No, we’ve not seen everything on CC yet. There are still some stories to tell, in a Deadly Sins vein, about colossal missteps by ancient conglomerates who should have known better. It’s just a matter of finding the cars on the street, which can get tricky. Have no fear, T87 is here, got extremely lucky recently and found not one, but two first-generation Proudias to illustrate a classic tale of hubris and industrial disaster.
It’s easy to forget about Mitsubishi. I do it all the time. It seems that the three-diamond brand’s automotive branch, known under its MMC acronym, has been circling the drain since forever – and indeed it has. Mitsubishi Motor Corporation (MMC) was founded in 1970, bringing together the various bits of Mitsubishi that made cars, trucks and Jeeps under one roof, though it kept many links, both formal and informal, to the mothership conglomerate. The company went public in 1988 and almost took over Honda in the early ‘90s, but then the skies darkened.
Part of MMC’s success since the ‘70s was their strength in overseas markets, particularly in Southeast Asia and North America. In 1997, even as domestic sales were sluggish, the bottom fell out of Southeast Asia. The economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand ground to a halt, with ripple effects being felt throughout the Asia-Pacific region. In Japan, Nissan and Mitsubishi were hit hardest and both scrambled to find solutions. Initially faced with similar predicaments, the two companies opted for similar strategies, but ended up with diametrically opposed outcomes.
Nissan ended up tying the knot with Renault in 1999. They sold off their truck branch and gradually cut off a lot of dead wood to save the tree. Mitsubishi broadly followed the same strategy that Nissan did, but their results were markedly poorer, perhaps because they never could settle on a partner. MMC had JVs and various alliances with PSA, Chrysler, Daimler, Volvo, Hyundai, Suzuki and Proton, but also kept going back to various appendages their tentacular home conglomerate for financial assistance. There were other important events at play, though – including a number of dud products.
So let’s talk a little bit about the actual car we’re examining today. Mitsubishi had a toehold in the executive car end of the JDM since they launched the 2-litre Debonair in 1963. That model lasted a couple decades – having traded its initial 6-cyl. for a 2.6 litre 4-cyl. in 1976 – and was followed ten years later by the second generation (S10), which introduced a 3-litre V6 engine and FWD. The third Debonair (S20) replaced it in 1992 and the V6 grew to 3.5 litres, but sales just went from sluggish to lackluster.
So perhaps hoping to give their sagging executive chariot a shot in the arm, Mitsubishi decided to ditch the Debonair nameplate and not bother with the size limits that Debonairs adhered to and shoot for an even higher class of car with the Proudia. The name was a typical Japanese mangling of English, blending the word “proud” with “diamond” – all quite moot, as the car was strictly for the JDM anyway, where few could understand such a weird portmanteau.
Mitsubishi put out a comprehensive press release in December 1999, just as the last Debonairs were leaving the dealerships, announcing the Proudia’s birth. The new flagship would hit the streets in February 2000 and Mitsubishi were outwardly confident that the Japanese market could absorb 300 of these sleds per month.
They weren’t just big – they were also very exclusive. With the FWD Debonairs, there was a certain level of cross-pollination with other Mitsubishi products, such as the Galant, the Sigma and the GTO. For the Proudia, Mitsubishi spared no expense and developed a completely new platform, its own suspension (MacPherson struts for the driving wheels in front and a multilink IRS, with optional electronically-controlled dampers) and Mitsubishi’s first (and so far only) V8 engine, a 4498cc DOHC unit producing 280hp.
The 4.5 litre V8 was reserved for a small minority of customers, of course. Most Proudia buyers were more than content with the 3.5 litre V6 already seen on the later Debonairs. Both engines were mated to a 5-speed automatic. Price-wise, the Proudia (depending on the grade – A, B or C – was somewhere in the ¥4.5-6.5 million range, competing directly with the Celsior and the Crown Majesta for the Toyota side of things and with the Cima and the SWB President for Nissan.
The Majesta vibe is quite strong in the Proudia’s rear end. The front, on the other hand, has more of a store brand Mercedes-Benz whiff about it. The improvement over the previous generation Debonair was palpable, though the overall impression is one of heaviness, rather than solidity or class.
Objectively, the interior of the Proudia is just as luxurious and spacious as its competitors. The black car I found was a B-grade car, according to the interior spec. The A-grade ones did not have a GPS screen and a bit less wood, while the V8-powered C-grade cars have wood trim on the steering wheel.
The business end is at the rear in this kind of car, though. Plenty of space, especially if the front passenger seat is pushed all the way like that. It seems that the Proudia really aimed even higher than the Celsior or the Cima. Especially when painted black and optioned with the old-style fender mirrors, the Proudia looks set to rival the most exclusive JDM cars. All it needed was a bit more legroom.
