The Pajero Evolution Was Mitsubishi’s Saving Grace 25 Years Too Early

·6 min read
Photo credit: Jon Harper / @JBH1126
Photo credit: Jon Harper / @JBH1126
Photo credit: Jon Harper / @JBH1126
Photo credit: Jon Harper / @JBH1126

The rise of the super SUV is something we all should’ve seen coming. The nation’s ever-increasing appetite for high-riding, spacious vehicles has spiked over the last two decades, with more than half of all new cars sold in the U.S. now being either crossovers or SUVs. But just because people are willing to abandon the sleek bodylines reserved for coupes and sedans doesn’t mean they’re willing to give up speed. So cars like the Range Rover Sport SVR, Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, and Mercedes-AMG G63 were born. Is anyone really surprised the Urus is Lamborghini’s most popular car ever? I’m not.

Mitsubishi, a manufacturer well past its prime, once sold one of the greatest super SUVs of all: The Pajero Evolution. The only problem: It came 25 years too early. A product of the company’s Dakar efforts in the late Nineties and early 2000s, it was rare—just 2693 were built—and only sold in Japan. It was the answer to the super SUV question long before SUVs became mainstream. But it remained mostly locked away from the world. And that’s a shame, because it’s an incredible driving experience.

It doesn’t take long for people to start staring. Whether it’s the toy-like proportions, Batmobile winglets on the rear, the ultra-wide fenders on the side, or the diving board bumper with the word “EVOLUTION” inscribed into the plastic on the front, the thing is impossible to miss. Even in this subtle silver paint coat, the Pajero Evo is a billboard screaming for attention. This isn’t just a super SUV, this is the GT3 RS of Pajeros.

Photo credit: Jonathan Harper / @JBH1126
Photo credit: Jonathan Harper / @JBH1126

Things get even more interesting inside. The factory seats, genuine Recaros, look fantastic and provide plenty of support. The gauge cluster, radio, and HVAC controls are designed to deal out as much childhood car-ride nostalgia as you can handle. There’s also a pack of gauges centralized in the dash that show things like direction and oil pressure. No touch screens, no touch capacitive buttons, no nonsense. All the things you need, nothing you don’t.

Like the rally-inspired Lancer Evolution, the hotted Pajero is an entirely different beast underneath the skin versus the standard truck. A 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V-6 unique to the Evo sits under the hood, pushing out 276 hp and 256 lb-ft of torque. It’s attached to a torque converter automatic that sends power to a shiftable 4WD system with Torsen limited-slip differentials front and rear. Mitsubishi went as far as to remove the live axle and put in an independent suspension for better handling. The track width is over four inches wider, promoting a mean, aggressive stance when paired to its relatively short wheelbase.

It’s easy to hop into the Pajero Evolution with low expectations. It’s a truck from the Nineties, after all. Most utility vehicles from this era are loud, unrefined, and generally rougher around the edges than a comparable sedan. When people bought SUVs 20-plus years ago, they bought them because they needed the space and capability, not because they were more comfortable or easier to drive.

Photo credit: Jon Harper / @JBH1126
Photo credit: Jon Harper / @JBH1126

Thankfully the Pajero Evolution drives nothing like your average Nineties SUV. While the driving position is a bit awkward, the rally raid long-travel suspension is well-tuned to absorbing broken pavement while delivering a comfortable ride. Visibility is great thanks to the tall glass surrounding the cabin, and because the belt line is well-proportioned, you can hang an elbow out the window without cramping your shoulder. It is, without a doubt, one of the best big-city cruisers in existence.

The biggest surprise is in the steering. With the big, knobby tires and Nineties engineering I expected a ton of vagueness and a nice fat dead spot on center. Instead I got plenty of feel and a pleasantly speedy rack that doesn’t take much effort to turn. The steering wheel itself is refreshingly free of buttons, knobs, and other distractions. That being said, I hate how it looks and I’d immediately swap it out for a three-spoke Momo wheel if given the chance.

The engine too is a delight. Eager to rev, it makes its power towards the top end of the range and sounds good doing it. V-6s tend to get a bad rap for their exhaust notes, but a sea of endless 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-fours that propel everyday traffic causes you to see the good in the different. That’s the case here.

Photo credit: Jonathan Harper / @JBH1126
Photo credit: Jonathan Harper / @JBH1126

It’s the transmission, then, that ages the Pajero Evo. It’s an old-school slushbox through and through, happy to lazily fall from gear to gear without a care in the world. It’ll kick down if you mash the throttle, but don’t expect ZF 8-speed smoothness. You could actually get an Evolution with a stick shift, but they’re incredibly rare and almost never come up for sale.

This is one of those rare cases where it might be alright to settle for the automatic gearbox, despite its primitiveness. While the stick-shift might be more fun to drive, numerous reports suggest it’s a fragile piece that often breaks—not something you’d want to deal with on a rare, highly specialized car never sold in America. Plus, the actual Dakar race trucks used automatics, so opting for the auto would be sticking true to the truck’s homologation roots.

By modern standards the Pajero Evolution isn’t very quick—with a curb weight of around 4300 pounds, it shouldn’t be expected to be. But the front end’s responsiveness makes it a joy to wheel around tight, crowded neighborhoods with less-than-ideal asphalt. Though there wasn’t a chance to drive it off-road, there’s nothing here to suggest it wouldn’t be fantastic on dirt.

Photo credit: Jonathan Harper / @JBH1126
Photo credit: Jonathan Harper / @JBH1126

It’s been 25 years since Mitsubishi released the Pajero Evolution. That means it can be legally imported and driven in the United States. The one you see here, imported and sold by the JDM specialists at Inbound Motorsports, is as mint as they get. It has just over 60,000 kilometers (roughly 37,000 miles) on the odometer, and shows zero visible flaws.

Pajero Evos have spiked in value in the past five years not just because of their impending U.S. legality, but also because of the public’s insatiable lust for SUVs. Factor in the JDM rarity, retro design, and Nineties-era charm, and you begin to realize the Pajero Evolution is a full-blown collectable poised to go nowhere but up in value. It’s not unreasonable to assume clean examples like this one will start selling for six figures in the near future. The realization they’re actually fun to drive only bolsters that claim.

Imagine if Mitsubishi came out with something like the Pajero Evolution now? People would line up around the block at every dealer in the country to get their hands on one, especially now that the Lancer Evolution is dead. Even as the electric revolution dawns upon us, there will always be a market for super SUVs, as they can accomplish so much at once. The Pajero simply showed up to the party too early. It’s too bad, because this truck is one of the greats. Only the lucky few with enough money and taste will ever know.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

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