Here in Northern Virginia, our favorite Japanese import is typically considered the cherry blossom. Nearby Washington, DC is famous for its Japanese cherry trees gifted by the City of Tokyo over a century ago, and the entire Capital Region takes cherry trees rather seriously. The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival is an enormous tourist draw, homeowners often plant flowering cherry trees as ornamental greenery, and even my daughter’s softball team is named the Awesome Cherry Blossoms – an apt name for our two featured Mitsubishis. As an increasing number of Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) vehicles have found their way to US shores, they have brightened our streetscape similar to those flowering trees. I recently spotted two JDM Mitsubishis, which are as awesome to me as the Cherry Blossom Festival is to tourists.
Vehicles at least 25 years old may be imported to the US with only minor modifications, regardless of whether they originally complied with federal emissions or safety regulations. At least two dealers in Virginia specialize in JDM imports, and while I occasionally check their online inventory, actually seeing one of these cars in person is cause for celebration. Such was the case when I came across an early 1990s Delica and a 1989 Pajero.
Delicas have attained a small but loyal North American following in recent years, particularly in more rugged (i.e., western) regions of the US and Canada. In Virginia, they’re about as rare as armadillos. For folks unfamiliar with them, these vehicles defy simple classification. Part minivan, part conversion van and part off-roader, the Delica is a crossover of sorts, but the end result is far different than the crossovers to which we have become accustomed.
This generation of Delica was introduced for 1987, and a variant of it was sold in the US as the unimaginatively-named Mitsubishi Wagon. To say that the Wagon was a less-than-resounding success would be an understatement, but the overall concept seems to be more compelling the second time around, in the JDM resale market.
Part of the reason is that this Delica has an added trick up its sleeve: 4wd, with enough ground clearance to be a vigorous off-roader. And with its brush bar, rally lights, and a bevy of oddly-placed mirrors, this vehicle looks like it means business. In the Delica’s case, business is more than skin-deep – the van rides on modified Pajero SUV underpinnings, meaning its off-road capabilities are quite credible.
JDM Delicas came equipped with either gas or diesel engines, mated to manual or automatic transmissions. This example is equipped with Mitsubishi’s 2.5-liter 4D56 turbo diesel engine and a four-speed automatic transmission, which seems to be the most common setup for vehicles exported to North America.
Like most Delicas that find their way to over here, this is a well-equipped version. Specifically, it’s a Super Exceed model, and with a rather rare option as well – the Crystal Lite Roof, featuring four skylights along the roof’s edges.
Some of this vehicle’s details are mesmerizing. It’s unclear whether these Bridgestone-produced wheels are original, but regardless, they have an amusing slogan, making them the most grandiloquent wheels in the automotive kingdom:
Makes your vehicle fascinating and gives you ultimate gratification.
How can one argue with a wheel that makes such a claim?
The Delica’s interior and driving position are reminiscent of other period Japanese vans, though with some hallmark Mitsubishi touches, such as the altimeter and inclinometer perched atop the dashboard. This vehicle’s Nardi steering wheel is a more recent addition, however.
In the back things get more interesting. This example appears to get some heavy use, but brushing aside the clutter, one can see that this is an awfully comfortable place in which to be.
High trim-level Delicas had myriad seating configurations; this brochure image shows some of the interior arrangements, replete with Mitsubishi-made tables.
Perhaps because I miss the ready availability of conversion vans – with their parlor-like interiors perpetually summoning a road trip – I found myself longing to own a vehicle like this. It is easy to understand the appeal of buying a recently imported example.
Our next example requires somewhat of a closer look to discover its JDM intrigue.
Contrasting to the otherworldly Delica, this 1989 Pajero is a more familiar shape, having been sold as the Montero in the US between 1983 and 1991. Given that familiarity, the reasons for buying a JDM version of a vehicle that was actually sold here differ from the reasons for buying a Delica, or other cars that are generally unknown on these shores. Likewise, the reasons for finding this vehicle interesting differ from the open-mouthed gawking that the Delica inspires.
This Pajero appeared to have been recently purchased, as it still sported temporary license plates issued by Duncan Imports in Christiansburg, Virginia, 250 mi. from where I photographed it. Undoubtedly, this is the reason why there is lettering atop the windshield reading “VA Title / Street Legal.”
When looking at this car, it’s interesting to note the differences between the Pajero and the US-market Montero. First, of course, is that the name differs.
Mitsubishi initially chose “Pajero” for its off-roader’s name, evidently claiming it was named after a species of South American wild cat. True enough, a subspecies of the Pampas cat is scientifically classified as Leopardus colocola pajeros (known colloquially in some countries as a gato pajero). That’s an awfully obscure reference for a car name, and it’s evident that the name was chosen without a great deal of research. It turns out the term “pajero” is considered a vulgarity in many Spanish-speaking countries, so Mitsubishi renamed this model Montero (meant to evoke mountains) in most of the Hispanosphere, as well as in the US and some other markets (UK versions got their own moniker, Shogun).
The biggest difference between this example and US-market Monteros (other than being Right Hand Drive) is the engine. While Monteros received a 2.6-liter 4-cylinder (or in later versions a 3-liter V-6), this JDM specimen is endowed with… the same 2.5-liter turbo diesel as our featured Delica. In this case, the diesel is mated to 5-speed manual transmission.
Other than some minor trim pieces, this Pajero’s interior seems like a RHD mirror image of US versions (though silver US Monteros only came with gray interiors). One of the more interesting differences is that the central instrument pod includes both an inside/outside thermometer and altimeter in addition to the inclinometer that became a characteristic feature of Monteros in the US.
The hood scoop is another detail omitted from the US market, and many of the JDM Pajeros that end up in the western hemisphere feature a brush guard, driving lights and wheel well flares that came with some of the upper trim level packages. Another feature unknown to the US are the big-rig style mirrors, again similar to those found on the Delica.
Astute carspotters will also notice the amber turn signal lenses (US versions were all red). As an aside, I have always thought that Montero tail lights seemed rather small, though this size of tail/turn signal lamp was used worldwide. Remaining around back, it’s hard not to notice the “MMC” badging, which many markets received instead of the name “Mitsubishi.” US-market Mitsubishis never used the MMC initials.
Even though (or perhaps because) many these differences are subtle, I could have looked at this Pajero all afternoon. And added to the curiosity of having a right hand drive car in Virginia, I definitely see the appeal of buying such a JDM import, even of a model that was sold here originally.
Both of these vehicles are awesome in their own ways. The Delica has an almost mythical quality about it – it’s so unlike typical cars that it seems as if it were almost concocted from someone’s imagination. Conversely, while the Pajero’s shape may be more mundane, it presents a feast of details for car-lovers like me who relish the benignly unusual. Both are awesome cherry blossoms, and just like the flowering trees, I never get tired of looking at them.
Delica photographed in February 2018 in Arlington, Virginia
Pajero photographed in April 2018 in Fairfax, Virginia