Did you know the Japanese built a GTO?

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It didn’t have had three deuces and a four-speed – or a 389. Instead, it had state-of-art technology, including an available twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC V-6, viscous-coupled all-wheel-drive system, four-wheel-steering and an “active” aerodynamic wing on the trunklid.

But the end result was much the same: A car that knew how to get you into trouble – and had what it took to get you out of it, too.

The Japanese GTO was Mitsubishi’s 3000GT coupe – renamed for the export (U.S.) market but still called GTO back home – in Japan.

This sheetmetal Samurai arrived without prior warning – and seemingly out of nowhere.

There was no gradual evolution from meek to wild – as in the case,  many years later, of Mitsubishi’s Lancer-based EVO all-wheel-drive super sedan. Nor was there an existing, sort-of sporty coupe that got progressively tweaked for better and better performance, like Toyota’s Celica – which eventually became the Supra.

In 1989, Mitsubishi simply announced that the HSR concept showed earlier that year in Tokyo would become a production car the following year (1991 for the U.S. market). It was a bold move, undertaken for reasons very similar to the those that motivated Pontiac to produce the hopped-up Tempest created by engineer John Z. DeLorean in the early ’60s – and which became the now-famous Pontiac GTO. That car almost single-handledly transformed Pontiac. Twenty-something years later, Mitsubishi hoped to grab a slice of that same youth/performance mojo.

Some history: 

Back in the mid-late 1980s, Mitsubishi was in much the same position that Pontiac was in the early 1960s: It was a smaller player in a market dominated by other brands like Honda and Toyota. And for the most part, it was looked upon as an economy car brand.

Like Pontiac two decades before, Mitsubishi management saw an opportunity to recast the company’s image as a sophisticated, upscale performance brand – a strategy that could be described as a Japanese interpretation of Pontiac’s hugely successful “wide-track” strategy of the 1960s.

It began with models like the Starion, which bowed in 1982. This turbocharged, shovel-nosed coupe was one of the first Japanese cars sold in large numbers in America to feature 17-inch wheels and short-sidewall tires, a fully integrated IMSA-GT body kit (with bulging flares to cover up all that rubber), standard rear ABS (a rare feature in the early ’80s) and an optional limited slip axle. The Starion was a sharp-looking car that delivered excellent bang for the buck. It was also lighter and quicker off the line than heavier, V-8 powered muscle coupes of the era such as Chevy’s Camaro Z-28 and Ford’s Mustang GT – and it got substantially better gas mileage out of its more efficient turbocharged four cylinder engine. 

Competition versions did well, too – including multiple Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) wins for Team Mitsubishi. An AWD variant was even developed for Group B World Rally racing.

Another sign of things to come was a little-known sleeper version of the otherwise Janet Reno-looking Galant compact econo-sedan. This was a low-production “special” rarely seen outside of the home market -and it also packed a turbocharged engine. But unlike the production rear-wheel-drive Starion, the Galant VR-4 featured a viscous-coupled full-time AWD system and even rear-wheel steering – all of which would subsequently become trademark features of the 3000GT VR-4.

But the key point of departure between these earlier Mitsubishi performance-oriented cars and the 3000GT was the clean-sheet starting point. The GT was not a super-tuned or hot-rodded version of an already-in-production car – most likely an economy car, as in the case of the Galant. Nor was it done on the (relative) cheap, like the Starion – which traced its DNA back to the so-so Sapporo (marketed as a “captive import” under the Plymouth nameplate in the U.S.).

The Starion (and Galant VR-4) were certainly fun cars – and in their defense, boasted some very impressive leading-edge technology and equipment for their time. But there was no way you could directly compare either with dedicated, full-on performance cars of the era such as the Nissan 300ZX or Toyota’s Supra (by this time a separate model in its own right). Let alone the (then all-new) mid-engined, aluminum-bodied Acura NSX supercar.