Not one to be outdone by the likes of the Toyota Century and Nissan President, Mitsubishi stretched the Proudia V8 by 28cm and created the Dignity, Japan’s only factory-made limousine at the time, yours for a cool ¥10 million. The Imperial House has been using one to ferry the Crown Prince for the past 20 years, so I guess the investment was worth it.
I’m not sure why the two cars I found have different hood ornaments, but it seems the more common of the two is this one, which looks suspiciously similar to the Nissan President’s. Well, if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal for the second best.
So much hubris was bound to end in a sea of tears. Mere weeks after the Proudia hit the streets, Mitsubishi inked a deal with DaimlerChrysler: Stuttgart was buying 34% of MMC stock, taking control of the company. But in July, a massive scandal involving Mitsubishi covering up major product defects in their cars and trucks became public. Confidence in Mitsubishi plummeted, as did MMC’s stock price and domestic sales.
The scandal involved a dual management structure for customer complaints and recalls – dating back to the ‘70s. There was one set of forged paperwork available for outside scrutiny, but there was also a parallel documentation system detailing the true extent of safety issues and design flaws flagged by users, which involved a number of publicly-operated truck and bus models, as well as personal cars.
In June 2000, an anonymous whistleblower told the Ministry of Transport where to look – there was a large cache of candid documents hidden in the changing room lockers at MMC headquarters. The scandal snowballed throughout the summer and resulted in the CEO’s resignation and recalls galore, including some Debonairs.
The recalls only started in the summer of 2000. There were a lot of things left to be discovered, and the MoT inspectors took their sweet time distilling the news, as there were a lot of documents to peruse. The scandal refused to go away and Mitsubishi’s sales fell off a cliff – especially their non-kei offerings. Panic set in and MMC announced a major “Turnaround” plan in February 2001 involving plant closures and massive layoffs, both of which were unprecedented for MMC.
Simultaneously, the Proudia and Dignity were quietly taken to a back alley and mercifully shot in the back of the head. Production and sales stopped in March 2001. The numbers were downright shameful: in 15 months of production, just under 1300 Proudias had been made, not counting 59 of the precious V8-only limousines.
It wasn’t quite as dire as it looked, though. As per the FWD Debonairs of yore, the Mitsubishi flagship doubled up as the ultimate Hyundai as well. The Korean version, which also included the limo as shown above, was called Equus, though a few were exported as the Hyundai Centennial.
This parallel universe Proudia shows what could have happened had the car met with reasonable success: the Equus had a mild refresh in 2003, getting bigger taillights and a toothy grille. The Mitsubishi V6, available in 3.0 and 3.5 litre versions, was replaced by a Hyundai-designed unit (the 3.3 and 3.8 litre Lambda V6) in 2005, but the V8 stayed on, though Hyundai did modify the fuel injection system to make it more usable in Korea. The Equus lived until 2009, when Hyundai unveiled an entirely new (and home-grown) second generation. The new Equus ushered Hyundai’s new 5-litre V8, also a home-grown effort. This means that the Mitsubishi 4.5 litre V8 only lived for ten years – and mostly in Korean cars, as very few Proudias were equipped with it.
DaimlerChrysler walked away from their alliance with Mitsubishi in 2004, by which point recalls had affected over 500,000 cars, trucks and buses. There were a few deaths and injuries related to these hushed up design flaws in the early 2000s, leading to the former MMC top brass being tried and convicted for criminal negligence. Actually, Daimler kept Fuso and merged it with their truck branch, but the car side of the business had become positively toxic. The new Colt, launched in late 2002, was a bomb on the JDM and Mitsubishi’s US sales also started to sag by this point.
All in all, the wasted effort than produced the Proudia was but a drop in the ocean of red ink that submerged MMC. The bleeding was halted thanks to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Corporation and the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi coming to MMC’s aid, but even they had to give up eventually, having spent half a trillion yen propping their ailing and scandal-ridden car-making cousin after the Germans had left. The last straw was the 2016 fuel consumption scandal – a.k.a. Dieselgate version japonaise, in which Mitsubishi played a lead role. MMC had no option but accept being taken over by Nissan, which is where things stand at present.
Even prior to the takeover, Nissan and Mitsubishi worked on a number of projects since the divorce with Daimler, including a new Proudia / Dignity model, introduced in 2012. This time, the big Mitsu cost nothing in development money, as it was just a badge-engineered Nissan Fuga / Infiniti Q70. This second Proudia, now RWD and strictly V6-powered, did not set the market ablaze either and the last ones were sold in early 2017.
The Proudia is probably a decent enough car – the Hyundai version’s relative success proves it. But it was the wrong model at the wrong time for the wrong company and ended up being a catastrophic misfire. I mean, nixing the flagship model after one year and 1300 units sold must be a record-setting bomb for a major carmaker in the modern era. If (or rather when) Mitsubishi finally quit making cars, we could re-run this post and re-title it something like “Proudia: Mitsubishi’s Deadly Sin #1.”