Success came relatively easy for 1980s SUVs, since the vehicles formerly known as off-roaders suddenly found themselves in a booming market segment. As the editor of Four Wheeler magazine noted at the time, SUVs had become popular because “they make good grocery-getters, they make good four-wheel drive recreational vehicles, they make good commuters.” But not all SUVs actually made good grocery-getters, and not all achieved sales success. Mitsubishi’s Montero was one such vehicle. In a decade that saw US annual SUV sales balloon from 42,000 to over 800,000, Mitsubishi was lucky to sell 10,000 Monteros per year.
In a way, Montero was a victim of circumstance. Its excellent off-road capabilities, for example, were at odds with SUVs’ emerging role as the new generation of family wagons. And its price advantage didn’t translate to much of a sales advantage because 1980s SUV buyers weren’t exactly a thrifty bunch. However, some of the onus for Montero’s underwhelming US performance was due to Mitsubishi simply misjudging the market – a problem that didn’t stop with the 1st generation vehicle. Montero was a good vehicle, just out of its element.
Mitsubishi was no stranger to off-roaders, having produced Jeeps for Japanese domestic consumption starting in 1953.
In the 1970s, Mitsubishi began aspiring to more homegrown 4x4s. This resulted in the Pajero II show car, debuting at the 1979 Tokyo Motor Show.
While the concept remained consistent, the vehicle’s appearance changed by 1982 when Mitsubishi put the Pajero in production (called the Montero or Shogun in many export markets). Pajero was initially offered as a short-wheelbase 2-door with fixed or removable top versions, and with diesel or gas engines.
Until the 1980s, 4x4s were often viewed as outcasts from the mainstream automotive marketplace. Jeeps, and a handful of competitors, appealed to a diverse group of buyers like ranchers, off-road enthusiasts, surfers, and other folks on the fringes of the consumer spectrum.
Gradually though, these vehicles began combining off-road capability with more comfort and civility. Ford, Chevy, Jeep and others added creature comforts, passenger capacity and cargo space to their 4x4s. Still rather trucklike, these vehicles nonetheless expanded the breed’s appeal, particularly in the US – a market that Mitsubishi was poised to enter.
For American consumers in 1970s and early 1980s, Mitsubishi was a well-known stranger. While other Japanese manufacturers had staked out their places in the US market a decade or more earlier, Mitsubishi did not – directly. Instead, Mitsubishi entered into an agreement with Chrysler in 1970 to sell small cars and trucks under Dodge and Plymouth badges. This worked well until Chrysler’s own financial problems imperiled this relationship. In 1981, Mitsubishi renegotiated its contract with Chrysler to allow it an independent dealer network. In under two years, the first Mitsubishi-branded vehicles hit US shores (Canada did not get Mitsubishi vehicles until 2002).
Eschewing the bottom end of market (since Chrysler still had the exclusive right to sell Colts), Mitsubishi crafted its US products as niche mid-range vehicles, with the high-tech Starion being the firm’s flagship and expected sales leader. Recognizing the constraints of both the Chrysler contract and Japan’s voluntary export restraints, a Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America executive explained: “It is not our goal to displace Toyota or Nissan. It is our goal to develop a midrange of volume.”
Mitsubishi introduced its fifth US vehicle halfway through the 1983 model year. The Montero expanded the company’s offerings into an exciting market segment, though only its hardtop version was imported. Mitsubishi’s brochure cover reveals its marketing angle – on a city street in front of an Abercrombie & Fitch store. This was the right approach at the right time: 1983 marked the beginning of the Compact SUV boom, when yuppies and suburban families began buying 4x4s in large numbers.
But despite Montero’s many attributes, US sales never took off.
One reason was that although the urban chic marketing approach was on target, it wasn’t totally suited to Montero’s character. This was more of an off-roader than a grocery-getter. More gorilla than urban.
Montero’s short, 92.5” wheelbase created a choppy and bouncy ride around town. On highways, the short wheelbase, combined with a nearly 6’ height, produced a high susceptibility to crosswinds. The rear seat was only slightly less bouncy than that of a CJ-7. With the suburban family market forming the bulk of 1980s SUV sales, these characteristics put Montero at a disadvantage against the more carlike class-leaders.
