Mitsubishi Was A Great Car Company In 1999

Partylike1999

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)

1999mirage

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)

1999eclipseA 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)

GalantProbably 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)

MonterosportThe 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)

EclipsespiderI 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)

3000gtDefinitely 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)

DiamanteFor 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)

MitsumonteroOf 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.”

Yikes.

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

 

 

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81 Responses

    1. I rented a “new” Diamante back in the day for a flying speed 1,000 mile round trip to NYC. It was a smooth quiet cruiser with plenty of power. The experience was only marred by the plastic cover of the driver’s door pillar breaking in two and falling off. I still have no idea how it happened or how that was even possible.

  1. The breakup of their alliance with Chrysler in the 1990s started the weakening process in my view.

    Both Mitsubishi and Chrysler really helped each other a lot up to that point.

    What really led to Mitsubishi to go downhill was a huge product recall scandal where Mitsubishi was found covering up defects in the early 2000s. That in turn led to a financial crisis and bailout by the mid 2000s.

    After that point, Mitsubishi didn’t have money to develop anything new or interesting. They had to focus on bread and butter models.

    1. I thought the same thing re Chrysler – the partnership gave Chrysler cool stuff it needed to get past the K-car era, and some beyond-the-econo-market street cred for Mitsubishi.

      While we all love the Eclipse, I always was really fond of the first-gen Plymouth Laser version of that car. Had one of my all-time favorite dashes, this futuro-racer thing that still looks good.

  2. Diamantés we’re ubiquitous here, because they were built here, in Adelaide. They were sold as the “Magna” though. It was one of the few cars we exported to the US in any volume, rather than the other way around. They were a handsome, if a little plain midsize car that competed well with our locally made Camry. At the end of its life it was given a facelift that looked appalling and totally ruined it.

    These days if you drive a 90’s Camry you are seen as a sensible, frugal person who just wants well built, reliable transportation. If you drive a 90’s Magna, you are seen as seriously down on your luck!

    Re: the Montero, or Pajero as we call it – they are the most under rated 4×4 you can buy (okay, I may be a little biased) and it’s very sad that it’s discontinued with no replacement. Also, it couldn’t be called the Pajero in the States as in Spanish, that word translates to “wanker”. Yep, I drive a Mitsubishi Wanker!

    1. 90s Camries have been blending into the background as street furniture for the past 30 years and probably will be 30 years from now.

      Their styling was plain and untrendy enough that, if you have one that’s clean and in good condition, it doesn’t really stand out as an embarrassing old jalopy, it just looks like a normal, everyday car. Also, they’re dirt cheap to fix, still well supported with parts, and pretty easy to work on

  3. Know the main thing I remember about the Mitsubishi Diamante? Oil smoke. It seemed that every one I saw in traffic was puffing concerning-looking blue smoke out the tailpipe. I don’t remember any other Mitsubishi with this issue, but I immediately think “blow-by smoke” when I hear the name.

  4. I recall that generation of Galant was ubiquitous for a time and they were really quite handsome compared to the CamCord of the era. If you’re of a certain age, the Eclipse was an incredibly hot car, the Eagle Talon version even more so, owing to its cooler name, neat badge, and relative rarity.

    As for the rest, I remember a teacher or faculty member had a silver Montero Sport that I lusted after from the bus as we pulled into middle school every day. I remember the first time it caught my eye, and the next week or so I spent trying to identify the thing. It was nothing special then or now, I just thought it was a very handsome SUV. I still do.

    I used to work with a kid who picked up a FWD 3000GT and it was a hunk of crap, or at least that particular one was. He later sold it and got an early 4th gen Camaro. Junk was all he could afford, but at least he picked stylish junk?

    It’s funny now looking back on this era of cars, it feels like so long ago while also feeling like it was just yesterday. As a millennial, I feel like I’m forever going to wish it was still the 1990s. Pontiacs of that era also fall into a similar boat as Mitsubishi does, for me anyway. Stylish cars that are actually crap but they used to be everywhere and I was young enough then to think somewhat highly of them, so now I miss their presence. There was a time when Galants and Grand Ams were EVERYWHERE.

  5. The Diamante was a sweet car for what it was. I had a 2001 in college. There was a time when you could get a used one, maybe 5 years old, for $10k with low miles. Loved it. Had a nice ride, enough power and it still had a little bit of the boxy look before every car became a giant rounded bubble. Unfortunately, mine gave way at 120k miles when the trans blew.

  6. Mitsubishi’s decline hits personally for me, and it’s incredible how quickly they faded away. My dad, a first generation immigrant to the US in 1996 got his automotive technician degree in 98 and was hired on at the local Mitsubishi dealer. They paid technicians an hourly rate per job, so no pay if they have no work…. First two years were great and the money was reasonable, but the decline of the brand plus road construction where the dealer was located (which killed drive-in traffic) was brutal. IIRC some of the paychecks in 2001-2002 were barely above $500.

