(first posted 11/23/2015) Sports cars and sporty coupes have been part of the arsenal the Japanese used to make their huge inroads into the North American market from the very beginning. Datsun’s Fairlady (later 1600/2000) was the first one in 1960, sent to do battle with the then-entrenched MG. Toyota’s sleek and long-hood 2000GT from 1966 was too expensive to sell well, but Nissan’s brilliant and highly-affordable 240Z from 1970 revolutionized the compact sports coupe market, and dominated it for decades. Toyota’s Celica soon played a dominant role in the four-seat compact sporty coupe market.
Although Mitsubishi initially came to the US via Chrysler dealers, it was not content to sit out this exciting chapter either. When Mitsubishi kicked off its own brand in the US in 1982, its line of just three cars included two sporty coupes: the FWD Cordia and the significantly more potent turbocharged RWD Starion. Mitsubishi was sending a strong signal, that it was determined to be a force in the sporty coupe market too. In 1989, the Eclipse made quite a splash in the more affordable sector of the market. But that was not enough: to show just how serious Mitsubishi was, the successor to the Starion was a highly ambitious, tech-laden sports coupe to slot above the Eclipse: the 3000GT. Was it over-reach?
Before I delve into more detail about Mitsubishi’s one-generation wonder of a flagship coupe, I want to point out how excited I was to see one in the metal, however fleeting. See, Australia has long been a rather coupe-averse country. But for short-lived successes like the Holden Monaro, we tend to treat coupes like a drunken one-night stand. “Where did I put my pants? I need to go. No, I can’t stay over. I have a sedan!”
So, it’s tough to talk about these from an Australian point of view. If I had ever seen another one in the metal, it was probably at an auto show when I was a small child. Mitsubishi didn’t help by only offering the twin-turbo VR4 and pricing it so high: in 1992, it listed for $AUD89k, and then the very next year was above the $100k mark. In 1995, it was priced at $119,170, or almost $40k more than a Subaru SV-X, Nissan 300ZX, Mazda RX-7 or Toyota Celica GT-Four (the last Supra was not officially sold here, FYI). The only Japanese sports car more expensive was the Honda NSX, which retailed for $205,000. This was Mitsubishi’s only sports coupe, as we didn’t receive the Eclipse or the FTO (although the latter appeared in fairly high numbers as a gray import).
New York Stealth photos courtesy of my good friend, Jason White
In America during its sports-coupe obsessed era, the 3000GT (known as the GTO in Japan) was more successful, building on the reputation established by the RWD Starion(1982-1988), which in turbocharged form was one of the hotter cars in its class. The Starion was not a really big seller, but had made quite an impact. So as a worthy follow-up, Mitsubishi was determined to make the 3000GT unforgettable, and it and its Dodge counterpart, the mildly restyled Stealth, were released with a storm of buzz.
A lot of that buzz surrounded the flagship models, the 3000GT VR-4 and the Stealth R/T Turbo. Not only were these two equipped with all-wheel-drive with a 45/55 front/rear torque split, they also came with rather faddish four-wheel-steering, an electronically controlled suspension (ECS), an active aerodynamic system that adjusted the front and rear spoilers based on vehicle speed (3000GT only) and even a control to adjust the sound of the exhaust.
Brendan Saur photographed this Stealth, modified to look like a 3000GT
To propel these flagship coupes, Mitsubishi built a twin-turbocharged 3.0 V6 engine with 300 hp and 307 ft-lbs of torque, the latter figure available at just 2500 rpm. There was only one transmission available in the hi-po V6, a Getrag five-speed manual, which was well-suited to the cars’ broad powerband. At as low as 1600 rpm, the two turbochargers would come online and deliver a burst of power. Despite this, the coupes were still quite pleasant to drive around town by most accounts, and had an EPA-estimated 17/23 mpg.
Those seeking a lower sticker price could have purchased—in America and Japan, at least—a naturally-aspirated 3.0 V6, front-wheel-drive model (220 hp, 201 ft-lbs). The Stealth even came with a less powerful 12-valve version of the same engine in its base trim (160 hp, 184 ft-lbs). In 1992, a base Stealth retailed for $17,523 while a base 3000GT cost $20,417. In contrast, an Eclipse GSX Turbo AWD retailed for $19,217 and an Eagle Talon TSI AWD for $17,273. Given the fact even base Stealth/3000GT models were considerably heftier than the DSM triplets and scarcely more powerful or spacious, its not surprising that the flagship versions accounted for a significant chunk of total volume in the first few years.