Of course, the very characteristics that made Montero iffy for suburbanites made it ideal for buyers living in a more rugged environment. Montero’s front torsion bar and rear leaf spring (later changed to coils) suspension was ideally set up for off-roading adventures, aided by standard skid plates, excellent approach and departure angles, and a relatively torquey 4-cylinder engine. 4wd came standard on Montero – a part-time system with a two-speed transfer case. Earlier Monteros had standard manual locking front hubs, though automatic hubs eventually took over.
In a 1983 comparison of mid-size 4x4s, Popular Mechanics noted “If you’re bent on serious off-roading, we say buy the Mitsubishi Montero.” However, the magazine pointed out that the greater comfort of Ford’s Bronco II or Chevy’s S-10 Blazer made those vehicles more suitable for family transportation.
The vast majority of American consumers fell into the latter category. While upwardly mobile customers propelled Ford, Chevy and Jeep sales to staggering heights, Montero rolled along at about 10-15,000 annual units during the 1980s.
While part of this lackluster sales performance was due to Montero’s unsophisticated road manners, part was also due to Mitsubishi’s small dealer network. The company commenced US operations in 29 metro markets, expanding to 80 markets (and 235 dealers) by 1985 – not as small as some import makes, but still rather limiting.
To compensate for this adversity, Mitsubishi and Chrysler agreed to sell a rebadged Montero through Dodge dealers. Available from 1986 to 1989, Dodge Raider actually outsold Montero for some years, suggesting that the dealer network and name recognition were, in fact, significant struggles for Montero sales.
Even with their sales combined, the Montero/Raider pair was the slowest-selling vehicle in its class during the late 1980s. In 1988 for instance, the class-leading GM S-series Blazer/Jimmy sold more examples in a month than the Montero/Raider did all year.
One thing in which Monteros excelled was value. Montero (and Isuzu’s similarly-priced Trooper) undercut other mid-size SUVs by thousands of dollars. However, the typical SUV buyer of the booming 1980s was not terribly value-oriented. Upscale options – of which Montero offered few – sold well with the suburban SUV crowd, so a price advantage in this segment didn’t necessarily translate to greater interest among buyers.
Montero changed only minimally from its 1983 introduction through 1988 – with a new grille and rear bumper, a few extra horsepower, and additional equipment being the major new features. 1989, though, saw some significant upgrades.
Foremost was the addition of a 4-door. A late arrival to American shores, 4-door Monteros had been offered in other markets for five years by that point. Featuring a 13.6” longer wheelbase and 2 feet of extra length, this new model compensated for the 2-door’s deficiencies in drivability, passenger room and cargo capacity. The 4-door model also included a larger fuel tank and some options, like a sunroof, that were otherwise unavailable.
1989 Monteros also received an optional 3.0-liter V-6 engine (standard on 4-doors, optional on 2-doors). Though new on Montero, this engine was not new to the US market, as it had been offered on Chrysler minivans since 1987. In Montero guise, the V-6 developed 143 hp and 168 lb-ft. of torque – significant increases over the dependable but slow 109-hp 2.6L Four. Both engines were offered with either a manual or automatic transmission. All V-6 Monteros gained a rear coil spring suspension for ’89 as well, while 4-cyl. models stuck with leaf springs. (Dodge Raider received neither the 4-dr. nor the V-6, and was dropped altogether after 1989).
Some of Montero’s most unique features popped up in unusual places. The driver’s seat had its own suspension, like those found on big rig trucks, the bounciness of which was adjustable by an under-seat knob. Another unusual feature was a dashboard-mounted inclinometer, hinting at Montero’s off-road credibility and providing owners with a great conversation piece. And headlight washers were useful for either cleaning muck off the lights, or just showing off, since this was virtually unheard-of in the US at the time.
In recent years, surviving Monteros have attained somewhat of a collector status. While I was photographing this example, I met the owner, who wasn’t at all surprised about my interest in his vehicle. He said that he occasionally gets offers to buy the Montero; I got the impression he would have liked folks to have a similar interest in the 19’5” Neptune boat he was towing, which was for sale at the time.
