Ask the average car enthusiast to name the car that they would most associate with Mitsubishi’s rallying efforts, and 99% of answers would probably be the ‘Lancer Evolution’ aka ‘Evo’.
Across a number of generations from the early 1990s to late 2000s, the Evo dominated the landscape and waged a constant war with the Subaru WRX (full disclosure, I have always been and will always remain a Subaru guy).
But here’s a fun fact – the Evo wasn’t Mitsubishi’s original Group A ‘rally rep’ – a car designed to comply with homologation requirements by being produced with certain specifications and sold in certain volumes.
In the late 1980s, it was actually the original Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 that filled this role.
In today’s edition of Forgotten Heroes we are going to explore the history of the Galant VR-4, and cover the three generations of this under-the-radar performance classic.
To make understanding the different generations easier I have used “Mk1/2/3” although this wasn’t official terminology.
The first generation of the Galant VR-4 was released during the sixth generation of the Galant platform, which is a little bit confusing. Therefore, I believe it’s easier to think about the Mk1/2/3 Galant VR-4 as opposed to the relevant Galant generation.
Table of Contents
Mk1 Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 (1987-1992)
By the mid 1980s, Mitsubishi had seen initial success in the world of rallying.
The company had planned to use the Starion coupe as the basis for a foray into Group B rallying, but owing to numerous, high-profile fatal accidents the class was cancelled. You can learn more about the history of Group B in our short YouTube documentary on the Lancia Delta S4.
Needing to pivot to the Group A class, Mitsubishi decided to co-opt its recently released sixth generation Galant as the basis for a Group A rally car.
As you’re probably aware, rally cars (along with other motorsport production vehicles) often need to be ‘homologated’; in other words a certain number of road-going cars must be built for sale to the public and comply with various requirements.
At a basic level, Mitsubishi needed to sell 5000 units of the “Galant VR-4” that was equipped with the required four wheel drive technology and a 2.0 four cylinder turbocharged engine (4G63)
In fact, the original Galant VR-4 was a genuine technological marvel for its time, featuring:
- A sophisticated four wheel drive system
- Four wheel ABS
- Four wheel steering
- Four valves per cylinder
The original Galant VR-4 produced around 205hp, which was eventually bumped up to 220hp and then 240hp by the end of the generation.
Mitsubishi also introduced a liftback variant known as the Eterna ZR-4.
I’m a huge fan of subtle performance cars, and the original Galant VR-4 fits the bill nicely here being rather understated in the looks department. Only some subtle bodykit and a bit of typically-Japanese car writing on the side indicated you were looking at anything special.
Owing to a relatively high curb weight the original Galant VR-4 wasn’t actually crazy fast, taking around 7.5 seconds to reach 100kph from rest. In this regard, the car is more important for what it represents (the progenitor of the Lancer Evolution to which it gave its engine and four wheel drive system).
Mk2 Mitsubishi Galant Vr-4 (1992-1996)
By the time the seventh generation of the Galant rolled around, Mitsubishi had already introduced the Lancer Evolution 1 – the first of the Evos. By the early 1990s, most other Group A participants were choosing to use smaller sedans as the basis for their rally vehicles, e.g. Subaru migrating from the larger Legacy to the smaller Impreza. A smaller physical size was advantageous on the rally stage, allowing for greater agility and avoiding some of the inherent unwieldiness of larger sedans.
From the outset, the Evo was intended to be the new Group A rally homologation car.
What this meant is that Mitsubishi was “liberated” with the Galant VR-4 to build a car that could be whatever they wanted it to be. There was no need to comply with maximum engine size or any other special requirements.
With that in mind, Mitsubishi set out to transform the new Galant VR-4 into more of an all-around performance package that also offered touches of luxury, comfort and practicality.
If you’ve ever sat inside an early Evo (and to be honest even one of the later ones) you’ll know that these cars were never particularly comfortable. The interior was merely a means to an end, and all that mattered was that epic drivetrain and razor-sharp handling. The 7th generation Galant VR-4 is significantly better appointed, considering the era and available technology. What a buyer lost in sheer performance was more than made up for in terms of a more amenable overall driving experience.
The four cylinder turbo engine gave way to a 2.0 V6 twin turbo pumping out around 240hp. This engine was actually derived from the 2.0 V6 found in the Mitsubishi FTO coupe of the time, with the added benefit and power of twin turbocharging. As with all VR-4 badged Mitsubishis, 4WD remained a staple. A modified version of the four wheel steering system was also used, meant to aid cornering stability and agility.
Buyers had the choice of a five speed manual or a four speed INVECS automatic transmission that could learn the driver’s habits and adapt shift patterns to suit. With the manual gearbox, 0-100kmh was dispatched in around 6.5-7 seconds depending on road conditions and driver skill.
From what I can gather, there was actually a short period of time in 1996 where buyers could have purchased either the outgoing MK2 or incoming Mk3 (see following section) Galant VR-4, but feel free to correct me in the comment section if that wasn’t the case.
