25 YEAR CLUB: Mitsubishi GTO

1990 Mitsubishi 3000GT

If you had to rank the social pecking order of JDM performance cars, then the Skyline GT-R would be the king. No matter what marque you favor, it’s hard to argue against the decades of motorsport glory and performance folklore that surrounds Nissan’s finest product. After that, you might have the RX-7 with its seductive curves and turbo rotary cool, and of course the Supra is covered in Paul Walker fairy dust and 2JZ engine mythos. Nissan also has the Z, still such an evocative nameplate even today, especially in Japan. Subaru? Well those guys are steeped in rally lore and so is Mitsubishi with its Lancer Evolution, all sideways and airborne through a Finnish forest somewhere. And that’s it, isn’t it? 

1989 Mitsubishi HSX Concept 01

Well, not really. Mitsubishi’s brand message is so embedded with boxy rally cars that it’s sometimes easy to forget that it does have a heritage in GT coupes, going right back to the Galant GTO of the early 1970s, and then the Starion of the 1980s.

015-9625_Mitsubishi Starion 3000GT

After the Mitsubishi HSX Concept debuted at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, rumors began to circulate of a “Super Starion” to debut at the Tokyo Motor Show that year. And just like all the halo performance products of that era — such as the R32 Skyline GT-R and the NSX — the new Mitsubishi coupe promised to take performance to a new level for the Diamond Star marque.

Mitsubishi GTO 03

Under the slogans of “New Motoring Wave” and “Super 4WD Sports”, the Mitsubishi GTO went on sale in October of 1989 in Japan. For a home market addicted to gadgets, the new GTO gave them… well, lots of gadgets. The headline was the VR-4, equipped with a twin-turbo 3.0 V6 that fed its 276 horsepower into a 5-speed transmission and an AWD drivetrain.

1990 Mitsubishi GTO front

Unlike the its 90s Wangan rivals, the engine was transversely mounted, and in lesser guises was a front-driver. Like its competitors, though, the 276 figure was part of the Gentleman’s Agreement among Japanese automakers at the time. In reality, everyone was violating it, and in the US the 3000GT put 296 hp on paper.

1990 Mitsubishi GTO rear

It also had electronically adjustable shocks, which would harden or soften based on speed, throttle, steering angle and cornering G. The brakes had 4-channel ABS and aluminum calipers, the driveshaft was made of high-tensile steel, and the rear suspension had both active and passive steering, the former allowing up to 15 degrees of lock depending on conditions. The performance package would be topped off with moveable front and rear spoilers, which would deploy above at speed.

Mitsubishi GTO interior

On the inside, drivers found a cabin with more lounging room that most Japanese coupes, and were pampered with electric seats that had powered lumbar adjustment and a full climate control system with a groovy multi-colored screen display that was quite something. Oh, and there were lots of buttons for the electronic shocks, spoilers and also a switch to make the exhaust “Normal” or “Silent”.

Mitsubishi GTO 02

And all this stuff came at a cost, however, in terms of weight, and when it debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show the GTO troubled its display stand to the tune of 3,790 pounds. This was quite a statement, in the context of the 2,735-pound FD RX-7, the 2,755-pound NSX and the 3,045 Skyline, which was deliberately stripped back to evoke the heritage of its lightweight 2000GT-R predecessors.

Dodge Stealth R:T

In the US, it was sold as simply the 3000GT. Because of Mitsubishi’s partnership with Chrysler, a reskinned and rebadged version was sold as the Dodge Stealth, with the R/T being the VR-4 equivalent. With fewer strakes and vents, it was considered the better-looking car at the time. In retrospect, however, it’s the Mitsubishi version that’s less 90s “organic” rounded, more uniquely Japanese, and has aged more gracefully.

Mitsubishi GTO 01

Car magazines at the time commended the GTO for having an admirable measure of straight-line stomp, and in this regard the GTO compared very favorably with its 90s JDM brethren. Having a pair of small and fast spooling turbos that meant that peak torque arrived at a very early 2500 rpm. Just as well, since the early 5 speed GTOs had extraordinarily tall gearing that would see third gear stretch to almost 120 mph.

Dodge Stealth R:T yellow

This meant that a GTO was a very relaxed freeway cruiser, but the powertrain was nonetheless stout enough for Popular Mechanics to get a 13.4-second quarter-mile out of one. Dragstrip potential aside, the GTO did score some criticism in period for having a chassis that was a little bit of a blunt instrument. Car magazines all over the world repeated the same mantra that it was a stable corner carver and capable handler with a high threshold of grip, if not very involving and perhaps a little nose heavy.

At some point after the initial fanfare, however the world seemed to just… forget.

Mitsubishi GTO kouki

It didn’t help that it wasn’t a natural tuner superstar. Those little twin turbos meant that unlike its 90s JDM siblings, a GTO isn’t a few simple tweaks away from 450hp. A weak gearbox and great weight also hampered its tuning potential in an era where Mine’s Skylines and Top Secret Supras were stealing all the limelight in the local magazines.

