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.