(first posted 2/25/2014) This is almost–almost–our last chapter in The Curbside Classic Colt Chronicles. Lovers of the nameplate will soon have to get their fix elsewhere, but luckily, our story ends on a positive note …mostly.
If you recognize the car pictured here, it’s because it was derided by a previous poster, who deemed it one of the least recognizable cars in all autodom. I suppose I begrudgingly see his point, but truth be told, if I were to see a Ford Elite, I might mistake it for a contemporary Grand Prix, so mid ’90s Japanese sedans are far from unique where anonymity is concerned.
Now that that’s out of the way, the car pictured is a ’93 to ’96 Eagle Summit. The Dodge and Plymouth Colt looked similar, but they were replaced by the ’94 Neon and are less common. Chrysler was understandably eager to get their first competitive small car since the 1978 Horizon on the market, leaving their captive import to be sold alongside the Talon at Jeep-Eagle dealers.
The rarest of these final CSM variants in the US is, of course, the Mitsubishi Mirage, this time sold sans hatchback. Based on the Japanese market Lancer, the sedan variant had a four-light greenhouse and more conservative front and rear ends which distinguished it from the Colt/Summit sedan, which along with the coupe and hatchback were still called Mirage in Japan.
For the purposes of the Colt Chronicles, we’ll continue to refer to this as the Mirage chassis, but if you would prefer to call it a Lancer, we won’t hold it against you. After all, Mitsubishi discontinued the Mirage name (and coupe and hatchback variants) two generations later and the most famous Mitsubishi, the Lancer Evo, debuted on this platform in late 1992.
After the Galant VR-4 grew for 1992, the rally baton was passed back to the Lancer, which had served as the basis for the company’s rally racer until the RWD model was discontinued in 1987. That means that the new Lancer Evo was gifted with AWD and a ‘roided up version of the famous 4G63 engine from the Eclipse (among other Mitsubishis). Potential competition with that coupe meant the US never got this legendary model, but it would have been a major boost to both the Mirage’s reputation as well as a master stroke by Mitsubishi since sporty coupes soon became a dead end.
In order to more effectively compete within its segment and rationalize production, the rigid beam rear suspension was canned in favor of a multi-link set-up, but as far as mechanicals were concerned, the 1993 Colt/Mirage as sold in North America was thoroughly conventional. The biggest news, if one could call it that, was the introduction of a sixteen-valve 1.8 liter engine. Other than Chrysler’s Neon engine and their previous-generation V6, only Honda and Mitsubishi have really embraced single-cam sixteen-valve heads (with Mazda having built a handful).
Not that this mattered to anyone who bought the cars in the US, which mainly seemed to appeal buyers who were unsavvy, extra thrifty or simply of modest means. Growing competition for these same buyers from the 323-based Escort, various Hyundais and, on the West coast, Kia began to eat the Colt’s lunch. A very large number of cars were sold with vinyl seats, a 4-speed manual and the 1.5 liter 12-valve engine, making it one of the last Japanese shoeboxes American customers could get their hands on.
Shoebox is perhaps a strange description for a design which was perhaps the ultimate expressions of the oft-derided “jellybean” shape, but in the very early nineties, this was seen as the next big thing. So instead of dismissing the CSM cars as “generic,” let’s just call this generation of Colt a fashion victim.
US market sedans were built by Diamond Star in Illinois, next to the Galant and DSM trio, and I have to wonder if the investment paid off. Chrysler no doubt contributed to the project, but by 1991, they began selling their shares of the joint venture to Mitsubishi and as Eagle failed, it would seem very little profit was made by selling the Summit or even the Talon. With no love from Auburn Hills, a rapidly appreciating yen and next to zero brand recognition, there was very little money available to distinguish this final generation of CSMs. And while Colts and Summits weren’t necessarily uncommon cars, the Mitsubishi badged versions are rare in North America.
Making a profit at the bottom end of the car market is hard enough without having to farm out development to a foreign company whose value proposition is rapidly fading due to macroeconomic trends. At the same time, marketing its subcompact primarily through another manufacturer’s dealer network as a McImport seriously eroded any chance of Mitsubishi successfully establishing the Mirage as a viable competitor in a tough segment. Mitsubishi went on to make success with the Evo, but it made sense for both parents of the Colt project to divorce and go their own separate ways. In Chrysler’s case, half-baked development of subsequent models created a ticking time bomb which was handed off to Daimler Benz (who also spurned Mitsubishi) and we all know that story. Like a jilted, bitter and struggling single mother and an aging playboy now in the arms of a demanding mistress, it’s likely Mitsubishi Motors and Chrysler LLC look fondly upon the memory of their tumultuous relationship.