I have one very distinct memory from my first semester as an assistant language teacher in Japan. On a sunny, beautiful afternoon in early summer before the heat and humidity set in, I rolled the windows down in the Mitsubishi Afterthought and AED’ed the weezy “engine” to life to begin my drive of shame home. As I passed out of the teachers’ lot to the driveway in the front of the school, a group of 10th graders were hanging out around the statue-thing in front of the school doing their “cool kids” thing. Their leader looked over and we made eye contact. I knew in that split second what was coming. He broke eye contact, flung one arm at me to point while his other grabbed his stomach and he broke into cartoonish, hysteric laughter at me in that damned Minica. I waved- what else could I do? -and he kept laughing as he waved back, and that’s what it was like driving that car every day.
I am not sure how this car was engineered. What were they thinking when they laid down their plans and started tooling up the machinery at their manufacturing plants? Just looking at these things it’s apparent that the engineers did the most un-Japanese thing possible: they half-assed it as hard as they could. The car turned on. It changed gears (it only had three, so it wasn’t asked to really think about it all that hard) and it went and it stopped and it turned off and the door stayed shut when you closed it. Oh, it could turn left or right, too. Backing up was a viable option through those big windows. Wow, what sightlines. And that seemed to be *juuuuust* enough for them.
Alright, anyways, I was placed in a small town nestled in a series of valleys between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It is not possible to sum up the beauty of the place without resorting to hyperbole, but so whatever, here you go: absolutely stunning, gorgeous, green-covered mountains, gray cliffs rising straight up from the sea, stretches of beaches here and there offering places to get a bit closer vantage point from which to see it all, and winding, exciting roads snaking all over it that were wasted on that utterly horrid little car.
My old company offered us a company car, promising either a Daihatsu Mira or this here Mitsubishi Embarrassment. They also promised us that it would be as basic as you can imagine: crank windows, lean-over-and-unlock-the-passenger-door locks, and an AM radio. Oh, and that AM radio had a single, tiny, tinny speaker built right into it, right in the face of the thing. No door speakers, no plastic cover on the back hatch at all to hide speakers. And you had to reach out of the car to adjust the sideview mirrors. I don’t blame my old company at all. Cars are expensive in Japan, and with the sha-ken (a comprehensive car test, once every two years for older cars) maintenance is costly as well. And lots and lots of companies use these awful things to send their employees out to work in, although if you work for a gas company or something you get a sweet set of graphics on the outside that makes them look like race cars!
So, let’s talk about the driving experience. The steering wheel was a bit slack. You turned it and turned it and a little while later the entire thing would lurch over in the direction you had requested it go. If the road was uneven, it would lurch over for you, requiring you to go to all that work to attempt to put it back on its original path, and then you still had to turn and turn the steering wheel again to straighten the stupid thing out. There was always an awful lot of drama driving that thing. I suppose that could be considered exciting.
The Minica was an unpleasant handler, and it made no effort to shore up that weakness with a supple ride. It crashed and bounced and bobbed and weaved over every crack in the road. Does Mitsubishi also build boats? Because the whole experience was very nautical, perhaps something akin to be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a dinghy, if this dinghy had chewing gum connecting you to an indifferent rudder.
I mentioned with my old Hyundai Accent that I felt vulnerable in it while the popular SUVs of the late 90s powered past me on American roads. I spoke too soon. You don’t know what vulnerable in a car is until you’re trying to get down a road in one of these. With the comically desperate expression on its ridiculous face, there was not a single thing about the Minica that inspired confidence. It was a rolling homage to E.D.
The best thing about that car was the day it was scheduled for its sha-ken. I remember it very vividly, because we were loaned a Honda Life kei car. It was pink and every bit as joyful and lively as the Minica was dour and frightening. It’s the only reason why I don’t paint all kei cars with the same paintbrush of hatred the Minica gets.
