Looking at photos of Nissan throughout the years yesterday brought me back to the late ’90s when Japanese car companies were solidifying their careful ascent into the mainstream. This was a great era of cars from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi. The first three companies in that list still command a large market share in the United States, but Mitsubishi has been sent down to the bus leagues. Let’s take a trip back to a time when Mitsubishi had a truly remarkable product portfolio.
The year was 1999 and Mitsubishi had mostly survived Japan’s lost decade, though not without some major scars. In many ways, Mitsubishi was doomed, it just wasn’t clear to everyone yet. At 263,464 vehicles sold, it wasn’t Mitsubishi’s biggest year, but it saw Mitsubishi’s biggest year of growth since the early ’80s at a remarkable 36.7% year-over-year (you can see all their historical sales here).
What made the cars so popular? Let’s look at the lineup, starting with the cheapest car and working our way up.
Mitsubishi Mirage ($11,150)
They made great appliance cars in the 1990s. Yes, this is meant as a cheap entry-level car for people who wanted something reliable and relatively fuel efficient. I think even today it looks great, with those twisty alloys and subtle ground effects. It was available as a coupe or a sedan, but the coupes were the ones to have. A buddy of mine in high school drove a pink-ish one and that car was as much fun as a night of Mario Golf and a 12-pack of Josta soda. It was a burned CD-ROM of Limewire-sourced Trip Hop in car form.
1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse ($15,750)
A hangover from the DSM era of Mitsubishi when the company was partially owned by Chrysler, the second generation Eclipse is maybe the best car Mitsubishi ever made? It’s also probably the best example of a car being completed ruined in one generation. The second-to-third generation Eclipse progression is like when Oasis went from “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory” to “Be Here Now.”
Available in either FWD or AWD configuration, the Eclipse was a handsome and capable sports coupe that was better than anything that anyone else had at the time. If subsequent owners hadn’t completely modded everyone of these into the ground we’d probably remember them like we do the Integra.
The best version was the AWD GSX which had the brand’s rightly famous 4G63 turbo four, good for 210 horsepower and 214 lb-ft of torque and available with a five-speed manual. The FWD GS-T version is almost as good, though.
1999 Mitsubishi Galant ($16,990)
Probably the weakest car in the lineup, the Mitsubishi Galant was en entirely fine midsize sedan that was not as good as the Camry or Honda Accord or even the Nissan Altima. It’s worth noting that the mom of my friend with the Mirage (Hey Mrs. McQ!) had a Camry. The mildly hotted up GTZ model was apparently nice, but still not as capable as an equivalent Accord with the V6.
1999 Mitsubishi Montero Sport ($18,310)
The third car that family had (Hi Mr. McQ!) was a green-on-tan Mitsubishi Montero Sport. Actually based on the global Triton truck platform and not just a chopped Montero as I thought at the time, the Montero Sport was an attractive family wagon. Basically everyone makes a car roughly this size now though few of them are this good looking.
1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder ($21,710)
I briefly dated a girl in high school named Heather who was way out of my league. How did I pull it off? She was a year older but she went to a different school and we met in one of those rare moments in high school where I blundered into a tiny amount of game*. We’d meet at a Starbucks between our houses where one of Heather’s classmates, also out of my league, worked.
The classmate/barista had a moment where she thought I was cute, or at least assumed I must have something going for me if I was dating Heather. She drove a white 1999 Eclipse convertible I thought was most excellent and when Heather came to her senses and broke it off I contemplated trying to get some seat time in the Eclipse convertible but could never make it work.
1999 Mitsubishi 3000 GT ($25,450)
Definitely a hangover from Bubble Era Mitsubishi, the 3000 GT was a world-beating GT. Or at least it was intended to be. The big car was ahead of its time by offering a twin-turbo V6, all-wheel-drive, and a retractable hard top. All of that’s fairly common now for sports.
Unfortunately, the aging platform wasn’t that big of a hit anymore and 1999 represents the last year you could get one in the United States. It wouldn’t be replaced. You can distinguish the 1999 model by the giant spoiler out back.
I’d still rock one of these and I remember at the time thinking they were cool.
1999 Mitsubishi Diamante ($27,189)
For whatever reason, Mitsubishi never gave us a Lexus, Infinti, or Acura. Even Mazda tried with the ill-fated Millenia project. Much like the Galant, this iteration of the Diamante isn’t anything particularly special. I’d love to hear from someone who owned one.
While the price of these was low and all came with a V6 engine (which was a big deal in the 1990s) it was a hard argument to make when compared to, say, a similar generation Infiniti i30 or Lexus ES300.
1999 Mitsubishi Montero ($31,370)
Of all the cars on this list the 1999 Montero is the one most having its moment right now. Not everyone can drive a Landcruiser and the Montero offers a similar level of capability without the premium you’d pay for the Toyota.
In 1999, you were a year away from the fourth generation model, but that’s a good thing. No disrespect to the later Monteros, but this is the one to have. An evolution of a truck that Mitsubishi had been selling since the early ’90s, the Montero is ruggedly handsome and relatively simple.
In this last iteration you got pretty much everything you needed for your dollar: A V6 engine, four-wheel drive, cruise control, and an option CD player.
So What Happened?
No one thing killed Mitsubishi, but a combination of inertia and self-inflicted wounds doomed the brand. The new generation of products mostly suffered from a lack of imagination and reduced budgets that a new CEO demanded.
To try and attract new buyers they put into place a “0-0-0” plan that meant you could walk into a Mitsubishi dealership and get a new car with 0% down, 0% financing, and 0 payments for 12 months. You can imagine how that went. From Autoweek:
But a growing chorus of Mitsubishi dealers worries about the franchise’s future. Since much of Mitsubishi’s retail gains came from deal-of-the-week shoppers, dealers worry that the automaker’s reputation is stuck, unable to lure better-heeled customers now that the finance deals are fading.
As sales have fallen, inventories have piled up.
“They artificially took future sales with ‘0-0-0’ financing and pulled them forward,” says dealer Gary Roundy, who owns Mitsubishi and Suzuki franchises in El Cajon, Calif. “I have 110 cars in stock, and I sell 25 a month. I’ve got enough cars for five months. But we’re getting rammed and crammed with more inventory.”
It was a good run. Not everyone gets a good run. Some of us live lives of enduring mediocrity. Do you have any fond memories of Mitsubishi? Do you disagree that 1999 was the best year? Let me know in the comments.
*The short version is that I was competing in a speech and debate tourney at this other school and I knew the guy running the tournament who realized quickly he’d gotten everything wrong. I dropped out of the tournament, asked for a schedule, a walkie talkie and someone to help. The “someone to help” I randomly chose was a lovely young actress on loan from the drama department. I can’t think of many other situations where extreme organizational skills can lead to a date.
All Photos: Mitsubishi via Edmunds/KBB except for the correct Montero, which is courtesy of Andrew Collins