Curbside Classic: 1983 Mitsubishi Minica Ami L CX – Mini Dinosaur

Finding a car like this is a real test of a CC writer’s character. I mean, aside from its advancing years and relative rarity, this thing has very little going for it. It’s brown, it’s tiny, it’s insipid – how can inspiration be found in a small pile of Mitsubishit? Let’s try and polish this one and see if we can make it shine.

I couldn’t say why exactly, but I’m really not a fan of Mitsubishi cars in general. There are a few exceptions, but by and large, I really find them to be rather dull. Mitsubishi is a weird company. They date back to the dawn of Japanese industry, built cars since the 1910s (and virtually everything else too, from planes and ships to A/C units and TV sets), so they’re both very old and tentacular, yet they remain a bit-player on the automotive scene. This extends to the kei car market, too.

For almost 50 years, Mitsubishi’s price leader was the Minica, launched in 1962. The first iteration (top left) was extremely rustic and pig-ugly, though it sold well enough because Mitsubishi was a highly respected conglomerate. The 2nd generation (top right) arrived in late 1969. It initially kept its predecessor’s air-cooled parallel twin, which delivered all of 28 PS. This 2nd generation sprouted a fastback version in 1971 called Minica Skipper (middle left). The Minica Van (i.e. the wagon) from this generation was surprisingly long-lived, continuing on until 1981 with only minor cosmetic changes (bottom right) and a 550cc engine. A third generation, dubbed F4 for some unfathomable reason, arrived in late 1972 (middle right), overlapping with its predecessor. In 1976, the engine became a water-cooled four-stroke and grew to 470cc, but little else really changed. The 4th generation, launched in June 1977 (bottom left), remained extremely conservative: though it was now both longer and wider — and had a bigger engine — it did not deviate from the template set in the early ‘60s. It even kept some of the 3rd generation’s body panels.

Mitsubishi Minica brochure, 1982


This template is the über-traditional front-engine / RWD layout, with a parallel 546cc twin providing the power – all 31 hp of it – via a 4-speed manual (or a 2-speed automatic) to a good old live axle. This 4th generation lasted longer than the previous one: in 1981, it got an extensive facelift that included a squarer roofline and square headlamps. A Turbo version even appeared in early 1983 – a kei car first – as well as super deluxe “CX” version, complete with a tape deck and remote control wing mirrors.

I’m wondering if this was not the last 2-cyl. front-engine / RWD car ever produced. It was certainly an oddity even before its day: if you check out this 1971 Road Test review of Japanese kei cars, they already singled out the Minica (then in its second generation) for the same reason. If you’re going to make a tiny car well below 1-litre, why not just go FWD or rear-engine to save space and weight? Pretty strange thinking going on at the Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.

This is evident when looking at the 1983 Minica’s direct competitors – the Daihatsu Mira (top right, launched in 1980), the Subaru Rex (launched in 1981) and the Suzuki Alto (bottom left, launched in 1979). They were all FWD machines and all offered 4WD versions by late 1983. The Daihatsu and the Subaru had a 550cc twin like the Minica, but Suzuki had gone for a triple, which soon became the kei class standard. Subaru and Daihatsu, for their part, offered a 5-door version. Mitsubishi got a turbocharger first, but Daihatsu and Subaru caught up before the end of the year. The Minica, outdated and outclassed both inside and out, had no competitive edge.

Another thing is that the Mitsubishi branding is absent on this car; instead, all we get is this “MMC” lettering on the grille. That was a recent decision, implemented in December 1982. What was going on in Japan at the time? Nissan were ditching Datsun, Toyota finally got rid of Toyopet and Mitsubishi were abandoning their name – a fabulously famous one, with a great logo – for alphabet soup? It’s not that it was rocket science to figure out the meaning of the acronym, but I’m at a loss as to the reasoning behind the change in the first instance. Other Mitsubishis also had that, I seem to recall, but I’m not sure how widespread this particular disease was across the range.

Then there is the second name thing – this “Ami” tacked on the end there. No idea why that’s there. Other makers have done this (Daihatsu Mira Cuore, for example), but “Ami” necessarily reminds me of the Citroën of the same name. It means “friend” in French. Not sure what it’s supposed to mean in the present case. I doubt anyone on the JDM had heard of the controversially-styled Citroën, of course. Still, it’s a weird choice – but maybe that’s just me.

This Minica makes no earthly sense. It didn’t in the early ‘70s and it certainly did even less a decade later. Mitsubishi were aware of it, I guess, as they went FWD with the next generation, which debuted in February 1984 to little acclaim. And so the little RWD dinosaur went extinct, taking its coil-sprung miniature solid axle with it. The Minica continued on until the end of the 8th generation in 2011, after which the Mitsubishi kei was renamed “eK,” which looks less like a name than a reaction (as in: “She saw my new MMC and went ‘eeeK’!”) By comparison, the Toyota iQ sounds positively intelligent.

Meeting the last RWD Minica has done little to change my feelings toward Mitsubishi in general – and small Mitsubishis in particular. I saw a 1st generation Debonair the other day and just gawked as it went past (alas, I was too stunned to react and document it). It was an elegant and characterful design. I have also admired the Galants of the late ‘70s / early ‘80s. I’d even say the early Lancers aren’t too bad. I’m open to some of this carmaker’s products. But what we have here is a technological dead end. A flimsy excuse for a kei masquerading as a high-trim economy car. A vehicle whose body has had more facelifts than Cher. A marque-less model that has less identity than the most badge-engineered Deadly Sin that GM or British Leyland ever committed. Some kei cars are cute, some are boring but competent. And then there is the Minica Ami.