Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution: The Toughest Production Car In The World?

Homologation specials are always interesting, and none are more so than Mitsubishi’s Pajero Evolution. Designed with the sole purpose of winning the Paris Dakar Rally, one of the world’s most brutal motorsport events, it looks like Batman’s rally wheels, sounds like a NASCAR race car, and is renowned as being the world’s toughest production vehicle.

Built between 1997 and 1998, it used the already ultra-durable short-wheelbase three-door Pajero as its base. Just 2,500 were made, the minimum necessary for it to qualify as a production car. This might have been a hugely creative interpretation of the rules by Mitsubishi, but was already a well-trodden path that allowed – and continues to allow – enthusiasts like us to buy road-ready competition cars at a fraction of the sum they cost the manufacturer to develop and build back-in-the-day.

You might think Zombie Apocalypse vehicle should be black, but you’d be wrong because nothing says End Of The World like the PajEvo – and most of them were either Sofia White or Satellite Silver, although 500 Passion Red ones were built too – and attract a hefty premium when they do. Mitsubishi’s design studio’s choice of palette means that combatting the apocalypse has never been more stylish.

Or more effective.

ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION

Despite being a hard-core motorsport vehicle, almost every Pajero Evolution was fitted with the INVESC-II automatic gearbox; when your intention is to batter the Sahara Desert into submission over a period of days rather than hours, the marginal advantages offered by a manual transmission are vastly outweighed by the reliability and operator comfort that a decent auto ‘box offers.

And it is a decent gearbox. It doesn’t have a sport mode because it doesn’t need one: this is not an EU testing cycle-optimised car with the soul sucked out of it in order to meet an arbitrary CO2 target; it is a vehicle that was designed to go very fast over very rough terrain and to do so in complete comfort and with utter reliability.

So, it offers the redline if the driver wants it, or the ability to amble around in fifth when he doesn’t. The driver can intervene and use it as a sequential ‘box but there’s little point during the kind of endurance rallies the Paj Evo excels at, although it’s a handy feature to have in the sort of nip ‘n’ tuck driving that the UK’s backroads have to offer – and being tailgated by an Audi or BMW SUV is a ridiculously easy problem to despatch and one that can be done with more than the usual aplomb and panache.

If you insist on shifting gears yourself then you can expect a bit of a trial finding one because just 500 were ever built, but if you want the ultimate collector’s edition, then a red manual would fit the bill…

The 3.5-litre MIVEC 24-valve, DOHC V6 engine growls at tickover and wails as the revs rise and the variable valve timing kicks in. Restricted by the gentlemen’s agreement that no Japanese car of the period would produce more than 280PS, most agree that the Paj Evo probably has around 300bhp at 6,500rpm and in excess of 256lb/ft of torque at 3,000rpm. This enables it to hit 60mph in around eight seconds, which isn’t bad for a car that weighs 1,970kgs. Its top speed is just under 130mph, which is ample and probably terrifying.

CHASSIS AND SUSPENSION

The suspension was all new, too. While the original Pajero was hardly a snowflake millennial, headbutting North Africa at three-figure speeds demanded more than even one of the most robust four-wheel-drive vehicles ever built had to offer.

So, Mitsubishi didn’t fuck about tweaking and tuning the Pajero’s suspension. Oh no, it went full-on Banzai and completely re-engineered the chassis to enable it to fit all-round independent suspension. Wonderfully named ARMIE, or ‘All Road Multi-link Independent suspension for the Evolution’ at the back, it might have had a contrived acronym but even the usual marketing wank couldn’t overstate what is a hugely effective set-up and one that is as tough as Clint Eastwood chewing nails while shitting a pump-action shotgun. Sideways.

The track was widened by 125mm at the front and 110mm at the rear. With a 2420mm wheelbase and an overall track of 1590mm, the Paj Evo has a curiously a four-square stance, albeit one that helps with cross-slope stability. And its tough-as-fuck looks, obvs.