So, let’s go back to a post I wrote in a COAL article by michaelfreeman from nearly four years ago [edited to reduce redundancy] to sum this piece of crap car up:
…[it] was just the most awful, incompetent, uncomfortable, embarrassing car I have ever seen, let alone been seen in. And my first car was a ’97 Hyundai Accent… but the Minica was worse in every conceivable way. Oh, it ran everyday alright, but that is a HUGE part of what was wrong with it. Frequent visits to the dealer and using their loaner cars would have been hugely satisfying in comparison. Its three cylinder engine produced what must only have been a horsepower. The A/C never blew cold unless I was doing a steady 50 km/h, which was difficult because it could barely reach such speeds. Put my wife, the baby seat, and our baby in it with me and I don’t know how it ever accelerated. The handling was horrifying… …It was incredibly imprecise, and while parking my old Hyundai was so easy I could probably do it blindfolded, the rubber band connecting the wheels to the steering wheel never put the car in the position I wanted it in. Speaking of positions, the driving position was terrible. The seats were epicly awful, slabs of unforgiving foam covered in malaise-era GM upholstery with no support for any part of your body at a size about 30% too small. Add to a cabin where there was no room to move around and you’re looking at something more like a penalty box than a car. And the noise. Oh, the noise. Turn on the A/C and it roars away as though it’s actually doing something (it wasn’t). The engine whines and wheezes away as though it has the weight of the whole world on its back. The howl of the tiny little tires was deafening over 30 km/h. For Americans like me, that’s barely 20 mph. Tire roar at 20! How did they manage it?? I still can’t figure it out. It is as though they set out to make the worst driving, least comfortable, most horrible little car they could possibly assemble. The sheer awfulness of that car is so difficult to put into words without cursing I’m not sure if I can continue writing about it. Ugh.
Yup. That about sums it up perfectly.
NOTE: engine and rear seat picture from kakaku.com, all others mine.
I like it.
To make it perfect, I would option it with a 1.5L 4 cylinder engine and a 5speed manual transmission. It should not have air conditioning or power steering or power brakes. It should have 14″ or 15″ diameter rims. The bumpers should be flat black. I would remove the back seat as soon as I got it home. I would prefer it without a radio or a glove box.
If I could have the above described car I would buy two identical ones, both plain white with light grey interior.
It would be interesting to compare this to some of the newer breed of keis. With the growing popularity of that segment (and periodic attempts to inject some semblance of style or at least whimsy), the superficial impression is that there are at least some entries that are not complete penalty boxes. However, the occasions there are road tests of kei cars in English-language publications, they usually focus only on that one vehicle and spend a lot of time being astonished by its tininess rather than its comparative virtues.
The class is pretty carefully legally delimited in dimensions, engine capacity, and output (although the variations in torque output make me wonder if in some cases the 64 ps limit is observed about as strictly as the old informal 280 ps limit), but vehicles in most classes tend to be pretty similar even when they’re not required to be, which doesn’t prevent there from being substantial qualitative differences.
I’m used to the minuscule size of the things at this point, but Honda just put out a series of kei cars called N. There’s the normal-sized kei N-One, another one that I forget, and then a jumbo-sized N-Box that was taller than our minivan. The Life I drove gave respectable comfort and handling.
So far as the legal thing goes, yes, they are heavily regulated and subsidized. There is an annual tax motorists pay every year based on engine size. The 660cc engines in kei cars are very, very cheap, and the next class up is something like twice as expensive. American cars there are breathtakingly costly with their big engines. The sha-ken is also much cheaper for keis than it is for normal cars.
The government is turning against them, though. There is serious talk within the ruling party of ending those subsidies, although I am hazy on the details. It’s possible it has something to do with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
We get a vast array of these kei puddle jumpers ex JDM but I dont recall seeing one of these, though I’ll likely be held up by one tomorow having said that.
The 3 times I visited Japan in the 80s I saw quite a few Minicas…nearly always red (the color always chosen by women).
For folks who want an equivalent car today, head to your local Mitsubishi dealer and buy a new Mirage. It’s bigger, a bit more….plush (?), but the same basic car all grown up.
Fascinating. A public admission that the Japanese are capable of building a car as bad, if not worse, than a GM X-car. I suppose you’d better watch out, there’s probably an anti-GM hit squad on the way to your house. After all, its an internet truth that nobody makes worse cars than GM, and articles like this cannot be allowed to see the light of day.
Out of curiosity, what year, decade, era is this car from? And are they still in production? This, of course, just adds to the line that Mitsubishi is far and away the worst Japanese auto manufacturer.
I thought that was Isuzu or Suzuki. My bad.
That sounds like hell
Maybe the Yakusa could be persuaded to make it sleep with the fishes? Ask the cool kids next trip.
I guess the (lack of) money is at the root of this evil, but what is a Japanese CC worth? I’d be shaking the local side of the family tree pretty vigorously to see what falls out, perhaps a first gen Nissan Silvia, a Mazda Luce or a Nissan President V8 – who’d be Mr Cool then?
