CC Colt Chronicles Part 8: 1989 Colt – Peak and Decline

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The late ’80s and very early ’90s saw a real burst of creativity from Japanese manufacturers, bolstered by a very strong home market, currency which was rapidly appreciating but still weak enough to support healthy exports and, in the US, dated competition.  For a brief couple of years, it really seemed that Mitsubishi finally had what it would take for success in the US market: an expanding, diverse product line-up with clean styling and up-to-date technology.  It was in this context that Americans were offered one of the best hot hatches of the era, the Colt GT and Mirage Turbo.

ad_dodge_colt_gt_white_1988Photo courtesy of Productioncars.com

I must confess that we didn’t have an actual curbside shot of our own to use for this latest installment on the Colt, but since the chronicles must be completed, a rare exception was granted.  A further note: because the Colt story otherwise becomes quite bleak, I will focus mainly on the turbo model.

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For the Colt’s sixth generation (Mirage’s third generation), the car was also sold as the Eagle Summit; enthusiasts therefore call these cars CSMs, conveniently complementing the DSM moniker used to describe the Plymouth Laser, Eagle Talon and Mitsubishi Eclipse, released in the US around the same time, along with the sixth generation of the Galant, making 1989 a very big year for Mitsubishi.

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This of course benefited Chrysler as well, who by this time was living off of minivans and otherwise selling a rather embarrassing bunch of cars, making Colt worth holding onto for a few more years.

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While turbo power underlined the performance image of both companies, Chrysler sold no cars with twin-cam heads or multivalve engines of any sort, outside of the very unhip TC by Maserati.  With the Colt GT, Dodge and Plymouth suddenly had a car which combined both of the hottest technologies of the day and at a price few could match.

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While most obviously weren’t sold this way, models equipped with the 4G61t twincam turbo benefited from an engine which was simultaneously torquey and willing to rev.  With 12.1 psi of boost on top of a very oversquare design with a low 8.0 to 1 compression ratio, the engine made 135 horsepower at a smooth 6,000 rpm.  That’s 84 horsepower per liter, but the real treat was 141 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm in an engine with a 7,000 rpm redline.

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As this engine shares exterior dimensions with the 4G63 (Mitsubishi’s most famous engine, various forms of which powered the Galant VR4, the DSM turbos and the Evo I-IX), swaps are not that difficult.  Some enthusiasts have even cobbled together turbo/AWD combos, which involve a certain degree of fabrication, although as with most Japanese cars, four-wheel drive variants were available in the home market.  The main point, of course, is that this generation of Colt/Mirage shared a good deal in terms of engineering principles with both the Galant and the Eclipse, unlike the prior two versions.  This may explain why the twin-cam turbo only lasted one model year, with only about 1000 cars imported, since the car also attracted its more expensive stablemates’ audiences.  If anyone is lucky enough to find a clean example for a good price, there’s every reason to pull the trigger and buy it.

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Reading reviews of this car (seen here in Car and Driver and here in Automobile Magazine) is somewhat ironic, as both seem to predict massive success for Mitsubishi’s latest effort.  Car and Driver in particular raved,

“Despite having introduced such stunning new products as the Mirage Turbo, the Galant GS sedan and the Eclipse GS Turbo sports coupe, Mitsubishi is far from being a household name in the U.S., even among enthusiasts… soon the word will spread.  And soon the demand for this exceptional automobile will grow.  And soon the price will rise.”

Mirage Telephone Card promo

Of course none of this come to pass, as the car was soon unceremoniously discontinued.  Lest you think turbo power was the only appealing aspect of these sixth generation cars, reviews were positive for models equipped with naturally aspirated version of the same engine, which continued to be sold in the US until 1992.  Producing producing 123 horsepower and 101 lb-ft of torque in most forms, this engine was also shared (in de-tuned, locally built form) with the first Hyundai Elantra.  A Colt so equipped went on to finish first in a Car and Driver comparison against the 8-valve GTI, and Civic and CRX Si, despite being slower than the latter two.  With its high-winding 1.6 and solid rear axle, it was very much an inexpensive rehash of the outgoing Integra.

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None of which seemed to matter to the buying public, who overwhelmingly bought the car with the 1.5 8-valve engine, usually in Colt or Eagle Summit form, often lashed to a three-speed automatic.  One inescapable fact about Mitsubishi Motors in those days was its very stratified approach to developing and selling cars, with high-end models often laden with gadgets and very bland, unexceptional basic models.  This began changing in the mid ’90s, when it was too late, but the basic CSMs of this generation, which were incapable of hitting 100 miles per hour, are an excellent demonstration of this initial approach.  Other than mentioning the addition of a 12-valve head in 1991, there’s no need to cover the more basic models.

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In the US, it would appear that both Mitsubishi and Chrysler both forgot the Colt by this point, the former resenting its shared name with Dodge and Plymouth and the latter treating the car as a placeholder before the introduction of the brilliant (and shoddy) Neon.  In any case, the decision was made to direct enthusiastic customers toward the new DSM coupes, sealing both the Colt’s and Mirage’s fate as a cut-price alternative to more established compacts.  Luckily the car fared better overseas.

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What exactly what could have been done to salvage the Colt and Mirage nameplates in the US is difficult to determine, but it’s safe to say that the very large numbers of the cars sold to indifferent customers did nothing for the company’s fortunes in North America.  Making matters much worse for Mitsubishi was their generous arrangement with Hyundai, which saw the Elantra (arguably that company’s first competitive model) brought over right as this generation of cars was being phased out.  Built on virtually the same chassis as the outgoing CSMs, but with generous equipment and new styling, many chose one of these over its Japanese counterpart during the successor car’s production run.  There were a total of four compact Mitsubishi derivatives (Dodge/Plymouth Colt, Eagle Summit and Hyundai Elantra) competing for customers’ attention, obscuring and diluting Mitsubishi’s and the Mirage’s potential for brand equity in North America.  Stay tuned for the final depressing chapters in the continuing Colt chronicles.