Let’s face it, when it comes to fast Mitsubishi cars, the Evo is the undisputed king of the company’s historical lineup.
Although the Evo is well and truly dead and buried (and unlikely to come back – learn more here) it is still considered to be the pinnacle of Mitsubishi’s ‘golden era’ of performance motoring.
In fact, if you read our guide to the fastest Mitsubishi cars, you’ll quickly realise that every single one of the top 10 fastest “Mitsis” is some form or another of the Evo.
That’s right, all of the top 10 fastest Mitsubishi cars are a variant or generation of the Evo. It’s a total clean sweep for what is one of the most legendary Japanese performance vehicles of all time, and an increasingly desirable and expensive modern classic.
But don’t let the sheer dominance of the Lancer Evolution put you off some of the other great hits from Mitsubishi’s back catalog. You see there was a period of time where Mitsubishi was making not just the Evo but a whole host of other fantastic performance cars.
In this article I revisit the golden years of Mitsubishi from the late 1980s through to early 2000s, covering off some of the best fast Mitsubishis that aren’t the Lancer Evolution/Evo of any given generation.
I hope you enjoy the list; feel free to leave a comment with your own suggestions or corrections.
Table of Contents
This was an easy choice to include on the list. A total no-brainer, if you will.
Apart from the Evo, the 3000GT (also known as the GTO in the Japanese domestic market and some other export markets) was really Mitsubishi’s ‘flagship’ performance car of the 1990s.
Whereas the Evo was a hard-edged rally rep, the 3000GT/GTO was a grand tourer … that’s what the “GT” bit of the name stands for.
Competing with the likes of the MK4 Toyota Supra and Nissan 300ZX, 3000GT/GTO buyers could enjoy a technologically-sophisticated blend of power, competent and confidence-inspiring handling, great looks and luxury touches. A motoring publication here in NZ once described the GTO as ‘a Japanese computer programmer’s interpretation of what a Ferrari ought to be’, which I think is an apt and entertaining description.
The 3000GT is a big, heavy car and not exactly the last word in driving dynamics, but any of the DOHC V6 manual cars will still impress by today’s standards, and the twin turbo models are outright fast (depending on where you are buying, twin turbo cars might be badged as a 3000GT VR4 or GTO Twin Turbo). Handling is ‘on-rails’ on AWD models and the overall package is highly competent.
With AWD and a turbo model power output that probably exceeded the 276hp Japanese ‘gentleman’s agreement’, the 3000GT/GTO is a seriously quick car.
Make sure to read our comprehensive 3000GT/GTO buyer’s guide here for more information.
For disclosure, my absolute dream car is a post-facelift GTO Twin Turbo, ideally the final model with the giant fighter aircraft-style factory spoiler.
Most people think of the Evo as being Mitsubishi’s first ‘rally homologation special’ – but that isn’t true.
The Galant VR-4 predates the Evo by a few years.
The first Galant VR-4 (which was released as part of the sixth generation of the Galant sedan) launched in the late 1980s and featured AWD along with the ubiquitous Group A spec 2.0 turbo engine.
It was also the first performance Mitsubishi to wear the coveted VR-4 badge; learn more here about what VR-4 means.
By the seventh Galant generation, the Evo had replaced the Galant in terms of being the road going rally car, and so the VR-4 Galant no longer needed to comply with homologation requirements (meaning the 2.0 4 cylinder became a 2.0 V6, along with various other changes). In this manner, the Galant VR-4 became more of a technological showcase of what Mitsubishi could achieve without restrictions from rally homologation requirements.
However, although the sixth generation/first Galant VR-4 is the more interesting car from a historical perspective, it is the eighth generation Galant VR-4 that was available from 1996-2002 that is perhaps the most fondly remembered and was the best car overall.
Mitsubishi pushed up the engine size to a 2.5L V6, and along with four wheel drive some models even featured the trick “Active Yaw Control”/AYC differential from the Evo of the era.
Various trim levels and specifications were available, and many buyers opted for the clever INVECS-II 5 speed tiptronic auto gearbox that apparently Porsche borrowed from for some of their cars (please confirm in the comment section if that is actually true).
Manual Galant VR-4s boasted an impressive 276hp – but anyone who has driven one will tell you they probably pushed closer to 300hp – and although the heavier curb weight meant the handling wasn’t as sharp as the Evo, the Galant could still hustle in both the straights and corners.
Having driven both an Evo and a Galant VR-4 of similar vintage, I’d pick the Galant as a daily driver any day of the week. In fact, I still regret not buying a mint condition example for comparative peanuts back in around 2008/9 (the car was superb, it’s just that insurance for then 17-year-old me was close to prohibitive).
So you fancy the idea of Galant VR-4 but need to transport lots of stuff?
As luck would have it, if you were a Japanese car buyer in the late 1990s to early 2000s, Mitsubishi had you covered!
The Galant VR-4 was also available in a wagon form called the “Legnum VR-4” (outside of Japan the Legnum was sold as the Galant wagon, but the VR-4 specification wasn’t available).