You could literally buy one for US$100, but then you have to pay for the sha-ken, the annual road tax, insurance, and a tank of gas, and that could add another 500-900 to the price. Nothing involving driving or buying a car is easy in Japan.
Is it just me, or does it seem like a darn efficient little car. A/c light steering, good sight lines, cloth seats so no burning legs, great mileage, starts every day. Beats most sixties-eighties econoboxes. I mean what do people expect at the entry level.
This is well written and funny, and I understand why you might think your firm could have found you a more fun car for your JDM experience.
I think this car could find a ready buyer around the world. Notice the current Mirage sold better than expected, at a time when Mitsu was considering leaving USA. Murilee at the other site tested it and liked it, said the other journalists just need something to sneer at. A five speed, firmer shocks, same size but sportier tires could make it come alive.
This car strikes me as the answer for all the blog (I’m thinking TTAC and Jalopnik) cries of, “Why can’t they make a simple, efficient car? Cheap to buy, cheap to own, and you can fix it yourself. And above all, cheap.” To which the answer is usually, “Compared to the fat, overloaded, supposedly expensive cars you’re current forced to drive; a truly basic, efficient car sucks. Live with one and find out how badly it sucks.”
Let’s face it, we’re spoiled regarding automobiles. We only think we want a bare bones, basic automobile.
I wonder where the line is. The Honda Fit has done well. I think a VW Up as seen below could do well. The Fiat 500 and Mini have been successes. The Spark and Fiesta have done ok, especially in urban areas.
I don’t think cars like this have a long life, with thin sheetmetal and drivetrains that are only good for only 60-120k. But with affordability ever more difficult, I think even here there is a place for a car like this.
The ownership experience would beat the heck out of a 15 year old 150k Cavalier/Golf/Echo from a BHPH. I am sure they will be at the side of the road less, and be better for the environment.
This Cavalier is about $3000. How much is a new Mitsu Minica?
My point is: for the same money a good used car will beat a cheap new car almost guaranteed.
A Cav, Golf, Echo will be breaking down to the tune of $300-$400 every 3-6 months if pressed into commuter duty. A small, new, warranteed, easy to drive Minica won’t. Which would you put your newly driving daughter or elderly mother’s last car. I think the numbers work out.
They stopped making the Minica. This was the last one. They’ve since moved on to the also quite tragic (but much cooler looking) ek Wagon.
I would really, really like to see the VW Polo imported here. It has just about the same dimensions as the Mk. 1 Rabbit/Golf. If it had the 70mpg diesel, I would hands down buy it right now, upside downess on my current ride be damned.
These are even smaller than that. Up!s and Polos are neat-looking little cars, but they are still larger and more substantial than this thing.
70 mpg is a bit optimistic for a VW Polo 1.4 TDI Bluemotion (75 hp, 3-cylinder, 5 speed manual).
About 55 to 60 mpg on average is more realistic, and easily achievable.
Here’s one, photo courtesy of Autoweek.
i was thinking the same thing. the reviewer is being overly dramatic. the minica just looks like simple no nonsense transportation to me. then i saw the shot of the back seat… as my daughter would say,”OMG!”
“…..I was placed in a small town nestled in a series of valleys between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It is not possible to sum up the beauty of the place without resorting to hyperbole, but so whatever, here you go: absolutely stunning, gorgeous, green-covered mountains, gray cliffs rising straight up from the sea, stretches of beaches here and there offering places to get a bit closer vantage point from which to see it all, and winding, exciting roads snaking all over it that were wasted on that utterly horrid little car.”
You really captured it along with the picture….that does look like a very beautiful place!
It reminds me of the Lloyd Alexander.
That backseat looks incredibly uncomfortable
How does this relate to, for example, a Volkswagen Up (below) ? I assume the Mitsubishi is substantially smaller, especially its width. The idea seems to be the same: Cheap to buy, cheap to run, and made for city traffic.
As the Mitsubishi is built to kei-car standards, it is indeed much smaller. The Up isn’t particularly cheap, but from what I’ve read it’s quite competent on the highway as well as in the city. If I needed a car (not the case in central London), I’d definitely consider one.
