So Mitsubishi is killing off what is arguably its most iconic model. No, not the Lancer Evo, a specialty sports sedan made for select first world markets. We’re talking about the Pajero, a rugged off-roader sold in 170 countries, that made Mitsubishi Motors an esteemed brand in even the most remote corners of the globe. Maybe the executives are right, and shuttering the Pajero factory makes business sense. But with the demise of the Pajero, Mitsubishi is losing something that it will never be able to buy back — nearly four decades of prestige and respect forged from a reputation of being able to traverse any terrain with speed and strength.
The most visible proof of that was the Paris-Dakar Rally, one of the toughest races in the world, but one that Mitsubishi won 12 times. That included an unprecedented seven-year consecutive streak and the utter defeat of rivals like Nissan, Toyota, Isuzu, Renault, Citroen, Mercedes, and Porsche. And although Mitsubishi has not competed in the race since the global financial crisis of 2008, it still holds the record for the most wins by any carmaker, one that seems unlikely to be toppled anytime soon.
However, it wasn’t that the Pajero was developed specifically for Dakar. It just happened to be spectacularly well suited for this type of rally raid competition. Unlike traditional off-road trucks, the Pajero’s development concept is that of a kurokan — a portmanteau of cross-country — vehicle, one that excels at traveling across any terrain.
In Japan, the term kurokan has come to mean a real ladder-frame SUVs (while SUVs can refer to unibody cars with an outdoorsy motif like the original CR-V). However, the Pajero isn’t necessarily a one-trick pony rock crawler. Its expertise is superior mobility across any type of road or surface.
As such, it’s had independent front suspension from the beginning. This underlying vehicle concept helped it achieve tremendous success at Dakar right out of the box, in relative stock form. The Pajero got on the podium in its very first running, in third, and won outright this insanely difficult race in only its second year, 1985.
It has a distinctly different concept than the Land Cruiser and contemporary Range Rovers. It was a bit of a hybrid between and off-road truck and rally car. At the same time, the Pajero had a diverse lineup, from 2-door convertible to high-roof 5-door wagon, utilitarian to luxury with lots of gadgets.
Old Montero ads and brochures in the US did mention Dakar, and car magazines wrote about it here and there, but few Americans cared. In countries like France, though, the races are televised, during the holidays between Christmas and past New Year’s when the multi-day event is traditionally held. We definitely missed out.
That’s because the Paris-Dakar Rally is utterly ridiculous. It makes the Baja 1000 look like child’s play. The route changes from year to year but they’ve even run it from Paris to Cape Town, a distance of 7,722 miles. It’s was likely the most grueling auto race in the world, and words cannot truly describe its sheer madness.
Luckily, Mitsubishi has published several videos of the Pajero’s escapades there. These films capture just how punishing these contests can be, with mid-race transmission changes, unforgiving terrain, and deadly mistakes. It’s probably the closest one can get to a real-life Mad Max chase sequence.
After seeing the ruthless nature of Paris-Dakar, Mitsubishi’s dozen championships become even more impressive. There are even more if you count the class wins, and the overall stage wins total an astounding 150. At Dakar, nobody even came close.
Again, it was the underlying vehicle concept that made the Pajero such a formidable competitor in the sands of Africa. Most 80s and 90s Japanese off-roaders had their own unique concepts and charms, all very recreational and gadget-y, like specialized toys. The Pajero’s just happened to be stampeding across an entire continent.
In a time when SUV (in the Japanese definition of the term) are so popular they’re eclipsing sedans as the default car type, when car enthusiasts prefer overlanding to oversteering, and when Ford and Chevy and Jeep are bringing back names like Bronco and Blazer and Gladiator, it seems utterly foolish to axe a nameplate with so much heritage and potential. The Pajero, with all its abilities and records, has something other carmakers can only dream of. It’s a shame that soon, once the Pajero’s birthplace is gone, Mitsubishi itself will only be able to dream about it as well.
Images courtesy of Mitsubishi.