Why do the CC Gods mock me so? I’m extremely keen on the first Mitsubishi Debonair, the ‘60s one that looks like a 7/8th scale Continental. I’ve seen a couple – always in motion. Never caught one, but they do exist and are perhaps the coolest Japanese full-sizer of their time. The second generation that replaced it in the mid-‘80s, on the other hand, was the most awkward and least appealing JDM luxobarge of its day. And of course, what do I run into, sitting on someone’s front porch?
Ah well, when life gives you lemons, and so on. At least, this is going to be a completely new automobile for many CC readers. Not that the Debonair V was a lemon per se – as far as I know, these were decently made machines and some are still about, so they seem sturdy enough. But the issue with these came from Mitsubishi attempting once again to ape Toyota and Nissan, but failing to invest enough into their idea.
The original Debonair was aimed at the livery market, but chiefly for corporations. Although they were in the 2-litre class just like the Toyota Crown, the Nissan Cedric, the Isuzu Bellel and the Prince Gloria, they were more expensive and never used as taxis. A few were made into parade cars or stretch limousines, but production lasted for so long that it was a largely symbolic flagship product – so more akin to the Toyota Century or the Nissan President, by the end.
But unlike those two, the Debonair lacked a large V8 engine, so it sat between two segments, never really fitting in either. When Mitsubishi finally decided to switch to a new platform in the summer of 1986, the Debonair kept its dual role as both an executive saloon and a flagship luxury car. Mechanically, the new big Mitsu was essentially just a stretched Galant Σ platform, which made it a FWD vehicle, unlike most of its rivals.
This time though, Mitsubishi provided two fairly distinct variants: a 2-litre base model and a 3-litre luxury one. The base model was within the tax limits (just under 2000cc, just shorter than 470cm, just under 170cm wide) – that’s what our feature car’s measurements are. Higher trim versions were available with a supercharger, bringing the V6’s output up to 150hp. Otherwise, standard issue Debonairs only had 105hp to provide the front wheels, though this was increased to 120hp by 1989. All models, regardless of engine, were fitted with a 4-speed automatic transmission.
The “big” Debonair sported a 3-litre V6, so being over the size limit, it was also given bigger bumpers and more side trim, so that it could really look bigger. Or try to, anyway.
The problem was that Toyota and Nissan played this game differently: by this point in time, the Crown and the Cedric/Gloria came in two distinct body variants – a formal pillared saloon that fit the Japanese taxman’s limits, and a swanky/sporty hardtop sedan that cost much more, but was also far more glamorous. The Debonair didn’t have the luxury of two body styles. Pity, as it was billed (and priced) as a luxury car.
Additionally, the new Debonair would continue not to be available for taxi and fleet markets, unlike the Crown and Cedric/Gloria. That was the Galant’s job, dammit. Which is fine, but it meant that economies of scale that Toyota and Nissan were able to make on their executive saloons eluded Mitsubishi.
But the flagship thing meant that Mitsubishi had to make do with the new Debonair to devise a true Century / President fighter. All they could manage was the Royal Custom limousines – made pretty much by hand by the Aichi dealership network and available, amazingly, in two variants: gaudier and gaudiest.
Eager to throw anything at the wall to see what might stick, they even roped in AMG to create an exclusive body kit for the Debonair V 3000 – one of the few times the German firm ever worked outside of Stuttgart. A LWB version of the V 3000 was eventually developed, with optional AMG kit. Because nothing says high performance like a longer wheelbase.
Our CC is pretty far removed from these lofty heights. The dash tells you all you need to know – column shifters are uncommon on these cars. And the sumptuous velour upholstery of the AMG version is definitely not included here. Neither “European Style” nor “American Style,” but more of a spartan, zen-like Japanese feel.
The English-language Wikipedia entry for this car claims that because over 6000 units were sold in its first year, this Debonair was a successful endeavour. Compared to the last few years of the previous generation, that might be true. But compared to the 100,000-plus yearly sales of the Crown/Crown Majesta/Celsior/Century on the one hand, and the Cedric/Gloria/Cima/President on the other, this is small potatoes. And the Debonair V’s first-year sales were its high-water mark on the Japanese market, even as the country was generating more cash than it could reasonably spend.
The only way Mitsubishi managed to recoup a modicum of their investment in developing the Debonair V was the Hyundai deal. Even prior to the car’s launch, the Korean carmaker agreed to assemble CKD kits of the Debonair and sell it locally as the Hyundai Grandeur. This was secured in time for the Grandeur to ferry all manner of dignitaries in suitably formal fashion at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, but sales remained pretty muted on that side of the Sea of Japan as well.
Debonair number one was a slow seller, with fewer than 22,000 built in 22 years. The second generation did much better with 28,000 in eight years, but hardly set any sales records. Mitsubishi went “to hell with it” and decided to redesign the Debonair as a truly big car, this time using Diamante underpinnings and upping the displacement to 3.5 litres. The baton was passed in late 1992, just after the Japanese economy cratered. As a result, the third Debonair was a dud: at just under 11,000 units made in seven years, it’s the only Debonair I’ve not yet seen IRL. Though that’s nothing like the colossal catastrophe that were the two generations of Proudia that followed.
The story of the Mitsubishi Debonair is a bit like the Peter principle applied to a carmaker. Above a certain size or segment, a Mitsubishi badge becomes a hindrance. VW figured this out with the Phaeton and several carmakers have created luxury marques (Infiniti, Lexus, Maybach…) to sidestep this problem. Mitsubishi just kept hitting that glass ceiling over and over again, and only gave up after decades of denial finally forced their hand. If two wrongs don’t make a right, try five. And then sell out to Nissan.