I drive an Up, and I’m also a big Kei car fan. I had a look at the dimensions and found the Up to be 140mm longer and 161mm wider than the maximum specifications for a kei car. Also 1L vs a maximum of 660cc, and 75hp vs a maximum of 63hp. The Up is basically a notch down in size from cars like the VW Polo and Ford Fiesta. A Kei car would be a further notch down from the Up.
A 2005-ish Daihatsu Coure/Charade was parked next to me the other day, and it looked very tiny in comparison. Particularly the wheels, which couldn’t have been any more than 12″.
The Up is a great city runabout and suprisingly good on the open road too. They are quite refined and well built for their size. Nothing at all like this Minica. Not particulary cheap though. A small premium will get you into a Polo, but I liked the Up more.
As one who has a minor crush on small, simple stripper cars, you make a great point: there can be too much of a good thing.
Sounds like a bunch of cars from the forties but smaller and more efficient. If you want to see how far we’ve come and how spoiled we have become try driving one of them (if you can find one). The fifties were an upgrade. This sounds like a pretty bad experience but probably as good as driving a postal jeep in Guam.
As someone who drives a cube, the cube could be smaller but if it were this size I doubt we would have bought it even if it were possible.
Whenever I read an article or post that spews hatred like this about a Car or Truck I have to take it with a large grain of Salt. (A boulder of Salt?)
I think most of problems with the car, though real, may be amplified by a Psychological issue. In this article that may be the “Cool Kids” laughing.
A cheap car is just what it is. You shouldn’t expect Alcantara Headliners, “Soft Touch” Dashboards, Symphony Sound, Recaro Seats or “Nurburgring” Handling.
After looking in the webs about this little beast I’m kinda liking it and it’s history.
In my defense, my first car was a very basic 1997 Hyundai Accent (https://www.curbsideclassic.com/cars-of-a-lifetime/coal-1997-hyundai-accent-the-unlikely-romantic-2/), and I loved every window-cranking, broken-driver’s-side-door, slow-accelerating second of it. The Minica was no Accent.
The Minica reminds me a lot of a commercial vehicle since it’s the type of vehicle where the purchaser is not going to be the one actually driving it, the only criteria in its design and engineering is how cheaply it can be built and sold.
On top of that, it’s a Mitsubishi, a manufacturer that has lately become known for being the worst in just about ‘any’ class of vehicle. I suspect that the majority of competitors in the same class as the Minica are substantially better, even if they retain the same elemental level of accoutrements.
It also reminds me of something I once read in a review of a loaded Impala some years ago. The writer stated that if you want to know how well a well-appointed vehicle from a specific manufacturer truly was, a ride in the least appointed, most stripped car they make would tell you all you needed to know. It makes sense since, in many cases, the most expensive vehicles are built in the same factory (or even actually come down the same assembly line) as the poverty-spec versions and it’s difficult to cover up a vehicle’s basic traits with stuff like higher quality seat coverings.
Dunno about being the worst in any class, I got to drive a classic Mitsu recently loved it, a relic from 1990 330hp V8 tractor unit 15 speed roadranger it was great and still going strong after several lifetimes of work great soundtrack with that barely muffled big block diesel too,
More recent Mitsus still feature those V8 motors though mostly now with twin turbochargers for more torque.
The woman who took over for me, she was provided a Daihatsu Mira. From looking at it and opening and closing the doors, it just seems like it’s better than the Minica was. I suspect you’re right and the Minica was worst-in-class. Not of of Mitsubishi’s stuff is garbage, though. Their Delica minivan is pretty cool, and the Evo’s quite the fast little thing, if the reviews are to be believed.
Even though Mitsubishi Minicas were never imported to the U.S. and Canada, they were also common on other Far East Countries such as The Philippines and even possibly Australia. I have created a Photo Montage Compilation of The Generations of the Mitsubishi Minica from 1960 through 2007 so its evolution all throughout the years will be noticed. The Mitsubishi eK by the way was its replacement.
A couple of those are familiar but certainly not common in NZ.
We didn’t get them in Oz either- generally too small and unable to reach our crash standards without substantial re-engineering.
Some of the other companies brought in such cars, like the Dihatsu Mira, but they have never been popular. I’d say the laughing school boy pretty much sums up the general reaction.
I had a chance to drive the second-to-last-generation Minica, too, and yeah, that was pretty horrid (oh, how it shook and rattled), although in that car’s defense it was a loaner car with 120,000km on it. My experience with Minicas has not been good.
