My friends at Sodo Moto kindly gave me this Mitsubishi Pajero Mini for a weekend. Here are my impressions.
It’s downright adorable, however, I think that’s more thanks to its small stature and round headlights than the actual design. Frankly, it’s a little boring looking. It draws plenty of attention here in Washington but that’s more down to the size differential to other cars and right-hand drive. The yellow driving lights make it look like it wants to be a big bad off-roader when it grows up.
Unfortunately, condition-wise the exterior has held up very poorly to the test of time. It somehow both has rust on every exposed bolt and has had the plastic trim sunbaked, seals rot out, and roof oxidized. This seems to be fairly common with these, given the mediocre condition a lot of them passing through the auctions are in. The mirror tint would be a fabulous addition if it weren’t bubbling.
It’s fine. Honestly, it’s similar to what you can expect from most kei cars, with basic plastics and few extras. It has a radio, air conditioning, power windows, and that’s about it. It’s a fairly tight cockpit (as one is to expect) but you and your passenger still have plenty of room to avoid knocking knees. I had a 6'2" housemate in the back and while he wouldn’t dare to complain out of politeness, it certainly seemed tight back there. That being said, headroom is plentiful for passengers both front and rear. The air conditioning is adequate but not great, as if it’s simply uninspired by the task it’s being asked to do.
Similarly to the exterior, the interior has not aged well. As tends to be the case with old kei cars, the plastics have started deteriorating, coming off in powdery flakes if you rub too aggressively. The door panels are horrifically scratched and the fabric has come unglued on one side. On the positive sides, no plastics have broken and the seats and steering wheel still appear immaculate on this 60k mile example. There were no squeaks and rattles whatsoever, but plenty of unpleasant sounds came from the 2 speaker stereo system to make up for it. Hey, it was cheap when it was new, you can’t expect a 700W Bose system in everything. The passenger lock required finessing and though the electric locks still worked, the remote did absolutely nothing despite lighting up.
The Pajero Mini is simply a joy to drive, but the automatic transmission leaves a lot to be desired. A curb weight of just 1962 LBS helps the Pajero avoid many of the problems that make larger SUVs from this era lacking for an enthusiast. It has surprisingly little roll in corners, and the steering has plenty of feel. It doesn’t wander whatsoever and somehow avoids being pulled by grooves in the road like many cars with such narrow tires do. The brakes are as good as that of an R35 GTR! Well, maybe not but they’re certainly better than a lot of cars from that era. Hard stops result in a comically large nose dip which, while fun, might lead to some interesting times in corners.
Now, to the automatic. The important note for this section is that the transmission was clearly not functioning properly. It was shifting from first to third, which lead to some very interesting experiences driving around Seattle’s hills. I could either choose to be in 1st with the car screaming its head off at 6000 RPM to achieve 30 KPH or have it absolutely fall on its face in 3rd. 40 KPH was just about the top speed you could achieve going up a hill. Though the malfunctioning transmission was certainly part of the problem, the 3 speed’s gearing was also just horrible for American roads. At 100 KPH in top gear (3rd!), I was turning 6500 RPM and even a 2-mile freeway journey felt like a harrowing experience. Getting up to speed on an onramp was a long and slow journey to achieve 80 KPH, leading to some very interesting merging experiences. People who think Nissan Versas are slow have not experienced true slow. 51 raging horsepower will show you what truly slow is. Aside from the transmission being deserving of a good toss off a rooftop, the car seemed to be in very good mechanical shape, with nothing to make me doubt it’s trustworthiness.
The Pajero Mini is a very enjoyable little car that I can see absolutely no reason to actually buy. Unless you want the transfer case to use it as an off-roader, I don’t understand why this would have appeal. It’s about $5000, and you can get some proper fun cars or proper SUVs for the money. This splits the difference in a category with neither the practicality of a larger SUV nor the handling of something properly sporty. At $2000, sure it’s worth a buy for a fun around-town car, but we really just don’t have a need for kei vehicles that don’t stand out for any specific qualities. If for whatever reason you are convinced that you just HAVE to have a Pajero Mini in your life, for the love of god don’t buy an automatic one. On top of the power zapping, most of them that I’ve seen come to the states have a failing transmission in one way or another and it’s not worth that risk. Do I like this car? Yes. Does it give me butterflies the same way that a MiniCab or Cappuccino or Beat does when I look outside and remember I have the keys to it? Absolutely not.