(first posted 2/23/2014) If you were a Dodge or Plymouth dealer drawing in a good number of import buyers in the early 1980s, the arrival of a new Colt in 1985 would be a bit less exciting compared to previous introductions. Thanks to the American introduction of the identical Mirage, the “real” Colt, Chrysler was no longer the exclusive purveyor of Mitsubishi’s subcompact.
As with the prior generation, this car sold in Japan as the Mirage, alongside a four-door version called Lancer Fiore and, as Paul explained, by this time both Dodge and Plymouth versions went by Colt. However, the focus for Mitsubishi and Chrysler was different the second time around. Chrysler would soon come out with new, more evolved and sporty compacts based on the K-chassis, making Colt superfluous in its lineup, except as a budget option for buyers who insisted on buying Japanese.
Meanwhile, the parent company wanted to market the Mirage as a more refined car, as the prior model was criticized for its flimsiness. This meant that, for the first time in the US, the three-door hatch was accompanied by a four-door sedan, while Mitsubishi dealers began selling the car under the Mirage nameplate in North America.
You really have to hand it to Chrysler, though. Despite their different aims in marketing the Colt, they got more and better versions of the car than Mitsubishi, who only sold the three-door hatch until 1987, when they finally got the four-door sedan, only sans turbo. Mitsubishi also never sold the Chariot/Vista. In fact, Mitsubishi had to sell 120,000 cars through Chrysler in order to be allowed to sell a limited number (30,000 total) of their own cars.
Mitsubishi did get some money when the new car was cloned as the Proton Saga (built from 1985 until 2008) and by licensing its engine and platform to Hyundai for use in the Excel. While many may prefer the Giugiaro-designed Hyundai’s looks, the Mitsubishi has more character.
It may seem ironic that such a generic car should be perceived as having character, and while you wouldn’t call it innovative, the Colt wasn’t the most conservative subcompact, with a faux clamsell hood and wraparound door frames. It also epitomized Japanese styling of the era, with a cohesive, sharp-edged motif.
On the other hand, the sedan’s and 5-door hatchback’s rear quarter window, which divides the width of the rear door almost perfectly in half, is a particularly clumsy looking feature, accentuating the short wheel base and the shape’s overall squareness.
Coming in 1987, the wagon’s rear end design was gimmicky, a bit goofy and in retrospect, somewhat charming.
The three-door was the best looking of the bunch, but after the previous car, which didn’t look like any of its rivals, the whole effect was somewhat underwhelming. It was difficult to tell it apart from the Sentra hatchback, the I-Mark or the Excel.
The interior carried over the last car’s aversion to steering column stalks, but was quite different, with flat surfaces and a more rectilinear appearance. Other than the vaguely retro-futuristic flourish of its gauge cluster surround, it was all very conventional. This shot of a very clean brown example is flattering, with matte finish plastics and soft cloth surfaces in evidence. The 323 may have out-plushed it, but otherwise, this was as fancy as it got, until the 1988 Civic and Corolla were introduced.
If the styling was typically Japanese, the rear suspension was not. A compound trailing arm system, as found on the first Mirage, along with various Citroens, Peugeots and Renaults had, was more French than anything, offering independent wheel movement in the same space a torsion beam would occupy. Note the separation of dampers and springs. Mitsubishi (obviously) knew that this system would result in unwanted camber changes as the body’s roll angles increased in turns, and deliberately tuned the car to understeer strongly at the limit. As the suspension remained fundamentally the same as before, the focus for the new car was to enhance stability, ride comfort and isolation.
In a 1987 comparison against other front drive pocket rockets, Car and Driver wrote,
“This is a jewellike little car: tight, precise, rewarding…due to the Mirage’s apparent quality. The car is solid and rattle free. The levers are rigid and move with minimal friction… nothing feels cheap.” They added, “The Mirage has a handling problem… The Mirage understeers–absolutely, profoundly, unswervingly.”
Once again, the least expensive turbocharged cars in the US featured prominently in the Colt’s model lineup, available both as a sedan and hatchback, while the Mirage Turbo was only available in three-door form. For 1985, the turbocharged, fuel injected 1.6 eight-valve engine put out three more horsepower for a total of 105 at 5500 rpm and 122 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm. At about 2300 pounds, performance was very good, with a focus on low-end and midrange power. In the same comparison test, the Mirage Turbo managed a third place in the quarter mile and sprint to sixty at 16.2 seconds at 84 mph and eight seconds flat, respectively. In gear acceleration times were first in the group of ten cars, but as one might expect, performance tapered off noticeably at higher speeds, taking fifth place in the dash to 100 and seventh for top speed, at 109 mph. Still, at about $10,600, it was one of the least expensive cars in the test, and one of the best options around for cheap speed.
Most people bought these cars in Colt form, of course, with the carbureted 1.5 liter version putting out an unimpressive 68 horsepower and 82 lb-ft of torque. The focus with these engines was also on low-end response, but unlike its turbocharged counterpart, it was slower than average for the day, even considering its price. The twin-stick transmission was history upon the introduction of the new cars, many of which were ironically equipped with a four-speed manual, reflecting their position as one of the absolute cheapest ways to get into a Japanese hatchback. The addition of a three speed automatic in our mid-range beige example must make for intolerably slow performance in today’s traffic, not that it was ever a pleasant combination. This engine is still in production today, albeit having been updated through the years with fuel injection and multi-valve heads, in addition to turbocharging.
Oddly enough, even as sedans were replacing hatchbacks as the cheap vehicles of choice, the Colt remained most popular in three-door form, reflecting its bottom feeder status. Customers interested in a well-equipped Colt Premier sedan were likely upsold into a Shadow or Sundance, while Mitsubishi dealers were still few and far between.
The way Mitsubishi saw it, it might have made more sense to sell the Mirage in more basic formats to get people in the door to look at Starions or Galants while pushing more well-equipped models through Dodge and Plymouth dealers, who were allocated so much more volume. By 1987, Mitsubishi dealers even went so far as to sell the Precis, an Excel clone, in order to advertise a low price. Compare this situation to Mazda’s dealings with Ford, wherein a Korean built low-budget version of their 121 sold at Ford dealers as the Festiva. As we can see, Mitsubishi’s problems in this market date back to the beginning of their North American enterprises.
This generation Colt was exceptionally long-lived for a Japanese car sold in the US, as the 5-door wagon was only introduced in 1988, during the end of the three and four-door cars’ model run, lasting until 1991, when the subsequent 1989-1992 generation hatchback and sedan were ready to be replaced. These wagons at shared their “three-link” (read: solid rear axle with panhard rod) rear suspension with the new car and gained fuel-injection, for a grand total of 75 horsepower and 87 lb-ft of torque. A 1.8 liter engine, shared with base Mitsubishi Eclipses until 1994, powered a rare four-wheel-drive version. One of these would be a real find today, as they were uncommon even when new.
The second generation Mirage continued to be sold in Canada as the Eagle Vista, alongside its successor models. If you include the Excel and Precis, the basic car lasted in the US until 1994, after which point Hyundai and Chrysler designed home-grown replacements, leaving Mitsubishi to go it alone. Unfortunately, despite competitive redesigns for 1989 and 1993, the Mirage continued to languish in the US market, while the Colt came to epitomize the automotive penalty box. After hitting a home run in its first generation, one of the most innovative and popular subcompacts went on to become one of the most stereotypical and least loved.