Looks like a truncated minivan.
The only smallest Mitsubishi and Chrysler Cars available to North America were the 1978-83 Dodge Colt/Plymouth Champ/Plymouth Colt 3 and 5 Door Hatchbacks and the 1978-89 Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon 5 Door Hatchbacks. Minicas unfortunately weren’t due to its extremely small size (even though everyone can attest that the SMART Car was even a bit smaller than the Minica) and safety features requirements from that era as well.
I would be interested to know what the cost of this car was relative to something more refined, and what year it is. I am a minimalist at heart, and I can certainly live with crank windows, etc. While it may not be something I’d choose now, for me, I can’t imagine this being as bad as implied. It can’t be any worse than an early CVCC Civic.
It certainy can’t rust any faster.
Cars don’t rust in Japan.
Anyways, from my understanding, the CVCC was a pretty well-built car with decent handling characteristics, neither of which the Minica has. I suspect the CVCC would show quite well in a head-to-head between the two.
The CVCC Civic might handle better; that was probably its best attribute. On the debit side there was poor driveablity and reliability. It was relatively “tinny” as well. I reason that the Civic designed in the early 1970’s (I had a new one) could hardly be better overall than this Minica that is/was what, maybe 20 years newer? Perhaps a more appropriate comparison might be between this Minica and a mid-80’s Chevrolet Sprint/Suzuki Cultus.
The ’84 Cultus (Swift in Australia) was a size larger than these. I had an almost-new one of these for a number of years. The small size was delightful when parking. While undoubtedly light and tinny in construction (it only weighed 600kg), it drove quite well, the one litre triple always willing to rev its head off and go surprisingly quickly around town, and regularly gave 60-70mpg (proper Imperial gallons!) on the highway. I never tried really pushing the limits of its handling, but it never gave me any nasty surprises either.
I suspect my old Cultus would be a far superior drive to Matthew’s awful Minica.
You know what you do at every opportunity with a car that you detest but are stuck with, right? You hoon. You hoon from every stoplight, trying to make the rev limiter kick in at every shift. You take onramps at double the posted warning sign speed. You go the speed limit in third gear (maybe second in this case). You run down logging roads at jailable speeds as if them revenuers are after you and your load of ‘shine. You scrub the tires awake going back and forth in your lane like you’re at the Indy 500 during a caution. Downshift going downhill trying to make the valves float and pretending your brakes are out.
You make the experience fun. It’s still better than walking.
It’s a shame that you didn’t get the pocket rocket version from 1989, the Dangan ZZ-4! Constant all wheel drive, intercooled turbo, nine grand redline, and the world’s first production car with five valves per cylinder. All in a package weighing just under 700kg. I would love to put one through it’s paces, or one of it’s rivals the Suzuki Alto Works RS-R and the Daihatsu Mira TR-XX.
This fleet special Minica is one of the least inspired later model Kei cars that I have seen. I’m disappointed to hear that the steering was so terrible, because I expected it to be a bit fun and toss-able. I guess Mitsi really cheapened out on the suspension and steering components too. Can you remember what kind of gas milage it was getting?
I was pretty disappointed by the mileage. From such a small, basic car, I imagined that I’d be getting upwards of 50+mpg. Instead, at every fillup I calculated 12-14 km/l (usually closer to 12) most likely due to the mountainous terrain it crawled over. 12-14 km/l is about 34-40 mpg.
This is enlightening. It wars against everything I knew to date about Japanese cars. It seems the cars meant to be sold in America are uniformly well-built, and comfortable, and reasonably powerful, and this little beast is none of that. Do they sometimes not have respect for their domestic customers? It seems anti-Japanese. If they tried to sell something like this in America we would send the B-29s back to finish the job.
My impression of E. Asia so far (not having visited) is that car ownership is a big deal for many folks, so even a penalty box like this is better than nothing. Japan & Korea also seem to excellent public transport.
Old Pete- that little guy looks just like my Chevy Sprint. I think they are essentially identical. It was a joy to drive and I miss it.
Even though the Mitsubishi Minica’s replacement the eK (top right side) is one of the smallest kei car available only in Japan, the MieV (top left side) also a kei car in Japan but the US version is almost as large as the mini compact Mitsubishi Mirage (bottom center) is more like a specialized version of their smaller car much line the Toyota Prius c/Aqua Hybrid albeit a larger subcompact model.
I enjoyed your article very much again!