The new suspension gives a total of 240mm travel at the front, and 270mm at the back, which comes in handy when you can expect to spend so much of your time airbourne; Paris-Dakar veterans aren’t shrinking violets and seem to interpret lifting in the face of terrain that would make a billy goat puke as the ultimate sign of weakness; so hard-core are they that rumour has it they they’re the ones who train McDonalds staff in enforcing its breakfast cut-off time.

Front and rear Torsen limited-slip differentials help traction, which is often at a premium when crossing the endless sand dunes that form large parts of the desert it was designed to compete in.

BODYWORK

It has some fancy aerodynamic kit, too. Comprising wide front and rear wing extensions and bumpers, deep side skirts and a bonkers roof spoiler. It’s distinctive, even now, and looks unlike anything before or since.

The aerodynamic modifications are backed up by an aluminium bonnet and underbody guards, both of which are beefy enough to stand up to long weeks spent rallying across some of the most demanding terrain on earth but are significantly lighter than they would have been had they been fabricated from steel. (If you suspect the cold, dead hand of the marketing department in there too then you might not be completely wrong…)

Four front fog lights and two air scoops in the bonnet complete the front end, and a huge vent on the rear edge of each front wing helps dump all the hot air the MIVEC engine creates when it’s working hard. (And it does work hard: high speed rallying and constant redline abuse make double-digit fuel consumption the exception rather than the rule, and all that energy results in a huge amount of heat to dissipate.)

Only a few millimetres over 4 metres in length and just 1915mm high, it has four ‘Evolution’ badges, one on the front bumper, one on the rear door, and one on either side skirt. They’re as beautifully crafted as the rest of the vehicle, being three-dimensional and finished in a dark grey metallic. They also cost around £100 each and because they are only available from Japan you’ll have to pay extra for postage, import duty, VAT and handling fees. Bloody worth it though; if you’ve got it, flaunt it, eh?

The resulting car looks sensational. Like the bastard love child of a Metro 6R4 and Lou Ferigno. Or a Judge Dread Land Rover as imagined by a five-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger. Or the sort of car Jack Reacher would buy if he bought cars rather than stealing them.

It ain’t pretty but by hell it creates attention on the road, almost all of it positive too, which is a surprise in these virtue signalling, environmentally aware times; a four-wheel-drive rally weapon that weighs the best part of two tonnes and is as aerodynamic as an over-square brick ought to attract all sorts of ire. That it doesn’t speaks volumes for the affection the unlikeliest of folk hold for old cars like this.

INTERIOR

The interior features a carbonfibre-effect dashboard, unique black and blue upholstery, and a four-wheel-drive lever which allows all-wheel-drive to be selected while the car is moving. It also lets the driver engage a proper low-ratio gearbox for moments when traction and torque are more important than speed and momentum.

The Recaro seats, with their Pajero Evolution-specific cloth, grip you tightly and the degree with which they do so is adjustable, as is the amount of under-thigh support. They’re mounted high, too. God knows how they managed to squeeze in ‘em with helmets on. Mind you, it helps that most racing drivers are shorter than John Bercow’s temper.

Three centrally mounted gauges show engine oil pressure, the battery charge condition, and the direction of travel. The latter is via an electronic display that also shows the outside temperature; if any aspect of the car signals its intended use then it is these three dials.

Or maybe that’s the role of the driver’s grab handle…

DRIVING IT

The steering is power-assisted but still meaty enough to be able to feel what is happening under the front tyres, even if it does get a little vague at high speeds. Driven hard, it is surprisingly quick for a car with only 140bhp/tonne and that expensively designed suspension allows it to hang on for way longer than you think it will – and when it does let go, it does so progressively and is very easy to catch.

A track session in a well-fettled one on new (albeit winter) tyres was way more fun that I thought it might be. No, it isn’t especially graceful; it’s brutal, noisy and some of the best fun I’ve ever had on a track, even if I did end up using more of the fuel tank’s 75l capacity than I was hoping…

There is no stop/start to over-ride and no opportunity to turn off the traction control because it doesn’t have either; this is a vehicle that does what you tell it to do, when you tell it to do it. It doesn’t try and think for itself, to over-rule you, or to insist that it knows better than you. It’s a servant, albeit a faithful and hugely competent one.

