Among off-road vehicles, the Mitsubishi Pajero is regarded as a legend largely because of the numerous times it has won the Paris-Dakar Rally. The choice of the Pajero for cross-continent events was not surprising since it proved its toughness and capability right from the time it was introduced in the early 1980s. It was one of the first of the ‘new generation’ of dual-purpose vehicles that would eventually come to be known as Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). These could be used for daily commuting as they were more comfortable and had conveniences like a passenger car, a big difference from the off-roaders that were intended only for rough use and equipped with minimum features.
Mitsubishi Motors experience making off-road dual-purpose vehicles goes back to 1953 when, like some other Asian carmakers, it obtained a licence to ‘clone’ the famous Jeep. The Mitsubishi version, known as ‘J-52’, was not permitted for export so it was never known outside Japan. It was used by the Japanese self-defence forces and enthusiasts who needed a vehicle for off-road activities. Rather bare and simple, durability was the main feature of the J-52.
J-52 was based on American Jeep (above) First prototype of the Pajero appeared in 1973
Mitsubishi Motors foresaw that someday, people would also want such vehicles for daily driving and began to explore some designs for the future. In 1973, it displayed a prototype dual-purpose vehicle for everyday use. It was more a recreational vehicle with an open top and a thick rollbar. The seats were sporty in design and the overall image was youthful. It was called the Pajero, the name being taken from that of an animal found in southern Argentina.
But it would take some 9 years (and a second prototype) before the company was certain there was a market for a model with such a concept. By then, a lot of experience was gained to make the production model tough and very capable. Like most of the early SUVs, the platform was adapted from commercial vehicles which were already built for toughness. It therefore used the body-on-chassis construction which has the bodyshell bolted onto a strong ladder-frame chassis. Though this may not make for sharp handling, it is very good for heavy loads.
The very first time the Pajero entered the Paris-Dakar Rally (top), it won three prizes and over the next 26 times it took part, it would be overall winner no less than 12 times. The early models were fairly standard but in later years, prototype models (above) were also entered by Ralliart.
The first production Pajero, launched in 1982, was unlike the prototype as it was much bigger and had a closed cabin. It was available with four doors (plus a rear door, of course) or two doors, which had a shorter wheelbase. There were hardtop versions but the shorter variant could also be ordered with canvas tops.
The string of victories that the Pajero would collect in the Dakar Rally started from the very first year it was sold. In 1982, a few units were entered in the Paris-Dakar Rally, as the longest and the most gruelling off-road rally in the world was then known. At the finish in Dakar, a Pajero finished in 1st place in the Production Class, 1st and 2nd in the Marathon Racing Class (no replacement of major parts) and won the “Best Team” award – an amazing feat for a new model!
With this triple crown performance in its debut rally, the Pajero legend in the world of motorsports began as it achieved overall wins 12 times (7 of them consecutively) in the next 26 Dakar Rallies. Last year was the first time that Mitsubishi Motors did not officially participate as the effects of the changed global economy forces the company to withdraw from such events and focus its priorities in other activities.
Since 1982, the Pajero has been through four generations, the current one having been launched in 2006. Each generation maintained the toughness for which the model was well known but introduced new technologies that enhanced safety and comfort. The styling changes have been ‘evolutionary’ keeping the Pajero’s distinctive looks. Size-wise compared to the first generation, the latest Pajero is still about the same length but has more width.
Sometime between 1992 and 1993, cumulative production of the Pajero passed the 1 million mark and it was firmly in the favourite list of SUVs. To date, over 2.5 million units have been sold worldwide. Incidentally, it could not be sold with the same name throughout the world because, in some languages, it had an offensive meaning! So in certain countries, it was called the Montero or Shogun. The strong image of the Pajero led Mitsubishi Motors to also use it for other models such as the Pajero Mini, Jr. and iO and more recently, the Pajero Sport.
Although the model was launched in 1982, the very first Pajero was imported to Malaysia by United Assembly Services only in early 1984 because there was no long-wheelbase variant initially. By the time the Pajero arrived, interest in the new ‘civilized’ SUVs had already started because Isuzu had introduced the Trooper a bit earlier with the same concept. Initially, contractors and estate owners were the ones who bought the Pajero and Trooper as it could be used to go to their worksites as well as allowed them to go into town with their families for dinner. Within a short time, the practical benefits of such vehicles attracted other types of buyers and as has often happened, it became ‘trendy’ to be seen in such vehicles.
The very first Pajero imported to Malaysia in 1984
The first Pajero sold in Malaysia had a 4-cylinder 2555 cc petrol SOHC engine (no EFI, just one carburetor) which produced 103 bhp/192 Nm. The 4×4 system was the ‘serious’ type with a transfer case directing torque to the front wheels when the driver engaged 4×4. The transfer case had High and Low ratios with the Low one multiplying overall gearing by 1.944 times so in first gear (Low), it was possible to move at extremely low speeds without stalling. No automatic was available then and the transmission was only a 4-speeder.
