(first posted 2/21/2014) The oft-repeated apologia for the travails and downfall of GM during the eighties is that they were just so darn overwhelmed converting their traditional RWD cars to modern front-wheel drive technology. Their new FWD smaller cars arrived inevitably half-baked, resulting in massive damage to their reputation and loss of market share. This extended to even otherwise fairly solid efforts like Chrysler’s Omni and Horizon and Ford’s Escort, which were also plagued in their first few years with various minor but annoying issues. Inevitably, Detroit’s new small cars required several years of owner-beta testing before they became reasonably solid and fleshed-out cars.
Yet across the Pacific, every one of the existing major Japanese manufacturers (except Honda) faced the same challenge. For decades, they had only built very conventional RWD small cars, but the combination of the energy crisis and the ascendency of the VW Golf and Honda Civic forced them to start from scratch, with new, compact FWD hatches with which they would bet their futures. And to a man, they succeeded, rather spectacularly at that, and none more so than Mitsubishi with their superb new Colt/Champ/Mirage.
We’ve covered these excellent first-generation FWD hatches from Toyota (Tercel) and Mazda (GLC/323) here before, and now it’s time to pay respects to the third member of the class, the 1979 Dodge Colt, also sold by Plymouth as the Champ and known as the Mirage in its home country. Together with the Civic, they carved out and gobbled up the low-end of the market, and with serious aplomb, especially compared to Chevrolet’s aging tin-can Chevette.
Let’s start with the styling and packaging of this econobox. This was an almost shockingly good effort from a company whose previous small car (Lancer-Colt) looked like an aging Corolla. This is arguable as fine as a design for a very compact hatchback as there was anywhere in the world, especially for 1979.
The Mirage-Colt appeared a year before the gen2 Civic, yet it looks years more modern. There’s no doubt that the clean and advanced design of the Mirage-Colt forced Honda to drastically redesign the Civic for the next generation.
The same applies to the Tercel. Toyota soon ditched its rather odd seventies-looking design for a much cleaner Mirage-inspired gen2 Tercel.
And what was the source of Mitsubishi’s inspiration? Did you have to ask? Of course, Mitsubishi’s designer’s tightened up the package drastically, and it has a number of differences, but there’s little doubt that the Pacer’s large glass area, and how it was so well integrated into the car’s skin, was one of the more unique and bold efforts for 1975, and left its legacy in a number of cars, including the Porsche 928.
That extends to their front ends too. Obviously, it wasn’t a direct copy per se, but the influence is unmistakable.
It even extends to the way the five-mile bumpers were handled. That solution, to just let them hang out there with air between it and the car, was exactly what Dick Teague did with the Pacer and Matador coupe, a much better solution than every other manufacturer’s attempt to integrate them with the body with big plastic filler pieces. It doesn’t disturb the actual shape of the car, treating it as semi-remote object rather than an ugly growth emerging out of the car’s “skin”. Honest and effective.
Mitsubishi also nailed the interior, with an equally clean design and good material quality for the times. I don’t have a picture of the back seat, but a contemporary C/D review raves about the space utilization, considering that this car rode on a very short 90.6″ wheelbase, and was just under 150″ long. According to them, six-footers were able to get comfortable in the back seat “without any infringement on their head, knee or elbow room”. That’s probably more than one could say about the much bigger Pacer’s cramped rear seat.
Since we’ve looked inside, there’s no point in waiting any longer to talk about these cars’ most distinctive and memorable feature, the Twin Stick “Super Shift” transmission. Next to the main shifter for the four speed is a second one, marked E (Economy) and P (Power), which actuated a synchronized auxiliary two speed transmission, and which could be used to split any and all of the gears or just to give two ranges for the primary transmission.
And why do that, instead of a five speed? Rather than type it all out, I’m going to quote Wikipedia on the subject:
The Mirage also debuted Mitsubishi’s Super Shift transmission, a four-speed manual with a second lever for “low” and “high” range; thus, effectively making the transmission an eight-speed unit. The Super Shift was not originally planned. However, Mitsubishi engineers had to make use of the existing Orion engine designed for rear-wheel drive applications making use of the longitudinal engine orientation. In the Mirage, sizing restraints as a result of the front-wheel drive layout required the engine to be mounted transversely, thus causing the carburetor to face forwards and run into icing issues. However, the primary implication of the Mirage’s powertrain orientation—and the issue that demanded the unconventional transmission—was the mounting of the transmission beneath the engine. This required the gearbox to take power down from the clutch, an action not possible directly as this would have dictated that the gearbox rotated in the opposite direction to that required. To overcome this, the use of an extra “idle” transfer shaft was necessitated. It was subsequently realized that for a cost no more than developing a new five-speed transmission, this shaft could be modified as a separate two-speed gearbox controlled by a secondary shift lever mounted alongside the main lever inside the cabin. The ratios on this transfer transmission were, in effect, “underdrives”—consequently marked on the second shift lever as a “power” mode due to increased performance granted by the lower gearing. In contrast, the higher overdrive setting was noted as “economy”.
