Mitsubishi has always been a much stronger player in the Australian market than in North America. In 2015, it was the 5th best-selling brand, overtaking Ford despite the absence of a passenger car larger than the Lancer. But despite its good fortunes since the 1980s, there have been some misfires along the way. This is the Pajero iO, introduced to do battle with insurgent compact crossovers like the Toyota RAV4. But the Pajero iO was no crossover and perhaps as a consequence, it was no great success either.
Rather than being a mere Lancer on stilts, the Pajero iO was instead reminiscent of the Suzuki Vitara and first-generation Kia Sportage, with all three offering a dual range transfer case and genuine off-road ability. The Pajero iO came with Mitsubishi’s Super Select four-wheel-drive system, allowing it to be driven in two- or four-wheel-drive on road; in 2WD mode, power went to the rear wheels and you could then engage 4WD on-the-fly. There was even moderate underbody protection, further encouraging off-roading.
The Pajero iO’s chunky yet cute styling was a riff on the larger Pajero SUV, alternately badged as Montero and Shogun. But the Pajero iO was somewhat of an anomaly in Mitsubishi’s compact SUV timeline. It had been preceded by the Japanese market Pajero Mini and Pajero Junior, based on the Mitsubishi Minica Kei-class platform. While these were chunky little trucklets, they were about as off-road capable as the Outlander and Outlander Sport (ASX/RVR) that succeeded the Pajero iO. The iO, then, was a one-generation wonder and showed Mitsubishi that buyers were far less interested in genuine off-road ability than previously thought.
Indeed, the iO’s off-road credentials were solid but on-road was where its charm faded. The front suspension employed MacPherson struts but out back were a five-link live rear axle and coil springs, as well as rear drum brakes. The more car-like RAV4 and CR-V, unsurprisingly, were much more comfortable to drive on tarmac. They also offered anti-lock brakes and a passenger airbag while neither were available on the iO.
Curb weight was only around 3200 lbs, but the iO’s interior wasn’t exceptionally capacious. The iO came in 3-door and 5-door body styles, the latter of which had a longer wheelbase (96.5 inches vs. 89.8 inches). Overall dimensions of the 3-dr were within a few inches of a 3-dr RAV4, although the long-wheelbase iO was 7 inches shorter than a 5-dr RAV4. Rear passenger space was lacking in both guises and the interior was rather drab; the live rear axle also compromised cargo space.
The iO was no powerhouse, either. The 3-dr came with a 1.6 four-cylinder with 100 hp and 100 ft-lbs mated to a five-speed manual. A larger 1.8 four-cylinder was standard fitment in the 5-dr, with a healthier 115 hp and 122 ft-lbs. Neither engine was especially powerful or refined.
Where the Pajero iO suffered further was in its pricing, with base prices more than a grand above a comparable RAV4. With less power, fewer features and a more punishing ride on bitumen, the iO seemed to be a rather poor value unless you were a rural resident requiring a rugged yet manageably-sized SUV. Those who weren’t bush-bashing would have been better served by a RAV4, and Australian consumers for the most part agreed: the Toyota vastly outsold the Mitsubishi.
For 2001, the iO received the larger 2.0 four-cylinder Mitsubishi Australia had always wanted. There was also a modest cosmetic refresh, eliminating the excessive cladding of the early models in favor of a clean, single-tone look. But competition was becoming even fiercer in the segment and the iO still offered a poor value proposition with its single airbag and no ABS and a higher price than rivals.
Ultimately, the iO appealed to only a small niche of buyers. Mitsubishi missed the point of the compact SUV boom. Buyers were flocking to these cars not because they needed a rugged off-roader, but rather because they wanted something with a high driving position and a spacious cabin. The Pajero iO was more a Suzuki rival than anything, only with a higher price tag. Those who valued off-road ability above all else would have appreciated the iO and its compact dimensions and manoeuvrability; indeed, Brazilian buyers were able to purchase a locally-assembled model right up until 2015. But in other markets, consumers voted with their feet: it was axed in 2002 in Australia and 2005 in Europe and Asia. The Lancer-based 2003 Outlander would be a much more successful replacement.