When I first saw this car from a block or so away, it looked like a familiar shape that was somehow distorted to appear smaller. Upon getting closer, I thought… really small. But I couldn’t place precisely what is was – after all, kei SUVs aren’t exactly common here in Virginia. Turned out this was a vehicle I’d never seen before – a Mitsubishi Pajero Mini… definitely worth a closer look.
Mitsubishi’s Pajero (or Montero or Shogun, depending on your location) is well-known worldwide, having debuted in 1982 and remaining in production, in various forms, ever since. Early Pajeros – quasi-Jeeplike, short-but-tall off-roaders with large round headlights – cut a distinctive profile and were one of the most capable small 4x4s of their day. Did I write “small?” Well, it’s all relative…
Japan was treated to a kei-class Pajero, appropriately called the Pajero Mini, checking in at about three quarters of the “big” Pajero’s already diminutive length, and mighty similar in overall appearance to its big sibling. Available with either 2WD or 4WD (part-time, with a 2-speed transfer case), and in normally-aspirated or turbocharged guise, Minis came in many forms, and this one just happens to be a top-of-the-line 4WD turbo.
The Pajero Mini inherited many of the full-size Pajero’s qualities, including excellent off-road capability for 4WD models. A Mini can climb like a mountain goat – it features over 7” of ground clearance and minuscule front and rear overhangs (hard to beat those approach and departure angles!). The closest that American customers got to a car like this was Suzuki’s Samurai, which was a half-foot longer and 200 lbs. heavier.
Based on Mitsubishi’s Minica kei car, all Pajero Minis shared the Minica’s 659cc four-cylinder engine. In normally-aspirated SOHC guise, this powerplant turned out 50 hp, which increased to 63 hp for the DOHC turbo in our featured car, similar to the photo above. All in all, that’s not a bad output for an 1,800-lb. vehicle. Our featured car is equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission, though a 4-speed automatic was optional.
With its chunky appearance, brush bar and athletic-looking stance, the Pajero Mini looks like a tough little off-roader. It looks little, but not tiny. In a testament to its design, it’s hard to judge just how small this car really is…
…until it’s put into perspective. Here, the Pajero Mini looks as if it’s about to be devoured by a ferocious Corolla.
As was common with Japanese vehicles of its day, the Pajero Mini was offered in a wide array of trim levels. Standard models like those shown above were known as XRs or VRs, with Roman numerals following, but Mitsubishi also sold several special edition models that had much more captivating names, such as White Skipper, Desert Cruiser or Iron Cross (with the third alluding to the ski maneuver, not the military insignia). The VR-II, as represented by our featured car, was the top standard model, offering 4WD, the turbocharged engine, as well as upgraded trim and equipment.
All VR-II models featured two-tone paint, and this car included some optional equipment as well, such as alloy wheels and fog lights.
Incidentally, what looks like a solitary fender-mounted rear-view mirror here is actually a parking aid. The mirror’s glass is angled downward so that a driver can see the passenger-side curb – though this feature (standard on all Pajero Minis) is somewhat less than useful when curb-parking in a left-hand drive country.
During most of the Pajero Mini’s first generation, Mitsubishi created a fun imagery for these cars by using Tom and Jerry in brochures and advertisements. The MGM pair are a perfect analogy, if one views Tom as the Pajero and Jerry as the Pajero Mini. This pint-sized Mitsubishi seems a lot like Jerry… little, clever, and with a big personality.
From the inside, the Pajero Mini looks like a rather typical mid-1990s Japanese car, with little of the exterior design’s spontaneity, except for the patterned upholstery. The instrument binnacle perched atop the dashboard (a feature reserved for upmarket Minis) contains a compass, altimeter, clock and temperature readouts, but not an inclinometer such as in the bigger Pajero. While most of the interior components are of high quality, as one would expect, some of the plastic surfaces were highly susceptible to scratching, as can be seen on the driver’s door panel here.
Minis do have a rear seat, though predictably it’s tiny (albeit with copious headroom).
Like the full-size Pajero, the Mini has a side-hinged rear door that opens up to a small cargo area behind the rear seat. A few shopping bags or backpacks will fit back there, but for larger items, the rear seat easily folds down to create a generous cargo hold.
The paper license plate here is a Virginia Trip permit, which enables an unregistered car to be legally driven during the permit’s three-day period of validity… so the chances are good that this car had been recently sold, and its owner was in the process of obtaining a registration.
Pajero Minis drive well as a city car, and excel as an off-roader, but as one might expect from a relatively tall car with a diminutive (87”) wheelbase, highway driving isn’t exactly a study in stability.
