Curbside Classic: Mitsubishi Express: The White, Boxy Cockroach

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Mexico’s Nissan Tsuru. Brazil’s VW Kombi. India’s Hindustan Ambassador. Add to that list the Mitsubishi Express, another car that has gone years without any major revision. From 1986 until now, the three-diamond-badged box has been pouring out of a factory in Asia. Pretty impressive run for the van formerly known as “Van” (or “Wagon” if it had more seats) that sold a trickle for a few years in the late 1980s in America.

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The third-generation, rear-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Delica, or Express as it is known in Australia, has lead an interesting life. First, it was launched in 1986. Then they facelifted it in 2003. And that’s about it.

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If it seems like I’m exaggerating a bit, trust me, I am not. This van remained visually unchanged for almost twenty years before Mitsubishi Motors decided, “Oh, alright, let’s make it look a little bit more 21st century.” And that 2003 facelift has to go down in history as one of the subtlest revisions of an existing car. What this means is that it is almost impossible to tell a 1986 Express apart from a 2003 from a 2013. The pictured example is pre-2003, but beyond that I can’t be sure what year it is.

800px-1991-1994_Mitsubishi_TR_Magna_GLX_sedan_011991-96 Mitsubishi Magna GLX, with the venerable 2.6 Astron carbureted four

A classifieds search reveals just three nationwide of the 2.0 diesel variant, despite it being available from launch all the way until 2002. With an earth-shattering 73hp/108 lb ft, that shouldn’t be surprising. The two main engines employed in the Express were a 2.0 and a 2.4 petrol engine. The former employed a carburetor all the way up until 2003! Growing up, I was shocked that Mitsubishi kept a low-spec, fleet-fodder version of the Magna (Diamante) with the 2.6 Astron carbureted four up until 1996. For Mitsubishi, there was precedent to keep a low-tech engine around, and I am fairly sure the 2003 Express was the last car on the Australian market to not have fuel injection.

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The carbureted 2.0, upon its demise, was producing 104hp/116 lb ft. A fuel-injected 2.0 was introduced a few years earlier and was sold alongside the carby 2.0, boasting 113hp/121 lb ft. This engine was known as the 4G63 and has featured in everything from the Diamond Star Motors triplets to more obscure metal like the Proton Perdana and Brilliance BS6. For those who ached for more performance from their plain white box, a 2.4 fuel-injected four was also available. That extra displacement netted you 17 extra lb ft, but no more horses, and eventually it was your only option and only available with a five-speed stickshift.

Though the Express will probably continue to plug on in developing markets, Mitsubishi Motors Australia announced this year it would pull the plug on the venerable van. Why? Well, besides the fact that it doesn’t fit Mitsubishi’s image, it managed only a deplorable one-star safety rating in the recent ANCAP tests. Not surprising for a van engineered in the 1980s, but there was one part about this that surprised me: it has not a single airbag. In all the brouhaha about all cars requiring stability control to be sold in Victoria, a standard that may soon be applied nationwide and has already stopped some Chinese automakers from selling in that state, legislators completely forgot about the commercial van market and its nonexistent safety standards. Passenger car airbag standards, however, were introduced in the mid-1990s. If I recall correctly, they were the reason Lada had to depart the Aussie market. Maybe they should have just blacked out the rear windows of their cars and called them commercial vehicles!

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The simple history of the Express does have some interesting footnotes along the way. For instance, the Express actually outlived the van that was set to replace it. The considerably more modern albeit tall, skinny and goofy-looking fourth-generation was launched in 1994 in the Australian market. Like its predecessor-cum-showroom buddy, it was also available in a passenger “Starwagon” variant. The old, third-generation Starwagon continued on as the “Starwagon Satellite”, proving once more that Mitsubishi really loves to take Chrysler names and put them on completely different models (see: Mitsubishi Challenger SUV). Although passenger versions of cargo vans were more common in the 1980s – see Ford Spectron, Nissan Urvan et all – some lingered on into the 1990s, mostly as a low-budget alternative to more refined and considerably safer minivans like the Toyota Tarago (Previa) and Honda Odyssey. But these converted cargo vans, like the Toyota Spacia, Nissan Serena and Mitsubishi Starwagon, were not sales successes. Heck, we weren’t massive buyers of proper minivans down here to begin with.

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It would be remiss of me to overlook the four-wheel-drive Express derivative, generally badged as Delica. They had plenty of ground clearance and thus looked completely absurd, and to my knowledge were never officially sold here. However, plenty of Japanese grey imports have made their way onto our shores and in New Zealand, too. Maybe one of our NZ commenters have some stories to tell. A seven-seater van on stilts probably seems like a good idea to some people, but I would be very wary of their high center of gravity.

800px-Mitsubishi_Delica_D5_003the much sexier D5 Delica

2007 brought about an entirely new Delica, on the Mitsubishi GS platform shared with the Chrysler Sebring. It actually looks quite striking – another sharp 21st century Mitsubishi design like the Grandis minivan and Triton ute – but I have not seen one in the metal.

I recall visiting an Australia Post distribution facility in the early 2000s and seeing a lot full of Express vans in bright red livery. There were plenty of companies that wanted a good, cheap, reliable van fleet. Over time, though, I noticed companies like Australia Post switch to more expensive but more modern alternatives. Mercedes Sprinters, vans from Fiat and Renault, and the two segment-leaders: the Toyota Hiace and Hyundai iLoad. The smaller, considerably less safe Express wasn’t as appealing anymore.

By the time it was discontinued, the Express was listed at $AUD26,000, although I highly doubt any fleet paid that much for one. Contrast that, though, with the Renault Kangoo, Citroen Berlingo, Volkswagen Caddy and Peugeot Partner, all modern front-wheel-drive vans that start at around $AUD20,000 and boast better gas mileage. These are all available with diesel engines as well, which is the fuel type of choice for commercial vehicles. Hyundai used to take cast-off Mitsubishi bits and pieces back in the 1980s when this Express was fresh, but its 21st century iLoad is generations ahead of the Express and comes in under $30k.

 

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Hyundai iMax, the passenger-version of the iLoad. 3D glasses not included.

For $26k, a new Express features air-conditioning, central locking, power steering and a CD player. That’s it. No tachometer, no airbags, no ABS, no EBD… But a brand new iLoad? All that is standard. It’s bigger, more powerful, safer and more fuel-efficient. Really, it’s any wonder Mitsubishi kept its van around as long as it did, but the tooling was probably paid for while Bush 41 was in office.

So, my Australian countrymen bid farewell to the Express, a van that stuck around well past its use-by date. They are cheap and reliable, so they will probably be around for many years to come in developing markets. Here in Australia, though, we don’t want vehicles with one-star safety ratings. At least not anymore.

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Well, the Proton Jumbuck was cute. But it’s dead now, too.

With good reason.