Not only is the Legnum VR-4 incredibly practical, I also think it is a better looking vehicle than the Galant sedan upon which it is based, particularly in facelifted Type S trim.
Mechanically, the Legnum is basically the same as the Galant although there are some rather confusing differences in terms of exactly which options and equipment levels are available on which models – you can learn more in my recent write up on the Legnum VR-4, as well as in my article on the best JDM wagons.
I am a huge fan of fast wagons, from the Subaru Legacy GT to the Volvo 850r to the likes of modern RS Audi wagons … there is no category of car that does it better in my view.
The Libero GT is a bit of an unsung JDM hero.
Basically, it was a Japanese market Lancer GSR wagon, sporting a 1.8L turbo engine and AWD. Coming before the Legnum VR-4, the Libero GT was one of Mitsubishi’s earlier fast wagons.
Although I don’t see many of them any more, the Libero GT used to be a fairly common sight in the New Zealand car enthusiast scene, with owners liking the blend of performance and practicality and easily modifiable nature of these cars (many being done up to look and go like an early 1990s Evo).
I haven’t seen a clean, factory-standard example in yonks to be honest – so if you see one in the wild make sure to snatch it right up.
Mirage Cyborg ZR
My first experience with the Mitsubishi Mirage Cyborg ZR was playing Gran Turismo 2 on PS1 as a kid.
The modern Mitsubishi Mirage is just a cheap, basic economy-focused hatchback, most famous for being one of the cheapest new cars you can buy.
The old Mitsubishi Mirage was a cheap, basic economy-focused hatchback BUT in the best traditions of 1980s and 1990s Japanese motoring (particularly for JDM buyers) you could also get various souped-up versions of the Mirage.
The Mirage Cyborg ZR was intended to compete with the likes of the Toyota Levin GT Apex (and later BZ-G) and the Honda Civic SiR.
In the best traditions of 1990s JDM hot hatches, the formula was simple: Take an economy-focused hatchback and stuff in a high-revving, twin cam engine with the latest variable valve timing technology (in this case Mitsubishi’s ‘MIVEC’ system). Various other performance improvements and modifications were added, such as a limited slip differential and upgraded suspension.
The Mirage Cyborg ZR boasted a whopping 175 horsepower, making it the most powerful non-turbo Japanese hot hatch of the early 1990s until the launch of the original EK9 Civic Type R.
Contemporary testing on Japan’s legendary BestMOTORING show found that the Cyborg ZR could mix it with some of the best naturally-aspirated JDM hot hatches.
Finally, even if the performance numbers don’t impress you that much, how can you say no to a car called the ‘Cyborg’?
In the best traditions of confusing 1990s Japanese car models, over a few different generations Mirage was also sold variously as the Lancer, Colt and Libero wagon – more on that shortly – and along with very much base model engines and the sport-focused NA models, there were even some turbocharged performance models (in fact the fourth generation Lancer GSR sedan provided the basis for the original Lancer Evolution 1 – made by replacing the 1.8L turbo with the 2.0L turbo and AWD system from the original Galant VR-4).
However, in my opinion the NA Mirage Cyborg ZR is one of the more interesting JDM hot hatches of the 1990s, as it competed in a stacked category where Honda was the dominant player.
Of all the fast Mitsubishis on this list, the Eclipse is the one about which I know the least.
There’s a simple reason for this – I live in New Zealand, and the Eclipse was never sold here. I’ve never seen one in the flesh, and it’s not a car I am particularly familiar with.
However, I understand that for American buyers the Eclipse is a bit of a legendary “street car”. Developed in conjunction with Chrysler as part of the ‘Diamond Star Motors’ partnership, the first two generations of the Eclipse shared a platform with the Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser.
As with many performance cars of the era, the Eclipse was available in a variety of specifications (including some decidedly non-performance base models).
However, performance enthusiasts enjoyed models such as the second generation Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX with its 210hp turbo engine and AWD system. There were also performance-focused FWD variants, and the third generation was an FWD only platform that wasn’t quite up to the par of the earlier cars.
The Eclipse was popular with enthusiasts for its rocketship performance and AWD grip. Plenty of modifications were possible, allowing owners to bump up the power output and live out their best ‘Fast & Furious’ fantasies.
That being said, the Eclipse did struggle at various points with reliability issues in the drivetrain department and a general fragility in terms of build quality. Compounding this is the fact that so many surviving examples have been modified poorly and thrashed to within an inch of death.
The Eclipse name is now used on the pedestrian (albeit very competent and economical) ‘Eclipse Cross’ SUV, but back in the 90s and early 2000s it was a serious performance contender.
Doing my research, it appears the first two generations of the Eclipse were available in Japan, but I’ve never seen an ex-Japan import here in New Zealand (if you happen to know whether any Japanese Eclipse examples made their way to ‘grey import’ markets such as NZ, UK or Australia, then I’d love to hear from you).
So you want a short wheelbase 4×4 that has genuine off-road capability but also blistering pace?
These days – and if you’re rich – something like a supercharged V8 Land Rover Defender would do the job.
However, irrespective of price tag nothing fits the bill better than the Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution/‘Pajero Evo’.
