Curbside Classic: 1986 Mitsubishi Chariot – Swing Low

It all seemed rather inauspicious. Not being a fan of either Mitsubishi nor minivans, this Chariot might have been a bit of a challenge to write up, but no. I was determined to find the good amongst the mediocrity, to squeeze a drop of interest out of this stone of boredom. Would this quixotic endeavour meet with success?

Back in the ‘70s, when the wagon reigned supreme, the thinking heads of the global automotive industry were busy trying to devise a way to offer more space to the car-buyer with a family. There weren’t too many ways to square that circle: more width was not on the cards, particularly in Japan, where that parameter was tightly regulated (less than 170cm). Extra length, other than by a few inches, was not really feasible either, for the same reason. The only way to grow was up.

The great minds over at Mitsubishi Motor Corp. got together in 1977 and started work on the Super Space Wagon (SSW) – initially, pretty much the one-box tall wagon that we would today call a minivan. The SSW was based on the latest FWD Mitsubishi technology, to ensure that what was gained from raising the roof wasn’t offset by cramped legroom. It all looked promising, but the way to go about revolutionizing the wagon was to go slowly and step by step, so Mitsubishi displayed the SSW as a prototype at the 1979 Tokyo Motor Show.

Reactions were positive, but Mitsubishi dithered. The company was busy finalizing the Tredia saloon already and the SSW, soon to be renamed Chariot, was to use the Tredia’s platform. Work on the Chariot resumed in 1981 and Mitsubishi designers dialed back the one-box concept a bit, reverting to a slightly more conventional front end.

They also added 10cm of wheelbase, which made legroom for the middle and rearmost seats quite decent, especially given the vehicle’s overall size. The Chariot was finally unveiled in February 1983 – many months after Nissan had launched the very similar Prairie. Not for the first time, Mitsubishi had a good idea only to fumble its execution.

Initially, Japanese law still required fender-mounted mirrors, but this was relaxed later in 1983. Still, quite a few gen 1 Chariots (as well as some gen 2s) were fitted with them. None of that goofy-looking nonsense for our feature car, though, which was instead fitted with 5mph bumpers (this was an option at the time) and subsequently thoroughly de-badged and given a US market-style headlamp arrangement.

This excerpt from the 1985 JDM brochure provides us with an idea of the car’s period appearance, as well as the engine and drivetrain options available at the time. The 4WD variant was added to the range in mid-1984. Not seen here is the 1.8 litre turbodiesel version.

Two seating layouts were available: the 7-seater, pictured here, or an interesting 6-seater where the middle seats could pivot 180 degrees.

As hinted above, the Chariot had an international career that befitted its role as a minivan pioneer. North American cars were rebadged as the Colt Vista Wagon and sold by Plymouth and Dodge dealers in the US (and Eagle in Canada). The rest of the world also got Chariots, but they were usually renamed Mitsubishi Space Wagon: the term “Chariot,” as used in both English and French to describe a type of horse-drawn vehicle, was perhaps deemed to be ill-suited to such a forward-thinking machine. For some reason, Australian cars were named Nimbus and Wheels elected the Mitsubishi their COTY for 1984.

In the 1980s, the good old manual transmission was still pretty common in Japanese-market cars – though it was losing ground very quickly. It’s a 5-speed in this Mitsubishi; automatics were 3-speed and 4WD cars had Mitsubishi’s “Super Shift” transmission – a 4-speed manual transaxle with an overdrive for all gears, essentially turning it into an 8-speed.

The first generation Chariot was made for quite a while – the second generation only took over in May 1991. Production numbers totaled just under 300k units, which was good by any measure for such a novel vehicle, but also outdid such now-celebrated luminaries as the first generation Renault Espace (1984-91, 190k units). The Mitsubishi was sold in many more markets than the Renault, which goes some way to explain this difference. But that’s all to Mitsubishi’s (and Chrysler’s) credit: it’s great to think and build innovative cars, but success lies in managing to sell them.

Somewhat reluctantly, I must confess that I warmed up a bit to the Mitsubishi Chariot. Not that it would make my fantasy garage list, but as an archaeological artefact from the earliest history of the minivan, it does have its charms. But ultimately, the archetypes of the species, i.e. the Espace and the Caravan/Voyager, are the icons of the times. Mitsubishi may have beaten them to the market by a few months, but just like the Prairie it feels more like an overgrown wagon than a true minivan. Once again, Mitsubishi managed to snatch muted disappointment from the jaws of genuine success.

Related posts:


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

Cohort Pic(k) of the Day: 1991 Dodge Colt Vista – A Vista Of The Past, by PN

CC Capsule: 1992 Mitsubishi Chariot (N30) MX – Mirror, Mirror, On The Wing…, by T87