Mitsubishi’s two differently-sized coupes weren’t so dissimilar under the skin. The larger coupes’ four-wheel independent suspension, with rear double wishbone trailing arms, borrowed heavily from the design of the DSM car’s suspension albeit with a wider track.
With all-wheel-drive, the VR4 and R/T Turbo were fantastically grippy. With its twin-turbocharged V6, it was impressively fast (0-60 in 6 seconds). So why, then, did it have a penchant for finishing last in comparison tests against the Supra and 300ZX Turbos?
Mass. From the very first reviews, automotive journalists made mention of just how darn heavy this coupe was. A 3000GT VR4 weighed almost 3800 lbs, around 250-300 lbs heavier than both the Supra and 300ZX turbos, although they lacked the Mitsu’s (cramped) rear seats. The cheaper, less powerful and yet equally fast Mazda RX-7 was a featherweight in comparison, at 2840 lbs. In fact, the range-topping 3000GT and Stealth were heavier than a Lincoln Mark VIII LSC! Unfortunately, that weight was felt while driving the car. While it was a predictable handler, it was lacking the raw thrills that come from a light and tossable sports car.
When the adjustable suspension was put in “Tour” mode, the VR4 and R/T Turbo had quite a compliant ride befitting of a grand tourer. But if this was supposed to be a grand touring coupe, why was it styled in such a wild fashion? Why was the interior so cramped, gray and with such odd ergonomics? Therein lies the rub: Mitsubishi thought it could tackle the best its automotive industry had to offer in performance coupes by throwing everything and the kitchen sink atop a front-wheel-drive platform. The result was absolutely impressive on paper, but it was no purist’s sports coupe.
By the mid-1990s, the Yen was forcing up the price of the 3000GT. For its 1994 facelift, the 3000GT received projector headlamps, 8 extra pound feet of torque and a six-speed Getrag manual in twin-turbo guise, bigger wheel-and-tired combinations and a redesigned interior. But to keep the costs down, Mitsubishi had to make some cuts: the tuneable exhaust system was gone for 1994, the ECS disappeared the next year, and the active aerodynamics the year after. The biggest cut of all was made in 1997, when Dodge ceased sales of the Stealth. Its base SOHC 12-valve V6 migrated to the 3000GT lineup as a new price leader in 1998, but sales continued to fall. After 1999, the 3000GT was axed from the North American lineup and it lasted just a year longer in its homeland.
Given the scarcity of visual changes throughout their production run and the decline of the sport coupe segment, its not surprising that the 3000GT and Stealth eventually ran out of steam, sales-wise. Looking at the production totals (link here), the 3000GT saw annual production increase each year until it reached a high of 16,103 units in 1994. Production dipped slightly the following year, before tumbling to 5,135 units in 1996 and falling further from there. The once popular (within the lineup) VR4 model saw its production tallies fall each year after 1992, its once healthy percentage of volume falling off a cliff to almost insignificant numbers. As for the Stealth, it outsold the 3000GT most years, but not by as much as you might think.
So the Mitsubishi 3000GT wasn’t one of history’s greatest sports cars. It was, however, very competent. Most importantly, it was yet another affordably-priced, high performance sports coupe in a golden era of Japanese performance cars. After two decades of dwindling performance, Americans were suddenly spoilt for choice when it came to reliable, powerful, attractive cars.
While the Japanese are still making world-class sports coupes (Nissan GT-R, Scion FR-S, etc), their ranks have thinned. Mitsubishi chose not to develop a second-generation 3000GT and even its once successful Eclipse was left to wither on the vine before finally being axed in 2012. With Mitsubishi refusing to even develop its own new Lancer, it is an almost certainty that we will never see another high-performance sports coupe from then again. But when you drive past that sad-looking Mitsubishi lot in town, if you have one, and you see row after row of titchy Mirages and tepid Outlander Sports, remember the three-diamond brand once offered cars like this.