In the same way that the Lancer Evolution was a homologation special for Mitsubishi’s Group A rally efforts (at least in the early days) the Pajero Evo was a limited-run homologation special for the company’s Paris-Dakar T2 class competition vehicle.
Boasting a powerful 3.5L MIVEC-equipped V6, clever differentials and 4WD technology and a raft of tough-looking visual mods, the Pajero Evo is a wolf in wolf’s clothing and is genuinely capable both on and off the road.
With around 2500 built, the Pajero Evo is as rare has hen’s teeth … but if you see one you cannot help but turn your head. And if you do happen to see one that is for sale, then you best be re-mortgaging the house to buy it.
I know I promised that we would look at fast Mitsubishis that aren’t the Evo, but you know I was referring to the Lancer Evolution!
Although I am a proud Kiwi, I am the first to admit that many great things have come from “The Land Down Under” across the ditch; Australia.
From great music to sporting icons to Vegemite, Australia has contributed much to the world.
While I will never get over Australia’s brightly coloured Monopoly money and the fact that Burger King is called Hungry Jack’s, I must admit that the now-defunct Aussie motor industry produced some excellent vehicles over the years.
In particular, when it comes to fast Mitsubishis, the Magna (Australian name)/Diamante Ralliart is an Aussie-made icon.
The origin story of the Australian-built Diamante/Manga is a bit complex, but basically in the 1980s Mitsubishi Australia took the Galant and modified it for local market conditions.
Various versions and models came and went, and by 1996 the third generation Magna – based on the second generation Japanese Diamante (boy, my brain hurts just thinking about it) – arrived on the scene.
There were all manner of different models available, including the likes of the luxury-focused Verada, but it is the Magna Ralliart (also sold as the Diamante Ralliart in New Zealand) that is the most interesting.
Long story short, Mitsubishi Australia took the Magna and dialled it up to 11. The original concept was “out the gate”, showing up at the 2001 Sydney Motor Show with an AWD system, full Recaro interior and more. However, Mitsubishi’s appalling financial position in the early 2000s meant that the volume was rolled back somewhat. Nonetheless, the production version of the big Ralliart sedan was impressive with a tuned up 3.5L V6 engine (a SOHC version of the unit found in the Pajero Evo), upgraded suspension, a limited slip differential and more. Capable of dispatching the 0-100kph sprint in 6ish seconds, Mitsubishi had managed to build a true Aussie Battler.
The Magna Ralliart is now a bit of a cult classic car in Australia and New Zealand. Although it is rather “striking” (to be charitable) to look at, Mitsubishi’s engineers worked magic with this car and were able to turn a large, spacious family sedan into something that could keep up with V8 Holdens and Fords of the era. Compared to many other performance Mitsubishis, the Ralliart Magna is rather affordable on the used market as well – particularly if you are happy to compromise and take an automatic gearbox-equipped model.
If you can’t get your hands on a Ralliart – and these are now rare cars – the VR-X trim cars are still a great buy.
You can learn more here by reading my feature piece on the Magna/Diamante Ralliart.
Many of Mitsubishi’s best performance cars have been AWD/4WD, leaning heavily on the company’s rally heritage and pedigree.
However, in the 1980s one of the company’s premier sporting models was the Starion, which was an RWD coupe sporting a powerful turbocharged engine in top spec.
North American buyers could also purchase a domestically-branded, badge-engineered variant called the ‘Conquest’ which was available from Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth. In the United Kingdom, buyers could purchase a ‘Colt’ Starion.
One of the Starion’s claims to fame is being one of the first Japanese turbo cars to use electronic fuel injection. Depending on the exact specification chosen, buyers could also enjoy antilock brakes, a limited slip differential and sports suspension.
The Starion was intended to compete with the Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7 and Nissan 300ZX models of the time.
Top spec models boasted as much as 200hp, depending on the exact engine and turbo configuration. There were also naturally aspirated variants, but the Starion turbo is the most desirable and performance-focused.
If the Starion was good enough for Jeremy Clarkson to buy and rag on in an early season of Top Gear, then it’s good enough for you. On a side note, imagine getting a turbo Starion for less than 1500GBP these days!
Recap – The Best Fast Mitsubishi Cars That Aren’t The Evo
As mentioned in the introduction to this article, Mitsubishi’s most famous and cherished performance badge has long been the Lancer Evolution/Evo
In fact, the Evo is so popular and renowned that Mitsubishi even has a page on their official website dedicated to telling people that the Evo is dead and isn’t coming back any time soon:
Looking at Mitsubishi’s current lineup, you’d be forgiven for thinking the company has never built any car that was remotely performance-oriented. The company’s sole focus these days seems to be on building economical, typically PHEV, SUVs and crossovers.
However, once upon a time – back in the good old days – Mitsubishi was a true powerhouse in the performance motoring stakes. Looking past the champion of their back catalog, it’s clear that Mitsubishi made so many great performance-focused cars that didn’t carry the Lancer Evolution badge.
Which of this list is your favourite? And have I missed any others? Feel free to leave a comment below – I would love to hear from you.