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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.