Neither did the GTO cover itself in motorsport glory. In the 1990s, Mitsubishi was busy earning four consecutive WRC championships, so the GTO never saw any track action apart from some strong showings in the Super Taikyu series from 1994 to 1996. Crucially the N1 rules had engine capacity based weight limits, which allowed the GTO to shed quite a lot of kilos and the Puma team cars ran at a far more reasonable 3,220 pounds (in comparison the Skylines could only reduce their weight to 2,910, barely less than stock) while boosting power to 375 hp.

Dodge Stealth Laguna Seca

In the US, Peter Cunningham (of RealTime Racing Acura fame), Andy Pilgrim and guest driver Boris Said took a Dodge Stealth to first place in Sports class of the the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1992. The win gave Said the driver’s championship, breaking a tie with Peter Farrell in an FC Mazda RX-7 Turbo II. Cunningham came in fourth, one point behind Said (photo courtesy of Peter Cunningham).

Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4 Martinique Yellow Pearl

To its credit, Mitsubishi did continue to develop the GTO over time, and in 1994 it scored a major upgrade, with fixed headlights replacing the pop-ups, and most notably, a much stronger Getrag 6-speed replacing the old shifter. Horsepower increased to 320 in US versions, and Mitsubishi stunned the market in 1995 when by offering the first production folding metal hardtop convertible.

11_Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4 Spyder

Top-spec VR-4 Spyders retailed around $65,000 (for comparison, an RX-7 was just $37,363), about $20,000 over a fixed-head VR-4. Converted by ASC, they were never sold anywhere outside North America, including the motherland.

Mitsubishi GTO MR 01

In Japan, an MR version would also be offered, with factory BBS wheels, optional 6-pot brake calipers, and a 66-pound weight saving coming from deleting the rear wheel steering, electric shocks and replacing the active aero with fixed spoilers.

1990 Mitsubishi GTO brochure

To my eyes, time has been kind to the GTO shape. It’s festooned with all sorts of scoops, vents, grilles and blackout panels (there’s even a fake window in the b-pillar) but look at a pristine early model in white and as Ben says, it looks like a Gundam on wheels. It could be nothing but a product of post Bubble Economy Japan, and proudly so.

Usui_Touge04-Mitsubishi_GTO_3000GT

In its home market, the GTO always has been regarded as worthy; a muscle coupe in a sea of pure sports cars. Sure, it was never a Best Motoring Tsukuba hot lap star, but it’s more tractable than an RX-7 in your daily commute, more comfortable than a Skyline, and easier to handle than a Supra when the roads get wet or snowy. If I had to pick a charismatic and burly 90s JDM supercar for a long, stress-free road trip, I’d want the GTO. If an RX-7 is Japan’s Porsche 911 then the GTO is its 928, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

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25 Responses to 25 YEAR CLUB: Mitsubishi GTO

  1. DanMcD said:

    Starting to feel old, they were a new car the other day !

  2. Coltspeed said:

    As much as I’d like to jump up for joy, my feeling is these haven’t aged well.

  3. Lupus said:

    Of of my TOP5 dream cars. Defenetly in green with white accents, reminescent to the Puma livery, witch a saw in Gran Turismo 1 for the 1st time.
    A very underapriciated car. It should be considered as the only worthy opponent for GT-R, esspecially the R33. In terms of technical sophistication and overall layout they have some commons.
    Here, in Europe, most people are affraid of them, due to extremly hight maintance costs, complicated servicing and for reasons unkown to me the 3000GT’s (here they are called the same as in US – thx Ferrari :E ) earned a reputation of poser- of duchebag- cars. Sadly. But is admire they “Gundam Mecha” apparence 😉

  4. Andrew said:

    They are difficult and expensive to properly maintain. Couple that with rock bottom prices for many years and many examples that had fallen into disrepair, remained in poor condition. Thus continuing to fuel many people’s poor opinion of the cars. Other wise they where an interesting example of a ’90s halo car. I’ve seen several nice convertibles versions in person and they are rising in value and desirability. There was actually a time frame when MMNA was purchasing convertibles to use as parts donors and parts to make the tops work are very scarce.

    • Kevin San said:

      I think the parts support would definitely be the most challenging, compared to Skyline, Supra or RX-7 (where the supply is actually pretty good).

      In terms of ease of mechanical access though, I’d say it’s no more or less of a maintenance moneypit than a Skyline GT-R…which is one of those mechanically jam-packed cars, where if you need to access the water temp sensor, you have to remove the rear suspension first

      • Andrew said:

        Well, difficult but not impossible and couple that with an owner who may have purchased it for dirt cheap and doesn’t care about the car, you have a bad combination. Sadly I don’t think these will ever have the desirability of a Skyline. I mean it’s all relative, I work on a lot of Mitsubishi products and after awhile they all have a familiarity that makes working on them feel easy.