The mk2 Galant VR-4 was even more subtle in the looks department, and as is often the case with the ‘middle child’ this is probably the most overlooked of the three generations. It wasn’t much more impressive than the original car in the performance department, and debuted during a period of challenging economic conditions in Japan that made for poor sales performance. Furthermore, the Mk2 Galant VR-4 was replaced fairly quickly by the vastly superior Mk3:
Mk3 Mitsubishi Galant VR-4
To many Japanese car enthusiasts, it is the third Galant VR-4 (itself part of the 8th generation of the Galant platform) that is the most famous and well-regarded.
Releasing in 1996 and with a facelift in 1998, the final Galant VR-4 was once again a technological showcase for Mitsubishi.
4WD and a host of other clever technologies helped to make the Galant a great handling car as well – not so precise as the Evo of the time, but offering a superior blend of performance, comfort and practicality.
Buyers could opt for a five speed manual transmission or a five speed tiptronic “INVECS-II” automatic that proved to be the more popular option. On prefacelift Galant VR-4s, the tiptronic-equipped cars make around 256hp vs 276hp for the manual transmission. Post-facelift, all cars produced the same output.
Most enthusiasts agree that the final Galant VR-4 was probably exceeding the 276hp JDM ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to limit power, with these cars possibly pushing closer to 300hp. The twin turbochargers were configured for very smooth and linear acceleration, allowing the Galant to pull strongly across the rev range and avoid some of the turbo lag that plagued many other cars of the era (Evo included).
Depending on the transmission option, 0-100kph was dispatched in anywhere from low to high five seconds. Having driven one of these, I can confirm that the acceleration is immense and very impressive.
Various trim options and packages were available, and on the facelifted cars buyers could choose either the more basic ‘Type V’ or the ‘Type S’ with its futuristic hi-vis dashboard, more aggressive bodykit and Active Yaw Control differential borrowed from the Evo (this was standard across the pre-facelift range). There was no four wheel steering, but the AYC rear diff and improved suspension components meant superior handling compared with the Mk2.
There was also a ‘Super VR-4’ limited edition model that released in 1998, which was effectively a pre-facelift Galant VR-4 with some fairly in-your-face bodykit. In the used market these Super VR-4s seem to command a big price premium for what ultimately isn’t any better in terms of performance but this is the rarest of all Galant VR-4s and definitely a head turner.
One other interesting quirk about the final Galant VR-4 is that Japanese market buyers could also opt for a wagon version, known as the Legnum VR-4. You can read my full write up on the Legnum VR-4 here, which goes into more detail about this impressive family hauler and covers some of the specification differences versus the Galant (things got rather confusing following the mid-generation facelift in terms of exactly which options where available on which models).
Here in New Zealand, the Galant VR-4 used to be a fairly common sight on the road but many have since fallen into disrepair, been written off, or so badly modified that they aren’t worth saving.
It’s a shame, as having driven one of these final generation cars I can confirm they are a superb vehicle offering a great blend of practical creature comforts and space with lose-your-licence levels of speed. As I daily driver I would wholeheartedly say the Galant VR-4 is a superior car to the Evos of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Remembering The Galant VR-4
Although the Mitsubishi Evo is unequivocally the hero of the brand’s ‘Golden Era’ lineup (let’s not spend too long dwelling on just how boring most modern Mitsubishi cars are – a sea of competent but uninspiring hatches, SUVs and crossovers) it was actually the original Galant VR-4 that was the company’s OG rally homologation special, and therefore played an important role in the development of the Evo. The VR-4 badge was once a symbol for genuine performance chops, and the Galant was the origin of it all.
Once the Evo arrived on the scene, Mitsubishi was at liberty to make the Galant VR-4 into more of a well-rounded performance package that could showcase new tech free from the constraints of rally requirement compliance. What this ultimately meant was a less focused experience but a vehicle that was still quick both in a straight line and around the bends (particularly with the final generation) and one which offered superior comfort, practicality and features to the Evo which has always been a relatively spartan car, particularly in the early generations.
I am a big fan of the Galant VR-4 and it’s one of the those cars that if I saw a good condition example for a fair price, I’d be tempted to purchase even though I have absolutely no need for one. I just like them, particularly the final generation.
One advantage of purchasing a Galant VR-4 over and Evo is that the relative obscurity of the Galant makes it a more affordable purchase. Even the most tired and beat up Evo will typically sell for more than a good condition Galant these days, so if you can live with sacrificing a bit of raw performance there is a strong argument for considering the Galant (or Legnum wagon) as your ‘Golden Era’ Mitsubishi of choice.
If you’ve owned a Galant VR-4 or have more insight to add to this article, then feel free to leave a comment below – it would be great to hear from you! I also welcome any correction requests, which can be made via the comment section or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org