With the 3000GT, Mitsubishi was determined to build a machine that would rival the sophistication, technology and luxury of the world’s finest high-performance GTs – with Porsche’s 911 Carerra S4 and the Acura NSX specifically in the crosshairs.

It would out-tech and outperform the 300ZX and Supra – and it would undercut the German and Japanese supercars on price, too.

On paper, it seemed like a winner.

The initial 1990 U.S.-spec. model was first and foremost a physically impressive car. It stood a Lamborghini-like 50 inches off the ground (five inches lower than a 2011 Ford Mustang) which, combined with a very short wheelbase 97.2 inches) and widebody 72.4 inch track, gave it a squat, road-racer look. This was enhanced by the aero front-end treatment with pop-up headlights, Coke-bottle midsection and Ferrari-like outside rearview mirrors. On the trunklid, an “active” aero wing tilted up or down automatically to lessen wind resistance and increase downforce at high speeds; air scoops were cut into the lower bodywork – and if you really wanted to get crazy, you could order the optional driver-adjustable exhaust, which let you crank up the sound (and the power), not unlike a similar feature that was available in early GTOs.

Slathered in lipstick red, a 3000GT was a wicked, exotic-looking machine.

No disappointments awaited inside, either. A single-piece, molded dash appeared to envelop the driver. The main cluster housed an oversized speedometer and tach, with a triple cluster of secondary gauges housed in a hooded pod that canted inward toward the driver. One of these was the all-important boost gauge.

An upwelling center console divided the passenger compartment and added to the road-racer ambiance – while also giving the driver a perfect place to rest his right arm in between power-shifting the gears. A pull-up parking brake handle was handily mounted in just aft of the shift lever on the console’s left side – the ideal position for executing bootleg turns when the occasion demanded.

These formed the essentials of the 3000 GT, which could be ordered in one of three different trim levels: Base, touring-oriented SL and, at the pinnacle, the VR-4.

Base and SL trims were front-wheel-drive and powered by a naturally aspirated SOHC 3.0 liter V-6 with the buyer’s choice of 5 speed stick or automatic. With 222 hp on tap, it was already much more powerful than the company’s previous hottest shoe, the turbocharged Eclipse – and closely matched domestic brand performance car rivals of the period, such as Ford’s Mustang GT. In fact, the early ’90s Mustang GT’s much larger 5.0 liter V-8 barely outgunned the Mitsubishi V-6, despite having the advantage of nearly two more liters’ worth of displacement (and packing two more cylinders).

But the Big Kahuna was, of course, the VR-4.

The VR-4 package centered around twin sequentially staged turbos, a sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system, available active rear steering and aerodynamics – along with much more aggressive suspension tuning and mandatory six-speed manual transmission.

You could not buy an automatic transmission in the VR-4.

With 320 on tap, the VR-4 was capable of low 5 second 0-60 runs and had a top speed close to 160 mph, stone stock. With a few backyard tweaks, in particular, dialing up a few pounds more boost, it was easy to get the car to 60 in under five seconds.

That was – and still is – serious speed.

(This writer took a ’96 VR-4 press car to an indicated 167 mph before backing off the gas; the car wasn’t done – and could have gone faster.)

A defining characteristic of the VR-4 was the audible whistle coming from under the hood as the turbos spooled up – and the associated menacing sound of the wastegate dumping open as the atmospheres crested at around 14 psi of boost. Unlike other manufacturers who worked hard to mask the presence of turbochargers, Mitsubishi apparently reveled in them – assuming that owners would share their appreciation.

Certainly, the automotive press did. Reviews were adulatory – rightly so. A VR-4 could dispose of cars like the Mustang GT in a straight line drag race like a pro boxer dropping a belligerent bar thug. And the AWD setup gave the car lateral (and wet weather) grip a Corvette driver could only envy.

There was, quite literally, nothing else quite like it on the road. At least, not for the money.

So why then did it fail?