  5. Daniel guzman said:

    If anybody is interest in buy one of this check in argentina sales pages (mercadolibre, etc), a few examples with low kilometers, queen garages car for a reasonable amount of pesos / dollars. Maybe can you make a happy day!!!

  6. cesariojpn said:

    Uh, you didn’t mention the GTO/3000GT greatest moment; Jackie Chan drove a GTO in the movie Thunderbolt.

    http://www.imcdb.org/vehicle_7053-Mitsubishi-GTO-1991.html

  7. Tom Westmacott said:

    Fantastic piece, I especially like the Porsche analogy at the end. I remember Autocar comparing the Supra and 928 and concluding they weren’t really the same type of car, it’s believable that the GTO would have been more akin.

    My favourite amusing detail about these cars is the damper blisters:

    Mitsubishi Engineer 1: Great news, we’re done with the ECS work
    Mitsubishi Engineer 2: Cool, lets close the bonnet and go for a spin. Er, why won’t the bonnet close?
    Mitsubishi Engineer 1: Oh yeah, need to speak to the body guys about that, they need to change the bonnet line to make space for the damper control units
    Mitsubishi Engineer 2: But we don’t have time to re-shape the bonnet, the toolings’ already being made
    Mitsubishi Engineer 1: Kuso! Well, I guess maybe just cut some holes and stick some plastic covers over the top?

    There’s a really nice appreciative piece over here on Jalopnik about buying one of these – including some great pics: http://thegarage.jalopnik.com/i-just-lost-25-500-on-my-mitsubishi-3000gt-vr4-and-i-c-1727993125

    Not my favourite bubble-era car, but deserving of appreciation for what it is, as you say.

  8. Greyfox said:

    I was wondering when a article was going to be written about these. They are fantastic cars, when they work! My brother has had one for a number of years, with the AWD/Active Aero/Active Suspension etc. The Active Aero/suspension doesn’t work any-more though (I would be curious to see how many early models still do) My brother looks after it and takes it to the occasional car meet-up/show (its usually the only example at the entire meet-up/show)

    All it taught me though was never buy one! Here in Australia they are a very rare car, so good luck finding someone who will work on it, and anything that needs to be done costs a fortune because the engine bay is so ludicrously packed. Parts? Yeah good luck with that! Though after market stuff from Japan and America does exist. The cabin does not have that much room, especially for taller people. If you did not think you had claustrophobia, you soon will if you try getting in the back seat! Despite all this however, I don’t want to detract people from getting one, they are really cool. Guaranteed to get attention (mostly male attention…). Just be prepared, if you do decide to buy one… They should be looked after and preserved especially now Mitsubishi has decided to not make anything good whatsoever any-more. Oh well I followed in my brothers footsteps and got a forgotten rarity myself with the Nissan NX-Coupe, speaking of which, aren’t they considered ‘nostalgic’ now along with its Sentra sibling?

  9. fc3s guy said:

    just saw two really nice examples a few days ago

  10. Yoda said:

    Gotta finish my AMT Dodge Stealth model kit then.

  11. Adrian Castaneda said:

    Love the article! I have owned my VR4 (modified) for 3 years and my SL for 6 and they’ve been wonderful to me. You can’t beat those curves lol. One thing that I wanna point out from your article is when you mentioned that the 6 speeds are stronger than the 5 speed. Common misconception. 5 speeds with a 25 spline transfer case (92-93) are stronger. But I’m just nit picking here.

    • Kevin San said:

      We didn’t wanna overload the article with too much info, but yes, our understanding is that the 5spd is actually stronger than the 6spd, it’s just that 6spds came with a stronger transfer case and is the stouter combo overall. So the ultimate would be the 6spd transfer case with the 5spd box.

      But we’re getting seriously drivetrain-geeky here 🙂

  12. ahja said:

    They were nice to have around. Good looking and added depth to whole hot Japanese car field. A pearl white one lived on my street in my kid days, wasn’t VR4 though. I wish Mitsubishi had done better over these last decades, I think they are going to go extinct as far as cars.

    And the pearl yellow is among the very best colors I’ve ever seen. And I do not like yellow cars as a rule. I think it look lighter in the flesh than it does in pics.

    PS The GTR wasn’t the king, the Supra was. The GTR had 4WD, but so did a lot of other cars. GTR had conservative, safe, bland styling (part of its appeal, many would probably say). The Supra had a bigger engine, and a gorgeous body that still looks hot as f to anybody today. Put a Supra and a Skyline next to each other in a parking lot and somebody who knows nothing about cars will recognize the Supra instantly as something special and badass. The Skyline look shabby in comparison. Also the most outrageous Supras are more outrageous than the most outrageous GTRs. Plus top Toyota > top Nissan.

  13. Adam said:

    Technologically, this car became “nostalgic” much faster than 25 years.

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