Our featured car is a 1995 model, the Pajero Mini’s first of three full years of production. This introductory year proved very popular, with Mitsubishi producing nearly 105,000 Pajero Minis. However, sales dropped 32% for 1996 and another 39% for 1997. A redesign during the 1998 model year didn’t stem the sales slide, and even though Minis were produced through 2012, they became increasingly uncommon. Mitsubishi produced fewer Pajero Minis during the model’s final eight years than they did for 1995 alone.
Part of the reason for this drop in production may have been that the redesign, while creating a bigger Mini (growing 4” in length and 3” in width), also yielded a less distinctive one, as the Mini lost its round headlights and chunky styling. But a parallel reason may be that Mitsubishi spawned two other pint-sized Pajeros, the Junior and the iO, which effectively competed for similar customers as did the Mini.
Regardless, during its tenure in Mitsubishi’s lineup, the Pajero Mini added some “small” excitement to the carmaker’s domestic offerings, and to this day it remains a distinctive kei off-roader.
I can easily picture Pajero Minis navigating crowded urban streets or scrambling up a rocky hillside. Here in Northern Virginia, we have neither of those conditions, so I’d love to know how this car’s new owner intends to use it. But however this Mini lives out its life here, it’ll undoubtedly be the only one if its kind.
Mitsubishi Pajero Mini XR-II: The Shrunken Pajero by David Saunders
Photographed in Annandale, Virginia in August, 2020.
There’s a few of these around here, ex-JDM, and they never fail to bring a smile to my face. Exactly what you say, they can look totally normal, and then you suddenly see their true size in perspective and it’s hilarious! Pretty much like a Jimny but rarer and cuter.
Such cool little cars, I would happily daily one. Here in the UK (and probably Europe as a whole), we had the Shogun Pinin which was marketed as a compact SUV and size wise was a halfway house between the Mini and the full size Shogun. Nowhere near as characterful as the Mini though.
My description was 100% correct (hopped-up kei), this being the DOHC turbo version, but the model was wrong. I really like this little truck, I’d imagine there’s only one in Virginia. I bet that little 4-cylinder is like a rev-happy motorcycle engine, not quite right for the application, especially for automatics, but probably fun to wring out. This is what people mean when they say a car is like a playful puppy, it’s happy to roll over.
I bet that little 4-cylinder is like a rev-happy motorcycle engine, not quite right for the application, especially for automatics, but probably fun to wring out.
I’ve been trying for years to point out that turbo engines invariable rev less high than non-turbo engines, and need significantly less revs in driving, but there seems to be a powerful collective assumption otherwise. Turbocharging (or supercharging) creates a drastic increase in torque at lower rpm, hence the lack of high revs to make maximum hp.
Here’s the stats for the non turbo version: 50 hp @ 7500 rpm; 41 lb.ft. torque @ 5500 rpm.
The turbo version: 64 hp @7000 rpm. 72 lb.ft. torque @3500 rpm.
Naturally aspirated engines need to rev high in order to produce decent hp. Turbo engines don’t, and they invariable make their hp at lower rpm than a similar NA engine.
We’re not talking about turbocharged F1 engines from the 1980s. 🙂 Or motorcycle engines, which do typically rev to 10,000 rpm or more, for sporty bikes in this displacement class.
I would bet there are more than one around Virginia. There is a dealer specializing in grey market Japanese imports in western Virginia – Duncan Imports. I’ve been thinking about a Honda Beat. I just don’t know if I can actually fit. I’m 6 ft tall and 220 lbs.
Neat little rig. Odd how the ad features Japanese language details but an English headline and European/ American background photo/models.
I thought that was curious too. I’m not sure quite where the background is supposed to represent, but it looks like nowhere within at least 5,000 miles of Japan.
Well, with all those white folks wearing shorts, those houses and palm trees, I’d venture a guess it’s Southern California!
The Japanese have/had something of an obsession with America, and CA in particular. Note the use of English for the main text headline. They often used Americans in their ads, and as spokespersons. They very commonly used California for shooting commercials, as they all had their US headquarters there. Or just used CA or other American scenes for airbrush or photoshop. The other ad is obviously supposed to invoke the US too, with its canoe at the lake.
I think I’d have ordered the non-turbo. 13 hp isn’t much of a return for the complexity and potential repair cost of a turbocharger plus DOHC, not when this car’s role is to be a rock climber, not highway bandit. It’s akin to adding a Judson supercharger to a Beetle for about the same hp increase and frying your #3’s valves twice as often. The interior quality looks to have held up well for being 25 years old.
We had all manner of fun little 4wd vehicles available to us in the 90s, didn’t we? Justy, Pajero, Samurai. I don’t remember if Mazda, Toyota or Honda had something for this niche tho.
Making a comparison of a 1950s VW with a bolt on supercharger to this is pretty ridiculous. These turbo kei car engines were very well engineered, and built by the millions, and have a reputation for being essentially bulletproof.
