CC Capsule: 1986-2001 Mitsubishi Starwagon & 1993-96 Toyota Spacia – The Japanese Get It Wrong For Once

The Japanese may have experimented heavily in the 1980s with technology like four-wheel steering and turbocharging, but they were agonizingly slow at responding to the minivan concept promulgated by Chrysler and Renault. And well into the 1990s in countries like Australia, the Japanese foisted makeshift minivans cobbled together from piles of forward-control delivery vans, chairs, and glass.

Nissan Serena, Urvan, Vanette and Nomad, Mitsubishi Starwagon, Toyota Spacia. These were all delivery vans with poor crash-test ratings, fashioned into supposedly family-friendly vans. Mazda’s MPV and Toyota’s Tarago (Previa) were quite expensive, and even though the latter came to dominate the relatively small multi-purpose vehicle segment in Australia, the Japanese saw an unserved market niche for relatively affordable seven- and eight-seater vehicles. While these vans died out in the US by the early 1990s, the Starwagon and Spacia were sold all the way into the 2000s in Australia.

It’s quite astounding, considering how van-crazy the Japanese have been for years, just how late they were in creating proper-sized, car-like minivans. Consider this: Renault and Chrysler launched the Espace and Caravan/Voyager in 1984. Mitsubishi and Nissan had the Nimbus and Prairie at around the same time, but both were a little too small for the market. It took until 1990 (Mazda and Toyota), 1992 (Nissan), 1995 (Honda) and 2003 (Mitsubishi) for the Japanese to produce proper-sized minivans in the French and American vein. And not all of them were terribly successful, either.

To Mitsubishi’s credit, they were one of the early adopters of the minivan format with the Nimbus, aka the Chariot and Dodge/Plymouth Colt Vista. But their recipe was slightly different to that of Renault and Chrysler, the Nimbus being quite a bit smaller in every dimension including, crucially, in third-row space. Mitsubishi’s Nimbus presaged Europe’s compact MPV boom of the mid-1990s, although by then they had sized the Nimbus up and out of that hot new segment. It seems the Nimbus was never quite the size it needed to be. 

Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota decided families would be more receptive to the space afforded by a delivery van. Never mind the tippy handling, anemic acceleration, almost non-existent front crumple zone and general lack of refinement—if the price was right, the Japanese figured they could sell ‘em. And they did manage to sell a few, even if more expensive minivans like the Tarago were more popular..

The skyline of Brisbane in the background, including 1 William Street (right).

The 1993 Spacia was based on the TownAce van, which was a cargo carrier version of the Toyota Van/Wagon sold in North America (and sold here as the first Tarago). Despite more aerodynamic styling, the Spacia was mechanically unchanged from the earlier Van/Wagon/Tarago and used the same 2.2 four-cylinder engine. For $AUD30,000, you got power steering, central locking, a cassette player and not much else. There were no airbags, no anti-lock brakes, but there was a list price $5k less than a Tarago (Previa).

In 1993, airbags weren’t mandatory or even ubiquitous in Australia. For the second Spacia – still effectively a windowed delivery van – Toyota added them as standard equipment. Contrast that with Mitsubishi and its Starwagon. Although a new, larger generation of the Starwagon was launched in 1994, sales dropped off due to a higher price so Mitsubishi had to resurrect the old 1986-vintage model as a price-leader, slapping the Starwagon Satellite nameplate on it.

Parked behind a Toyota HiAce

Because so few changes were made during the L300-series Starwagon’s run, it’s hard to pin down an exact year. This may be a 1996-2001 Starwagon Satellite, which was given a gutless 2.0 four-cylinder to keep the price down. That Mitsubishi had the gall to charge Magna (Diamanté) wagon prices for an old van is astounding, especially considering that even in 2001 a Satellite had no airbags or ABS. A radio and power steering was all you got. If you wanted any of those fancy features like power mirrors or, y’know, an acceptable level of occupant safety, you had to pony up the extra cash for an L400-series Starwagon.

Many more highly-specified versions of these vans arrived in Australia and New Zealand as grey imports, including the four-wheel-drive JDM Starwagon known as the Delica. JDM vans continue to be imported in large numbers and, while many of them are still just converted delivery vans, they can be quite plush.

Photo courtesy of OSX

While it’s nice skinflint new car shoppers had options in the seven-seater market, these Japanese vans-with-chairs were lazy, lackluster and cynical offerings. They may have been reliable, spacious and relatively affordable, but they weren’t the vans the Japanese should have been offering.

Spacia photographed in Milton, Brisbane, QLD in 2017. Starwagon photographed just across the river in West End in 2017.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: Mitsubishi Express: The White, Boxy Cockroach

Curbside Classic: 1993 Chevrolet Astro – How Hard Can It Be To Make A Minivan? (Part 1)

Curbside Classic: 1995 Ford Aerostar – How Hard Can It Be to Make a Minivan? (Part 2)

Curbside Classic: 1990 Oldsmobile Silhouette – How Hard Can It Be To Make a Minivan? (Part 3)

Curbside Classic: 1995 Honda Odyssey EX: How Hard Can It Be to Make a Minivan? (Part 4)

Curbside Capsule: 1998 Mercury Villager GS – How Hard Can It Be To Make A Minivan? (Part 5)