The ride is appalling but then this is a car designed to conquer the very worst that North Africa has to offer – and to do so at very high speeds. It is almost unbreakable, something the works teams did their very best to disprove.

Not only didn’t it break, it went on to perform in a way that Mitsubishi wouldn’t have dared dream, winning not only its T2 class in 1997 in the hands of Kenjiro Shinozuka and Henri Magne, but the much faster T3 prototype class, too.

It won again in 1998, this time with Jean-Pierre Fontenay behind the wheel and Gilles Picard navigating. More significantly, the Pajero Evolution took the four top spots – and finished more than eight hours ahead of its nearest rival, a Nissan.

In total, the Pajero has won the Paris Dakar Rally 15 times out of 32 rallies, which is way more than any other vehicle and it still campaigns even today, which is quite the accolade.

Jalopnik even quotes a guy in Dubai who reckons a well-sorted one could still give a new Ford Raptor a run for its money in the desert. This is, I think we can all agree, something we’d enjoy watching.

BUYING ONE

Road-going versions have always been rarer and they’re getting even rarer; one UK enthusiast has broken four so far thanks to rust, accident damage or both.

Importing one is easy thanks to numerous JDM specialists, and this is probably the way to go; I looked at a lot prior to buying mine and was horrified at how even half-a-dozen UK winters can ruin the underside of a previously pampered vehicle. Mitsubishi UK officially imported 30 silver and 30 white examples, but even the one on its own press heritage fleet is currently being restored as it is so rusty…

So, even though it might cost you more than a domestic one thanks to a weakening pound, it makes sense to ensure that you are the first or second UK owner – and then pay a few hundred pounds to get it professionally undersealed.

Spares are becoming harder to find, although a surprisingly high percentage of stuff is still available from either your friendly main dealer or a myriad of sources in Japan.

MODIFYING THEM

Originality is where it’s at, so please don’t be tempted to stray too far away from the factory specification. Ralliart mud flaps are a nice and authentic touch but genuine period items are rare and command nigh-on four-figure sums when they do. Cheap aftermarket replicas are available for peanuts but you shouldn’t. No, really. Just don’t.

The 7×16 factory wheels are machine-cut six-spoke jobbies look a little incongruous on anything other than silver cars, so many look to a set of matching Ralliart 16-inch alloy wheels to their white cars. It’s a great choice and they look amazing but they’re rarer than hens’ teeth and hideously expensive when they do come up.

Tyres are 265/70R16, which is wide enough to offer great grip but still pliant and forgiving enough in their sidewalls to cope with all sorts of abuse. There are still plenty of new tyres out there in that size too, something that isn’t always the case with rubber that has such a small wheel diameter (by modern standards, that is) and such high-profile sidewalls.

But, if you want the very rarest of options, then you need to track down a set of the factory spotlights. Offered as an option from new, they sit in their own little pods and are so rare that I’ve never seen them being offered for sale.

Original sales brochures for the model crop up regularly and aren’t especially expensive at around £100 a pop.

VALUE

Which brings us neatly to what it’ll cost you to buy your very own Pajero Evolution. You can still find a rough one for £10,000. But you shouldn’t buy a rough one because it’ll bankrupt you – and there’s no need when good ones can be found for £15,000, very good ones cost £20,000 and even low-mileage, concours ones struggle to reach £30,000.

Prices are rising fast, too. We’re seeing a year-on-year increase in value of more than 30%, with a rise last month alone of 10%[1] – and while only a fool attempts to predict what will happen in the classic car market in the longer term, we’d be surprised if these values softened anytime soon.

As a bona fide icon with an impeccable pedigree and a limited (and shrinking) supply of cars, the Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution ticks all an awful lot of the boxes you’d want to see ticked if you’re looking to place your hard-earned savings in something more interesting than a building society account…

 

[1] As of 1st October 2019