I have one very distinct memory from my first semester as an assistant language teacher in Japan. On a sunny, beautiful afternoon in early summer before the heat and humidity set in, I rolled the windows down in the Mitsubishi Afterthought and AED’ed the weezy “engine” to life to begin my drive of shame home. As I passed out of the teachers’ lot to the driveway in the front of the school, a group of 10th graders were hanging out around the statue-thing in front of the school doing their “cool kids” thing. Their leader looked over and we made eye contact. I knew in that split second what was coming. He broke eye contact, flung one arm at me to point while his other grabbed his stomach and he broke into cartoonish, hysteric laughter at me in that damned Minica. I waved- what else could I do? -and he kept laughing as he waved back, and that’s what it was like driving that car every day.
I am not sure how this car was engineered. What were they thinking when they laid down their plans and started tooling up the machinery at their manufacturing plants? Just looking at these things it’s apparent that the engineers did the most un-Japanese thing possible: they half-assed it as hard as they could. The car turned on. It changed gears (it only had three, so it wasn’t asked to really think about it all that hard) and it went and it stopped and it turned off and the door stayed shut when you closed it. Oh, it could turn left or right, too. Backing up was a viable option through those big windows. Wow, what sightlines. And that seemed to be *juuuuust* enough for them.
Alright, anyways, I was placed in a small town nestled in a series of valleys between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It is not possible to sum up the beauty of the place without resorting to hyperbole, but so whatever, here you go: absolutely stunning, gorgeous, green-covered mountains, gray cliffs rising straight up from the sea, stretches of beaches here and there offering places to get a bit closer vantage point from which to see it all, and winding, exciting roads snaking all over it that were wasted on that utterly horrid little car.
My old company offered us a company car, promising either a Daihatsu Mira or this here Mitsubishi Embarrassment. They also promised us that it would be as basic as you can imagine: crank windows, lean-over-and-unlock-the-passenger-door locks, and an AM radio. Oh, and that AM radio had a single, tiny, tinny speaker built right into it, right in the face of the thing. No door speakers, no plastic cover on the back hatch at all to hide speakers. And you had to reach out of the car to adjust the sideview mirrors. I don’t blame my old company at all. Cars are expensive in Japan, and with the sha-ken (a comprehensive car test, once every two years for older cars) maintenance is costly as well. And lots and lots of companies use these awful things to send their employees out to work in, although if you work for a gas company or something you get a sweet set of graphics on the outside that makes them look like race cars!
So, let’s talk about the driving experience. The steering wheel was a bit slack. You turned it and turned it and a little while later the entire thing would lurch over in the direction you had requested it go. If the road was uneven, it would lurch over for you, requiring you to go to all that work to attempt to put it back on its original path, and then you still had to turn and turn the steering wheel again to straighten the stupid thing out. There was always an awful lot of drama driving that thing. I suppose that could be considered exciting.
The Minica was an unpleasant handler, and it made no effort to shore up that weakness with a supple ride. It crashed and bounced and bobbed and weaved over every crack in the road. Does Mitsubishi also build boats? Because the whole experience was very nautical, perhaps something akin to be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a dinghy, if this dinghy had chewing gum connecting you to an indifferent rudder.
I mentioned with my old Hyundai Accent that I felt vulnerable in it while the popular SUVs of the late 90s powered past me on American roads. I spoke too soon. You don’t know what vulnerable in a car is until you’re trying to get down a road in one of these. With the comically desperate expression on its ridiculous face, there was not a single thing about the Minica that inspired confidence. It was a rolling homage to E.D.
The best thing about that car was the day it was scheduled for its sha-ken. I remember it very vividly, because we were loaned a Honda Life kei car. It was pink and every bit as joyful and lively as the Minica was dour and frightening. It’s the only reason why I don’t paint all kei cars with the same paintbrush of hatred the Minica gets.
So, let’s go back to a post I wrote in a COAL article by michaelfreeman from nearly four years ago [edited to reduce redundancy] to sum this piece of crap car up:
…[it] was just the most awful, incompetent, uncomfortable, embarrassing car I have ever seen, let alone been seen in. And my first car was a ’97 Hyundai Accent… but the Minica was worse in every conceivable way. Oh, it ran everyday alright, but that is a HUGE part of what was wrong with it. Frequent visits to the dealer and using their loaner cars would have been hugely satisfying in comparison. Its three cylinder engine produced what must only have been a horsepower. The A/C never blew cold unless I was doing a steady 50 km/h, which was difficult because it could barely reach such speeds. Put my wife, the baby seat, and our baby in it with me and I don’t know how it ever accelerated. The handling was horrifying… …It was incredibly imprecise, and while parking my old Hyundai was so easy I could probably do it blindfolded, the rubber band connecting the wheels to the steering wheel never put the car in the position I wanted it in. Speaking of positions, the driving position was terrible. The seats were epicly awful, slabs of unforgiving foam covered in malaise-era GM upholstery with no support for any part of your body at a size about 30% too small. Add to a cabin where there was no room to move around and you’re looking at something more like a penalty box than a car. And the noise. Oh, the noise. Turn on the A/C and it roars away as though it’s actually doing something (it wasn’t). The engine whines and wheezes away as though it has the weight of the whole world on its back. The howl of the tiny little tires was deafening over 30 km/h. For Americans like me, that’s barely 20 mph. Tire roar at 20! How did they manage it?? I still can’t figure it out. It is as though they set out to make the worst driving, least comfortable, most horrible little car they could possibly assemble. The sheer awfulness of that car is so difficult to put into words without cursing I’m not sure if I can continue writing about it. Ugh.
Yup. That about sums it up perfectly.
NOTE: engine and rear seat picture from kakaku.com, all others mine.