A huge vehicle, it weighed 1,610 kgs and could accommodate 7 or 8 people on 3 rows of seats. The top speed was just under 140 km/h and acceleration was ‘modest’: acceleration tests done by this writer were only from 0 to 80 km/h which took 10.9 seconds. It was estimated that the fuel consumption was in the region of 8 kms/litre but fuel was a lot cheaper in 1984. And it cost only RM35,000 as a CBU import from Japan (import duty on 4WDs was less than passenger cars).
The Pajero continued to grow in popularity during the 1980s and was eventually assembled at the DRB plant in Pekan, Pahang. By the time the second generation was introduced in 1993, the Pajero had grabbed 60% of the 4×4 segment in Malaysia (its closest rival was the Toyota Land Cruiser, also assembled locally). Because of this dominant position and for being the top-selling 4×4 in the country for 5 consecutive years, Mitsubishi Motors made Malaysia the first country that the new generation was assembled outside Japan.
Dashboard of the first generation. Blue-faced meter in the cluster of three on the left was an inclinometer which showed how much the vehicle tilted Powerful V6 Pajero Wagon of the second generation was introduced in 1993 and was popular with businessmen
The locally-assembled range was broadened to 5 versions – the ‘bread-and-butter’ Semi-High Roof 2.6-litre petrol and 2.5-litre diesel versions with a 2.6-litre short wheelbase version, a 2.5-litre luxury diesel Wagon, and the 3-litre V6 Wagon. Prices ranged from RM100,339 to RM184,600 although in those days, a large portion of the price paid was actually for the accessories packages. With prices of locally-assembled models scrutinized and controlled by the government, car companies made a lot of their money from accessories.
The flagship Pajero Super Wagon had ‘mouth-watering’ specifications with an EFI V6 petrol engine producing 109 kW/148 ps and 233 Nm of torque as well has an advanced drivetrain known as the ‘Super Select System’. The system permitted changing from rear-wheel drive to 4-wheel drive while the vehicle was still moving (up to 100 km/h), something which was not possible with almost all other 4WDs.
The second generation sold very well and was bought by large fleet operators like government agencies and the armed forces. When the government offered a 50% rebate on roadtax for ‘Green Engines’ – diesel engines which met the Euro-1 exhaust emission standard – USF (the distributor at that time), began offering 2.8-litre intercooled turbodiesel versions as well.
USF didn’t continue with local assembly after the second generation as a number of factors changed the whole 4×4 market in Malaysia, among them the direction taken by Mitsubishi Motors for the third generation. With the ever growing demand for SUVs in the big North American market, even the high-end carmakers like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus were offering such models (by then called SUVs) which were luxurious and had a lot of advanced technology. Seeing this trend, Mitsubishi Motors realized the new Pajero would need to offer more than just toughness. As one of the original leaders in the segment, it had to do something to maintain its position and prevent customers from being distracted by other offerings.
Pajero advertisement in late 1997,
shortly after duties on 4WDs rose significantly,
making their prices very unattractive.
Local assembly ceased after the second generation.
So the third generation, still regarded as the most luxurious of the four generations to date, was equipped with many advanced features and electronic systems. No longer was Mitsubishi’s SUV a ‘simple’ product, technologically speaking. While this was welcome in the more economically advanced markets where buyers could pay more for the new model, it was not the case for Malaysia. Apart from the ex-factory price being higher, there was also the depreciation of the ringgit as a result of the economic crisis in the late 1990s. This made vehicles even more expensive so USF decided it was unwise to invest in assembling the new generation and only imported it in CBU form.
However, another development which virtually ‘killed’ the big SUV market was the 1998 Budget which raised the import duty on SUVs substantially. The new tax raised the price of a CBU Pajero from RM208,000 to RM288,000! This limited sales considerably and in the next few years, as prices of the large SUVs – even the locally-assembled ones – went past RM200,000 (the locally-assembled Land Rover Discovery was the first to pass that level), the 4WD market contracted by almost 70%.
With such a scenario, local assembly of the big SUVs was no longer viable as the demand was too low. UMW Toyota also took the same decision to stop assembling the Land Cruiser after 20 years of doing so. Like the new Pajero at that time, the new generation of the Land Cruiser was also too advanced and too expensive.
The arrival of more passenger car-like pick-ups in the late 1990s, led by the Ford Ranger, also affected sales of the large SUVs as this new generation of pick-ups offered comfort, spaciousness and were just as tough. By then, USF switched its focus to the L200 model which overtook the Ranger when the Storm version with automatic transmission came out.
As for the Pajero, small numbers have been privately imported over the past 10 years, some new and some as ‘reconditioned’ units. The second generation model can still be seen on the roads, often transporting military personnel. But even though it has not been officially sold for a decade, the Pajero name is still strong in many people’s minds, synonymous with toughness and adventure.
2012 Pajero
[Chips Yap]

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