Whereas it was possible to split all the gears, in practice, it was very difficult, unless you were a trucker used to dealing with a twin-shift Fuller or such, since it really took two hands to shift both levers simultaneously (truckers did it by reaching their left hand through their giant steering wheel, thus keeping some control over the steering). So the more typical use was in accelerating through the four gears in Power mode, then shifting into Economy for a fifth gear “overdrive”. Or just leaving it in E, if not in a hurry.
These cars came with either the 1.4 or 1.6 L versions of the SOHC Orion engine, the preferred 1.6 being rated at 80 hp. That was somewhat above par back then, and good for a 0-60 time of 11.3 seconds (C/D). The Ford Fiesta was the fastest car of the field, but it was never really sold aggressively by Ford here, because it cost too much too import and production was constrained in Europe, where it was a hot seller. But the Colt’s performance was right there with the Rabbit, and decidedly brisker than the Omni-Horizon.
The Mirage-Colt-Champ was also a decent handler, although not quite in the same league as the best of them (Rabbit/Golf and Fiesta). The little Mitsu used a true trailing-arm independent rear suspension, which saved space and gave a reasonably decent ride, but it meant that their rear wheels were always parallel to the body, which is not ideal geometry as the car leans in a turn. That led to a decided tendency to lift-throttle oversteer, although that was hardly uncommon on cars in this class back then. The steering wasn’t quite up to the sensitivity and feel of the two German hatches either. But it was as good or better as anything else from Japan at the time in its class. It certainly was a fun and entertaining drive, as long as its limits were known and respected.
In its final year, 1984, a true pocket rocket was unleashed in the form of the Colt GTS Turbo. With 7.5 lbs of boost, 102 hp were now on tap, making for tire-smoking accelerations runs to sixty in eight seconds flat, and the quarter mile in 16.19/83.38 (M/T). The biggest problem was to keep the little 13″ tires from becoming useless in first gear. Motor Trend’s test (comparison to VW GTI) required second gear starts for just that reason. Although the Colt Turbo was amusing, not surprisingly, the GTI was a more balanced package all-round, excepting the straight-line acceleration.
Undoubtedly, these were sold in modest numbers, and who knows if any survive. But the Colt Turbo clearly predicted Mitsubishi’s long love affair with turbos, and the bad-boy image that went along with them.
We haven’t touched yet on the naming of these cars. Upon their arrival in 1979, the Dodge version was of course Colt, and Plymouth named it Champ. This ad gives a clear idea of both its size and place in the Plymouth hierarchy. And those EPA mileage numbers are the old, unadjusted numbers. But the Colt and Champ did deliver excellent mileage, in the 30-35 mpg range, in real world driving.
But the Colt name was not to stay exclusive to Dodge for much longer. In 1983, the Plymouth Champ became the Plymouth Colt, and from then on, Colts of all stripes would be sold in Plymouth dealerships too. The badges then just read “COLT Imported For Plymouth”; or Dodge, as the case may have been.
In 1983, a longer wheelbase (93.7″) version with four doors was added to the Mirage family.
The Colt four door also sprouted a rear trunk, as this face-lifted Australian version shows (not sold in the US). These were assembled in Australia up until about 1990, by which time the gen3 Mirage-Colt had been out for a few years. Even New Zealand assembled Colts for a few years, by the Todd Corporation. The longer 93.7″ wheelbase platform was kept on for the gen2 Mirage-Colts.
These Colts, or whatever you want to call them, also proved to be fairly reliable and durable little cars, and from the get-go. Undoubtedly they weren’t perfect for every owner, but it’s hard to find anyone with much of anything bad to say about them. There’s still a few here on the roads here, looking mighty small in comparison to today’s so much bigger cars.
My favorite one, and the one I encounter regularly, sits outside the lumberyard I frequent, and belongs to one of the employees. I don’t know it’s full story, but it’s a daily driver and looks more like it’s five or ten years old rather than a quarter century. Amid all the great big pickups and delivery trucks, it also looks more like a toy. But a well-built one.