reply to  Sergey Pan

misfiring shisutemu

Sergey Pan
Sergey Pan
5 months ago

With the rear seats like this you soon will be shopping for 3 row minivan to put “consequences”there

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
5 months ago

Once again I must state a pos Noone ever wanted and Noone ever looked for is not a holy grail it is a piece of crap.

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

I want it very much. It’s a holy grail to a certain kind of person. That person being anyone who is crazy in love with the Pajero EVO

Utherjorge
Utherjorge
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

what’s all this, then, says Mr. Cleese

Spyrius Robot
Spyrius Robot
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

I want one.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
5 months ago
Reply to  Spyrius Robot

Okay you three. IMHO 3 is not enough. The worst cars ever made sold more than 3. Holy Grail is like the 2nd coming of Christ. It is the rapture, a lottery jackpot. It is something every wants but can’t get.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
5 months ago

Now more than ever I feel Autopian on a small scale and car sites as a whole need to come together to make sure decisions. That small van looks like a suburu wagon. What’s a wagon, an SUV, A MINIVAN, what is small? And yes let’s make a business decision that fits.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
5 months ago

One of the best features on these was the sliding rear seats. Leg room galore. A friend of mine had one of the NA Colt versions loaded with every option except the automatic. She had a huge dog and this was perfect for her as the dog liked to sit on the floor right behind her.

It’s a pity that buyers are such sheep that innovative vehicle layouts are so rare now. Especially in sane (small) packages.

Last edited 5 months ago by Andy Individual
Pupmeow
Pupmeow
5 months ago

It’s … the perfect vehicle.

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
5 months ago
Reply to  Pupmeow

It’s definitely up there

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
5 months ago

I don’t think there can be any quibbles about the Holy Grail status here.
that is flat-out cool as all hell

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
5 months ago

Too freaking cool. I love these even in pedestrian base model form as a Colt or Summit. Didn’t know there were so many variants of this in Japan. Very jealous.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
5 months ago

Drove several of the US spec models way back then. And they were actually considered as a next car purchase. Would like to find a nice one now, but very rare in our area.
They were well built, nice features, and a lot of fun to drive hard.

Lockleaf
Lockleaf
5 months ago

I knew that Mitsubishi did lots of things with AWD and the 4G63, but this one is one I had completely missed. What a ridiculous vehicle. Very cool article, very cool car.

Mr. Asa
Mr. Asa
5 months ago

Couple years back a guy on a forum I’m on put out feelers asking for someone in my area to go look at a little mini-van for him. I was bored, so I bit. Drove out to Clearwater to meet the owner.
I’m not sure if it was this exact trim level, but it had a factory turbo, AWD, manual trans, and some weird body kit.
The owner had turned the wick up a bit, we went on a test drive while I listened for noises. It was a righteous ride. No rust, minimal body damage from Florida drivers. I took a bunch of pics, later on the guy I had checked it out for flew down and drove it home.

He’s still happy with it

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Asa

GRM I will assume. Good on ya!

Mr. Asa
Mr. Asa
5 months ago
Reply to  Jalop Gold

Yup.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
5 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Asa

Glad your box finally arrived!

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
5 months ago

Oh Mazda! Why did you never Mazdaspeed the 5?

The boss wagon is as close as we ever got.

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
5 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

Would have been so amazing lol

MrLM002
MrLM002
5 months ago

I rarely ever say this but HOLY HELL LOOK AT THE REAR SEAT LEGROOM!

Anything with a sliding door is automatically cool in my book but this is extra cool

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
5 months ago
Reply to  MrLM002

You can get that in any minivan, just pull out the center seats.

Curtis Loew
Curtis Loew
5 months ago

I’ve seen a Dodge Colt wagon with a 4g63T swap. I never knew there was a factory built one.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
5 months ago

I adore these things, and am so happy to see them when they pop up in movies. These things just seemed WAYYYYYY ahead of their time, like Honda CRVs but with K20 swaps and boost from the factory. Thanks for the article, learned a lot!

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