CC Colt Chronicles Part 6: 1984-1991 Colt Vista Wagon (Mitsubishi Chariot/Space Wagon) – Mitsubishi Invents A New Category of Vehicle

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(first posted 2/22/2014)    Mitsubishi was on a roll in the early eighties. Not only was their trend-setting new FWD econobox Mirage-Colt a success in every measure, but then Mitsubishi followed that up with a highly innovative new vehicle: the Chariot/Space Wagon, sold in the US as the Colt Vista Wagon at both Dodge and Plymouth dealers. It was the first of its kind: a tall and long wagon with seating for eight. Ironically, it appeared the same year as Chrysler’s own highly innovative new mini-vans, the Caravan and Voyager. Dodge and Plymouth dealers were suddenly the hot place for families with kids.

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Admittedly, the Vista Wagon had some competition in bragging rights for this general category. The Nissan Prairie/Stanza Wagon (CC here) was truly the first large-space FWD passenger vehicle of the modern era, seeing as it arrived (in Japan) in 1981. But it rather straddles the middle ground between mini-van and long/tallboy “space wagon” wagon. It was taller, and had sliding doors. But then it didn’t offer a third row of seats (except in Japan).

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The Chrysler minivans (CC here) nailed it, for American conditions anyway. Although the initial swb versions were tight for three rows of seats, it was doable. And the lwb versions really came to define the segment, although “mini” wasn’t actually all that relevant anymore. The midi-van.

Dodge Vista ad

Unlike the Caravan, the Vista Wagon was clearly more directly passenger-car-based, being lower and narrower. But it was actually one inch longer than the swb Caravan, and put that to good use in its interior accommodations. The very big difference was that all of its rear seats folded down, in various configurations, making the space very flexible to adapt to many different needs.

The Caravan’s seats didn’t fold, and had to be removed for carrying large loads. Anyone who’s ever lifted those bench seats in and out of an early Caravan undoubtedly has vivid memories of that, and perhaps some old chiropractor bills to prove it. A royal pain; as I know all too well. Of course, once the Caravan’s seats were out, its load capacity was larger than the Vista’s.

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Here’s the view from the rear of those three rows. It’s rather familiar to me, because in 1994, I rode in one of those rear-most seats from Eugene to Vancouver and back, at least for part of the way. Given that I’m 6’4″, I was rather surprised that it wasn’t all that bad. I’m quite sure the leg room was better than in an eight-passenger swb Caravan.

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I didn’t drive on that trip, so I don’t have any impressions to share. The interior design was a bit cleaner than the Caravan’s. Power-wise, these obviously weren’t hot rods, given that there was all of 98 hp under the hood, from Mitsubishi’s 4G63 2.0 L four. Well, that was 14 more than the Caravan’s standard 2.2 L four in the early years, so the Vista would undoubtedly have felt a bit livelier. For what it’s worth.

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I remember looking at these at the dealer, when we were in the market for a new car in the winter of 1984. I would have gone for one, especially the 4WD version, and it would have undoubtedly worked quite well for us. But Stephanie was enamored of the brand new Cherokee that was new that fall too, and that’s what we bought. I rather suspect the Vista wouldn’t have broken down as often as that Jeep.

These Vista Wagons sold in healthy numbers, at least on the West Coast; of course, nothing like the Chrysler mini-vans. They weren’t exactly cheap; priced at $8721 and $9809 for the AWD version, in 1984. I don’t have a price for the ’84 Caravan handy, but it wouldn’t surprise me that it undercut the Vista Wagon.

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By this time, both Plymouth and Dodge dealers were in on the Colt franchise, the only difference being the badge on the back. Presumably, they were sold in the US all the way through their last production year, 1991, but it may have ended in 1990. They certainly didn’t sell in any significant numbers in their later years.

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In 1992, the second generation Chariot/Space Wagon arrived, this time being sold here as the Mitsubishi Expo.

Mitsubishi Expo_LRV_1image: wikipedia

And then Mitsubishi threw another new at us, a shortened version of the Expo, called Expo LRV. It had a sliding door on the passenger side only, and only one rear seat accommodating three, which could be configured in a number of ways.  It too was available in AWD, and was intended to be a multi-purpose vehicle appealing to young families, now with presumably fewer kids. Oddly, these were also (supposedly) sold as Dodge and Plymouth Colts, as well as by Eagle, as the Summit DL Wagon. Good luck finding one of those now. It seems that the vast majority out there are Mitsubishi-branded.

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Like the Stanza wagon and the tall-boy Honda Civic wagon of the era, the Vista Wagon brought some refreshing new thinking to Americans (and the rest of the world) about the multipurpose capabilities of passenger cars. For a car that’s several inches shorter than a new VW Jetta Sportwagon or such, there’s a world of difference in their space utilization. We may never see such space-efficient cars again.