Incidentally, the owner mentioned that he only tows the Neptune around the small, Southern Maryland waterfront community where these pictures were taken. The short Montero and long Neptune made an unusual pair (and possibly a trailer weight balance problem), though for short, flat trips it works out fine.
This Sahara Gold 1989 Montero mates the V-6 with a manual transmission, and includes the few significant options offered for 1989, such as air conditioning, a cassette player, rear wiper and alloy wheels.
Earlier Monteros were offered in base or Sport configurations, but by ’89 Mitsubishi coalesced those into the “Montero SP,” which was what all 2-door models were called that year. The SP gained some former options as standard (automatic hubs, driver’s suspension seat and the inclinometer gauge cluster), but other items like power windows, headlamp washers and chrome trim were unavailable on 1989 2-door Monteros.
Drivers and passengers sat up high in these vehicles and had a commanding view of the road through the tall, airy greenhouse. Front interior space was compact, but not cramped (headroom, on the other hand, was virtually unlimited). For anyone sitting in the 2-passenger rear seat however, the high seating position, combined with an over-the-axle location, didn’t make for very comfortable accommodations, particularly for longer trips. Overall, Montero’s interior contained decent-quality fabrics and plastics, though if a buyer was looking for indulgence, this was no Eddie Bauer Bronco II.
Despite its excellent off-road capabilities, there was one obstacle around which the Montero could not navigate: The US federal bureaucracy, which tossed a mighty pothole into its path. Since the 1960s, imported trucks had been subject to a hefty (22.5%) import tariff, often dubbed the Chicken Tax because it originated with a US/European trade dispute over chicken exports. Oddly, over 20 years, no one had defined “truck” – and since the tariff was administered by the US Customs Service, the car/truck divide could be interpreted differently than in DOT or EPA regulations. This became a noticeable oversight during the SUV boom; Japan imported well over 100,000 SUVs annually, many of which were classified as cars, thus avoiding the tariff.
Complicating matters was that Japan’s export restrictions applied to cars, not trucks. Japan’s smaller exporters, Mitsubishi, Isuzu and Suzuki, willingly imported their SUVs as trucks, to avoid export restrictions, even though that meant paying an extra 22.5% tariff on their vehicles. Meanwhile, Nissan and Toyota used both car and truck designations for their SUVs, often in the same year. Manufacturers just picked whatever category worked best for themselves. It’s not hard to see how this raised eyebrows in Washington.
At the request of Congress, the Customs Service investigated its car/truck classification in 1988, which actually prompted Mitsubishi to halt all Montero imports for several weeks. Customs released some temporary rules which satisfied no one, and then the real fun began. An influential Congressman accused Customs of “bowing to the Japanese” on this issue, and resultingly in January 1989, Customs declared all SUVs to be trucks. This pleased the Big Three, but foreign manufacturers were livid, and lobbied government officials enough that higher-up bureaucrats at the Treasury Department countermanded that finding. The following month, Treasury released a somewhat puzzling new decision: Two-door SUVs would be considered trucks, while their four-door counterparts were cars.
This back-and-forth episode bears the marks of intense lobbying on all sides. If that is the case, then the foreign manufacturers outfoxed their domestic counterparts. While they appeared to sacrifice the major market segment of 2-dr. SUVs, the SUV market was already starting its next chapter where 4-doors would rule the roost. The Treasury decision simply hastened that process.
All of this had immediate implications for Mitsubishi. Imported two-door SUVs such as Monteros suddenly became pointless, since they faced a 22.5% tax that their 4-door siblings did not. Mitsubishi imported few examples after the Treasury Department ruling, and the 2-door model was dropped entirely during the 1990 model year.
The 1st generation 4-door Montero soldiered on through 1991, and two successive generations made it to US shores through 2006. But Montero never succeeded the way many SUVs did. After the 3rd generation, Mitsubishi Motors of North America pulled the plug. Always a competent vehicle with some distinct advantages, Montero recurrently fell just short of what it took be a class leader.
Not that that lack of sales success diminishes the 1st generation Montero’s appeal these days. These were purpose-built 4x4s – vehicles that excelled at what they were designed to do. Though last in the sales race, their unique qualities make them one of the more interesting SUVs of their time. But if you buy one, just leave the groceries for your Cherokee.
Photographed in May 2017 in Solomons, Maryland.