There are two main reasons – and they had a synergistic effect that ultimately lead to the car’s cancellation: Price – and complexity.

The 3000GT was an expensive ride compared with other performance cars available at the time. Even the base model – without the twin turbos or the all-wheel-drive – had a window sticker close to $20,000. This was back in the early 1990s, too – when just over $10,000 could buy you a base model Mustang or Camaro. And about $20k (the price of the base V-6 3000GT) could buy you a top-of-the-line, V-8 powered Mustang GT or Camaro Z28.

The exotic VR-4, meanwhile, carried an equally exotic MSRP – $31,400 in 1991. By the mid-late 1990s, the VR-4 was stickering out close to $40,000 – over $40,000 for a loaded one. The only thing close to this at the time (other than exotics) was Nissan’s 300ZX, which actually cost more ($28,175 for a base model in ’91; $34,570 for a top-of-the-line model).

And it, too, would end up being shown the door.

On the one hand, the 3000GT’s price was arguably justifiable  – if you went by the stat sheet and features.

It was a much more sophisticated car than the relatively basic, even crude in comparison Mustang or Camaro – with their 1960s technology solid axle suspensions, decades-old pushrod, two-valve V-8s and rear-wheel-drive. Japanese rivals such as the Supra and 300ZX didn’t even offer all-wheel-drive, let alone active steering and aerodynamics.

The only thing comparable, on a features-for-features basis, was the Porsche 911 – which started at $60k, twice the cost of a ’91 3000GT VR-4.

The problem, of course, was that a Mitsubishi isn’t a Porsche, even when it has similar features and compares favorably in terms of its performance. People who buy Porsches weren’t (and still aren’t) interested in bargains. They’re interested in Porsches. Not just the car, either. It’s the history and status they covet as much as the raw capability.

The 3000GT had the latter – but not the former.

On the other end of the scale, people who had a jones for Porsche-levels of performance and sophistication but had to stay on-budget found the VR-4’s pushing $40k MSRP too much to take on. 

That was big money for most people in the early 1990s – equivalent in today’s (circa 2011) inflation-adjusted dollars of nearly $50,000.

It’s true Chevy charged about the same for the Corvette, but like the Porsche 911, the ‘Vette had history and cachet on its side. The 3000GT was a newcomer without a loyal buyer base or reputation, from a company that had yet to establish itself as a legitimate player in the field of high-performance sports cars.

The 3000GT also fell victim to some early teething pains, including problems with the turbos (that VR-4 press car I pushed to almost 170 MPH in the mid-1990s also had a habit of spitting off the vacuum hoses that controlled the wastegates) and manual transmissions (premature failure was fairly common). Maintenance costs were very high. The three-liter OHC V-6 was a “crasher” engine, too – meaning that if you failed to get the timing belt changed out per the factory recommendations and it failed while the engine was running, you could expect to be buying a brand-new replacement engine, not just a new timing belt.

By today’s standards, the 3000GT would not stand out as especially radical. Many modern cars feature turbos, AWD – and even more sophisticated (and complicated) electronics. But in the early-mid ’90s, the 3000GT was one of the most complex, difficult to work on and expensive to fix new cars you could buy. A high purchase price and the prospect of exotic-car maintenance costs no doubt scared off many prospective buyers.

It didn’t help, either, that Mitsubishi’s record for quality control was not the greatest – which, in turn, helped push down resale values of used 3000GTs. That, in turn, made it harder to sell new 3000GTs – because people considering the purchase of a $30-$40k new car tend to be put off by the possibility that their purchase might only be worth half what they paid for it five years down the road.

Sales were weak as a result.

The VR-4, in particular, never sold more than 4,853 examples in a single year (1992) and after this high water mark, they began to really slip. The next year (’93) a mere 2,550 VR-4s found homes – a drop of nearly 40 percent just two years after the car’s U.S. introduction. By 1994, VR-4 sales had fallen yet again and by a similar percentage, down to just 1,263 cars.