    Nonetheless we’ve always had a soft spot for the brand. A 98 Diamanté purchased for my sister ($800 in running condition) served well for 7 or 8 years and made it to 200k on the original transmission so we may have gotten lucky there. Buttery smooth engine and the interior didn’t feel much worse than even a Lexus of the time to me.

  7. I look at that boxy Galant as being the beginning of the end. Yes, they screwed up the Eclipse fairly badly. But the Galant was their Camry/Accord fighter. The mid-90’s version was pretty good looking in my opinion. Then it just turned into a boring creature of the Enterprise lot. I think of clapped out Galants were abandoned for a clapped out Altima.

  8. In the fall of 2004, I was 22 years old, and had to ask my grandmother for a loan so I could buy a 2002 Lancer OZ Rally to replace my 1989 Toyota Corolla All-Trac, which hydroplaned on the highway during a rain storm. The Corolla was a tank, so I wasn’t hurt at all, but the car wasn’t worth trying to fix.

    Of course my grandmother loaned me the money, interest-free, as long as I came by her house at least once a month to deliver a check, and stay for dinner. I lived in the Cincinnati suburbs at the time, so I had to buy a new car quickly to get to college and work.

    The Lancer was probably the sportiest looking car I’ve ever owned, and was a lot of fun to drive. I’m by no means a car guy, and didn’t go out looking specifically for a Lancer, I just happened to come across a good deal from a private seller.

    I ended up driving the Lancer for over 10 years, including on numerous road trips to Michigan to visit a cool girl I met there. She eventually moved to Cincinnati, we got married, we traded the Lancer for a 2010 Corolla — which she hated driving because of the stick shift.

    I sometimes still miss that Lancer, and get excited when I see one like it driving around.

    1. Hell yeah, Grandma. Mine helped me pay off my ’07 Ion coupe. I love the terms your grandmother set for the loan 😀 Hope there are plenty of good memories in stopping by for dinner regularly like that.

  9. I think the gradual end of the alliance with Chrysler following the Daimler takeover played a role, also. Joint development cut down on the R&D each partner had to shoulder, shared supply chains and some shared manufacturing for greater economies of scale, platform sharing or even direct rebadging of cars in segments where volumes were too low to justify developing something unique. It allows Mitsubishi to conserve their resources and direct them to where they could have the biggest impact. Honestly, the alliance worked out really well, in general, for both companies, and I don’t think either has ever been quite right since they disentangled. Mitsubishi was a lot better for Chrysler than Daimler was, that’s for sure.

  10. Objects in rearview mirror are better than they appear. Many Mitsubishi engines from that time burned oil due to valve seals that would drop. I worked at a Chrysler dealer in the 90s, and we had a Montero at the time that drank oil, badly, the techs there were just like, oh yeah, just needs valve seals, common problem. Then on the street I’d start to see Eclipses only a few years old with blue smoke coming out the exhaust.

    In the 80s, most car bodies wouldn’t last past 100k, in the 90s the bodies got better but engines not as much, in the 2000s they finally started getting better all around, then in the 2010s everybody started turbo-ing things to fix that.

  11. Oh wow. There’s still a 2 door Eclipse running around on our island. It Will Not Die and is the perfect sub-1k beater car for temporary residents here. Just keeps getting passed down to new arrivals.

  12. I’m one of those weirdos who bought the Outlander PHEV. Its not perfect, but surprisingly quirky and good. Now if only they could do a proper off-roader/sports coupe, and put the Mirage out of its misery.

    1. The 2023 Outlander PHEV is in some serious contention for our next vehicle when my wife’s lease is up in about 6 months. I previously had a Volt and I think the 38 mile range of the upcoming 2023 is about perfect for her to use for her 5 mile commute and all the short trips that she does through the day. Then gas it up for the longer weekend trips as needed.

      How do you like your Outlander?

      1. I’m a previous Volt owner as well, and they have similar flaws: default gas mode in low temps, average power, average ICE MPG. The transition from ICE to EV in hybrid mode is much smoother in the Outlander, I recall some hesitation in the Volt.

        The quirkiness is fun: Everything in customizable. You can change the tone of the blinker, raise/lower headlights, change how dark ambient needs to be when auto headlights come one.. etc.. It’s kind of comical when you dive into the menus.

        Oh, and the car beeps at you for every god damn thing you can think of: keys left inside *BEEP-BEEP-BEEP*. Reached the highest possible heat level of your HVAC: *BEEP-BEEP-BEEP*. Daily charging of the 12V battery at 2pm: *BEEEEEEP…… BEEEEEEP……BEEEEEEEP*. Why you ask, one would need to be informed of a daily background task via an exterior alert, audible to people walking by? No idea, but I’m glad to be informed the car’s not slacking off.

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