The sand dunes of the Sahara couldn’t be more different than our location today in the mountains above Bologna – but the car developed on those dunes is proving more than adequate as our driving companion. These days, Mitsubishi isn’t a company any enthusiast thinks of purchasing a car from but in the 1990s, they were on top of the world in rough road racing and building production cars to match.
The Pajero Evolution first came on the scene in 1997 as a homologation road car, to help certify Mitsubishi’s entry into the Paris-Dakar rally. Built on a comically short wheelbase, the Pajero Evo was instantly recognizable by its bulging fender flares, dual-nostril hood scoop, and bat ear aero aid in the rear. These modifications were necessary to keep up with the increasing competition coming from other manufacturers and give the Pajero Evolution its unique appearance. Thankfully, if Mitsubishi wanted to take this truck racing, they would need to sell them to us enthusiasts first.
Mitsubishi began competing in rally racing with the compact Colt sedan in the mid-1960s. Initially intended as a round of durability testing before the car was exported to Australia, the Colt almost immediately became successful and started a lineage of Mitsubishi’s competition in rally racing. Flash forward to 1983 and Mitsubishi wanted an even tougher challenge to prove the durability of their Pajero SUV and entered a nearly stock example in the Paris-Dakar rally. Truly the ultimate test of driver and machine, the Paris-Dakar is a multi-week event that covers 10,000 km through mountains, jungles, and desert, where temperatures can routinely exceed 40 degrees. Although they didn’t take home a win their first year, the Pajero began racking up trophies on their second entry in 1985, winning the rally overall for the first time. After this victory, the Pajero went on to win overall 12 times over 26 years, crowning it as the winningest car to enter the event to this day.
Mechanically the car is any off-roader’s dream- with limited slip differentials on both axles and a locking center diff, this car is set up to excel in any terrain. The Pajero Evo comes with fully independent suspension all the way around and features a unique rear multi-link setup, only found on this model. Power is provided by a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 276 horsepower and is sent through a 5-speed automatic transmission. This may not sound like a lot of power for a large truck but it packs plenty of punch coming out of corners. Also, a 5-speed automatic from the 1990s is frequently a true enjoyment killer out on the backroads but the Pajero Evo’s transmission is tuned surprisingly well and feels far more modern than one would expect.
The interior is spartan but has everything you need for your local rally raid with the front seats being provided by Recaro. Although the dashboard is largely standard, which is basic, it features a very cool trio of gauges sitting in their own pod above the HVAC vents and large clear gauges immediately in front of the driver.
Although the Appennini Mountains are almost the opposite of the dunes of the Sahara, the twisting roads and gravel tracks off to the side give a great idea of just what the Pajero Evolution is capable of. These mountains are known for being the same place where Ferrari tests their new models and if it’s good enough for them, there is no doubt we will learn quickly how the Pajero holds up.
The first thing you notice almost immediately when you are underway is how lively the car is- thanks to that short wheelbase, a small flick of the steering wheel provides plenty of directional change and this characteristic encourages you to drive it hard. For a car with a high ride height and massive sidewalls on the tires, you would expect it to heave over in the corners but instead, advanced shock absorbers keep you in line and free of too much side-to-side movement.
Up front the 276 horsepower Mitsubishi V6 is remarkably powerful and has plenty of low-down grunt to get you out of turns- it isn’t a particularly high-revving or exciting engine, but it does its job admirably. One of the things that makes the Pajero Evolution so appealing as a car is its dual nature- although it can attack a backroad or gravel track with ease, it is also quite comfortable and practical in the city. With an automatic gearbox and all that suspension, sitting in traffic or hitting potholes is no big deal- which is far more than can be said for many collector cars.
In total, Mitsubishi only built a little over 2,500 examples of the Pajero Evolution and far fewer made their way to Europe. It’s not often that the public has the opportunity to drive a desert racer on the road- and the fact that the Pajero Evolution is just as capable on the tarmac makes it truly one of a kind.