I know, the numbers just seemed so similar that I went there for the fun of it.
The reputation of the turbocharger here in the USA is still that it is prone to, shall we say, difficulties in execution and reliability. I would have reservations when considering a used car with a turbocharger, no matter the make.
I think you are looking at that the wrong way. Yeah 13hp doesn’t sound like much but it is a 25% increase in power and I’d call that a lot. The bigger thing however is the 60% increase in torque.
The difference is probably much larger. Keis have a power ceiling, and the turbo ones all make the limit.
A Kei car even with DOHC Turbo is infinitely better engineered than any American 70’s onward car including anything current.
I currently own 2 perfect examples of idiot engineering a 95 Camaro Z28 and 02 Audi Allroad 2.5 tdi.
The Audi is a 12 hour job to change the alternator, hindsight it may been faster to drop the subframe with suspension and running gear and don’t even get me started on the air suspension.
I had to replace the rear suspension arms on the Camaro because it was undriveable with the factory pressed steel arms.
In this non binary world I don’t want to affend but Americans must drive like limp wristed fairies or scared of getting shot during a routine traffic stop.
I guess I can be flippant about the US as getting deported from the states would be huge improvement on my quality of life, especially healthcare during a pandemic.
My Dad as teenager had 78 Daihatsu Hijet van project which became a chassis.
It had welded steel tubular arms at the diff to handle the power of the 550cc twin.
With the Camaro I ended up getting Steinjager rod end/rubber arms which needed a bit of work, grinding, new bolts.
I not a fan of Tesla but being a non traditional automotive company they haven’t got bean counters nickel and diming on engineering and why I never buy an electric car from GM or most traditional car makers.
Nissan already has form with the Leaf with deleting the battery pack cooling fan.
The Pajero Mini went out of production in August 2012 (and was listed on their JDM site until January 2013), not 2008 as written above… 2008 was when the last facelift took place and it briefly gained a twin, the Nissan Kix.
Thanks for noticing that! I’ve gone ahead and corrected the text.
This is what I should get to tow behind my Promaster, for exploring some of the more difficult back roads out in the desert.
I think a first generation Dahatsu Taft might be a better choice https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daihatsu_Taft_(F10) I’ve seen a few advertised by grey importers.
Yeah it would be perfect for that and with the back seat down, or removed it looks like it could carry a fair amount of stuff. Maybe you wouldn’t want to use it for a washer or dryer, but perfect for a few tools and smaller supplies.
They aren’t too expensive either the ones I’ve seen for sale at one of the Seattle area importers tends to be in the $5-6k range.
The only problem for using it as a Toad would be that you’ll probably need a custom made mount for the tow bar. However that push bar that most if not all seem to have could have a sufficiently strong mounting that a plate could be sandwiched into. I assume it has a neutral position in the transfer case so it would be flat tow friendly.
If you could find one in good shape, even better might be a Suzuki Samurai. They came in a hardtop version, too, and it would be a lot easier to register than a JDM vehicle.
A 90s era Tracker would also work and would be more common than a Samurai.
This looks like a lot of fun for its new owner. It is probably not very relevant to my own surroundings and needs, but it would still be cool.
I’ve been eying one of these for a while. One of the local importers usually has one or two in stock or in transit. Seems like the perfect Toad or something to keep at the beach house or cabin as well as a fun little local errand runner.
In my research on these I’ve read elsewhere that these are based on the Minica and I don’t know what to make of that. While the earlier (pre 84) Minicas were longitudinal RWD the contemporary ones were transverse FWD or 4wd. Meanwhile the Pajero mini is longitudinal RWD or 4wd. The rear suspension and axle of the 4wd Minica and Pajerjo mini do look very similar from the online pictures I’ve seen.
I recently saw one parked in Everett, so I had a chance to look it over. I can see myself happily driving one. Sodo Moto has one available right now.
Yeah I’ve been eyeballing that one in particular as the clock ticked down to the point where it could be sold. I don’t really need another toy though and the wife would probably not be happy if I bring another home. Plus side it is small so it wouldn’t take up much room.
Love it! What a great car for running around the city in all seasons.
I see these every now and then up here in Canada.
This example you’ve shown still has its wrong-side-of-road (left-traffic) headlamps: on low beam, no seeing distance for the driver and the highest headlight intensity shines right in oncoming drivers’ eyes, yechk.
I’m sure a version was sold new in New Zealand, Uses the same body shell except its wide body and is 1100cc.
Suzuki Jimmy’s have been popular here since the 70’s and I guess it was no brainer to import the Junior.
Also a few used imports around which I find it strange why they would import the kei version, I guessing the 1100cc costs more and kei versions would be $US500 to $1000 to buy for a good example, anything average is scrap.
I have one in bangladesh. 659 cc pajero mini, model 1999
It’s one of the best !