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.
Curbside Capsule: 1989 Mitsubishi Montero V6
Curbside Capsule: 1986 Mitsubishi Mighty Max
I used to like Mitsubishi cars and trucks.
Mitsubishi made plenty of cars that were worthy of being liked. The Eclipse, 3000GT, Galant VR-4… So I think dismissing the brand’s history is unforgivable 😉
Back then, this kind of trucklet made a lot more sense to me than the RAV4. I didn’t understand why anybody would want a truck that couldn’t do truck things.
In other news, Toyota is worth billions, and I am not.
I would totally buy a used one of these, the compact true-4wd trucklet is a niche I really enjoy and see the appeal of. My brother’s Grand Vitara XL-7 (long wheelbase variant) always surprises me with just how offroad worthy it is, although the longer wheelbase exacerbates the issue of not-spectacular ground clearance. His is a 5spd with the very smooth 2.7L V6. With manual front hubs swapped on, he gets mid-20s mpg with mostly rural driving.
They learned a lot from this and the Outlander has become a huge success here in NZ. Where I live Outlanders make up a very high proportion of “soccer mom” soft roaders. Which is no surprise because they’re comfy, affordable and generally reliable. And dull.
A friend has the PHEV version and likes it Orewa to spaghetti junction on battery alone before the petrol engine is needed its very economical he reckons.
I guess no matter the category or job, some folks always seem to know what they are doing, where they are going, and how to get there….and some miss that all important “train” by mere seconds.
I imagine working in any capacity for Mitsubishi must be a real “head into wall banging” situation. They often seem to have had the “right” product….but wrong timing. After years of pushing SUVs and crossovers in the U.S. I read recently that the company has decided to fall back and regroup and will try to go where no one else is with small electric cars. Yet every other car manufacturer is about to or already builds superior plug-in hybrid vehicles.
A shame, but I suspect Mitsubishi is living on borrowed time. Asian markets seem to be (barely?) keeping them afloat.
I’d love to know exactly what motivated Mitsubishi to produce these. I can’t believe they were aimed at people who wanted real offroad capability, like the Suzuki SJ.
It seems like they were trying to produce an accurate Pajero scale model… for fun? Artistic endeavour?
We had these at Avis (badged Shogun Pinin – can’t remember what group they were but probably foisted on people who were expecting a 1.6 Astra or a 1.8 Vectra) and they were lots of fun to chuck around the airport.
They felt like old-skool offroaders, and with the amazingly bouncy ride and flattish windscreen up in your face, I used to imagine I was driving a Jeep through the jungle in an old war film. (you had to entertain yourself somehow)
Interesting thing about these is that Pininfarina was contracted for the manufacture of the Euro market versions, called Pinin in ‘honour’ of their founder. Yet they had no hand in the styling. The last time they used this name was the ‘They’ll never allow a four-door’ four-door Ferrari Pinin.
Increase the 5 door’s size by, ohh let’s say 20%, and voila:
The pajero in the top picture would satisfy my needs just as well as the 4runner I drive. Don’t know if it would do it for as many miles. I went for this Toyota because of it’s reputation for driving forever. So far it’s deserved.
Funny thing. When I first was introduced to Japanese vehicles I would have gone for a mitsubishi just as fast. Drove a Ram50 for a while in Guam. Now I need an SUV and I don’t think the Mitsu is as hardy as a Toyota. I feel the same about Isuzu or Nissan but Nissan is a close second place.
I had a toy version of the 2 door. Thought it was interesting, though never knew what it was ’til now.
These were very low-geared too, near 4000 rpm on the highway, and not US highway speeds either.