Still, Mitsubishi gamely held on for longer than many observers expected – incorporating significant improvements to the 3000GT as the ’90s rolled on, including standard sixteen-inch rims with low aspect ration 55-series performance tires for base model SLs in ’96 (and 18-inch rims with super-aggressive 40-series rubber for the VR-4), projector beam headlights up front and – also in ’96 – a new retractable hardtop option for both base 3000GT and VR-4. At the time, no other car maker offered a retractable hardtop, not even Mercedes-Benz. (The SLK roadster was still a year away from its U.S. introduction.)

Unfortunately, the all-metal top also added even more complexity and cost – as well as added considerably to the 3000GT’s curb weight, which now approached 4,000 pounds.

These factors – high up-front cost relative to most competitors, down the road maintenance costs that were exotic-car expensive but without the exotic car brand cachet – ultimately led to the car’s cancellation as the new century dawned. During that final year, fewer than 300 total were sold – and of that number, fewer than 50 were VR-4s.

Total production during the 3000GT’s approximate 10-year U.S. run was less than 75,000 cars.

Ford often sold that many Mustangs in a single year.

On paper, the 3000GT seemed like a sure-bet winner. On the streets, it performed like a killer. But where it mattered most – the marketplace – the car failed because it was just too rich for the tastes of those who might have wanted to buy one – and not rich enough for the tastes of those who could afford to buy one.

Still, it made a lasting impression on those lucky enough to get seat time in one back in the day.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Before I bought my ’90 Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo in ’91, I looked at one of the VR4 models. I couldn’t get past the $10,000 “market adjustment” mark-up by the dealership. I don’t regret my choice, though. Maintenance wise, the Nissan was much better. For example, changing the timing belt on the Nissan required no special tools and was fairly straight forward, even for a shade-tree mechanic. Not so for the Mitsubishi. On top of special tools, it was a nightmare to do. And I know it’s subjective, but I still prefer the styling of the 90-96 300ZX Turbo to the Mitsubishi. I finally sold the Nissan in ’09 with 215,000 miles and still running strong on the original, un-rebuilt engine and turbos.

    One minor correction to your article: the Nissan did have active rear steering (HICAS) on the Twin Turbo model, a full year before the Mitsubishi.

    • I’ll never forget my 300ZX Twin-Turbo, with the Stillen ECU upgrade…360bhp in the early 90’s put you in some exotic company! I bought that car used for 18 g’s, and sold it three years later for 18.5 g’s. The only trouble it ever gave was a blown rear main seal; a gusher of expensive Mobil 1 came pouring out the bellhousing’s bottom vent, fortunately just as I was pulling onto my street.

      Honestly, it was too much power for the relatively soft chassis. But the sheer pleasure of picking on motorcycles in those 60-120 pulls on the highway was immeasurable!

      I do remember a run-in with a Hennessey 3000GT, though…a real low-point in my life.

      I had a BMW M-Coupe; not an extremely powerful car, really a track special the motorheads at M division slipped past the beancounters as a favor to the faithful. It did get up and go; but 240hp only gets you so far on the highway.

      One night I was cruising along at 90, and passed a black 3000GT; there were no VR-4 labels and I didn’t notice the fat intercooler nestled in the air intake as I zipped past. Here comes the fun part: my wife-to-be in the passenger seat said “Oh that looks fast!”. And my smug reply: “Yeah it does, but that’s not the fast one; it’s not a VR-4”.

      About three seconds later I heard the Gods calling from Heaven with Thunder and Spitting of Turbos. The 3000 closed the twenty-car gap in about two milliseconds and pulled up next to me; so I dropped to fourth gear and nailed it.

      Should have saved myself the effort. He pulled off so hard, and with such vicious popping of wastegates and sucking of air, that it just about tore my hood off…and it was GONE.

      I’d been smoked by a sleeper Hennessey. Took a long time to live that down with the wife.

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