Chrysler and the Colt, Captive Economical Import Time (Part III)


After Mitsubishi vehicles made their way to Dodge and Plymouth dealerships as the Colt in 1971, Chrysler expanded the fledgling model’s lineup quickly. Nine years after its introduction, the third generation Colt offerings (two different Mitsubishi models) were being discontinued. Accompanying the old Colts on the lot were all-new ones, though old and new alike were sold as ’79 model year cars. It’s Twin Stick time.

First, some model housekeeping: Though Colt’s smaller Lancer-based coupe and sedan were phased out in the 1979 model year, the larger Colt wagon (based on the Galant Sigma) remained on sale. Chrysler required a different car to underpin the smaller Colt in 1979, as times were changing and the Lancer no longer fit the bill.

Mitsubishi’s second-generation Lancer entered production in 1979 and ran through 1987, but was rear-drive and available only in a four-door sedan body style. That was not the new hotness for economy cars in the late Seventies, front-drive was! Luckily, Mitsubishi had a car similar in size to the Lancer that was front-drive: The all-new Mirage!

The Mirage was designed specifically for economy purposes, in response to the 1973 oil crisis. It was Mitsubishi’s first attempt at a front-drive compact, and the smallest model the brand offered next to the kei car Minica (the diminutive Minica was limited primarily to the Japanese domestic market.) The new Mirage-based Colt was smaller than its Lancer-based predecessor: The Colt’s wheelbase shrunk from 92.1 inches to 90.6-inches in the changeover. Exterior dimension changes were even more notable, as the 1979 sedan’s length of 161.6 inches was replaced by a three-door hatch that was 149.2 inches long. The three-door hatch was the only model available at the fourth-gen Colt’s introduction; more on that in a moment.

In the late Seventies, hatchbacks and economy cars became synonymous with one another. Customers quickly saw the appeal of an affordable car that was efficient and could carry a substantial amount of cargo, albeit at the cost of prestige. Dodge and Plymouth split once more on the Colt’s branding, as Plymouth sold the Colt as the Champ.

A more advanced car than its predecessor, the front-drive Colt included engineering successes like a fully independent suspension, disc brakes at the front, and rack and pinion steering. All Colt and Champ models were built at Mitsubishi’s Nagoya plant, though additional production for other markets took place in Australia and New Zealand.

All early fourth-generation Colts and Champs used the same 1.4-liter inline-four engine, the 4G12 from Mitsubishi’s Orion engine family. Smaller than the standard 1.6 of the prior generation, it produced 70 horsepower but rewarded with excellent fuel economy: The EPA granted the Colt with its highest-ever fuel economy rating to date, of 32 mpg city and 44 on the highway.

The impressive fuel economy was down to a transmission developed by Mitsubishi called Super Shift, which Chrysler marketed in North America as Twin Stick. Like some of the best inventions, Super Shift’s creation was one of necessity. Mitsubishi was not prepared to spend money on a new engine made for front-drive applications. As such, the Orion engine chosen was meant for longitudinal rear-drive cars. The Mirage was much smaller than the company’s rear-drive models, so engineers had to turn the engine transversely.

The forced transverse layout caused two problems: First, it meant the carburetor was at the front of the engine and would ice up in inclement weather. The other issue was more technical: Because the transmission had to be mounted under the engine and off to one side, a traditional clutch layout would not work. A typical clutch would’ve required the transmission to rotate in the opposite direction than needed.

Engineering around the problem, Mitsubishi implemented an additional idle transfer shaft. When the shaft was added, engineers realized it could be altered and used as an additional two-speed transmission. With the addition of a secondary shift lever for the driver (the Twin Stick), the setup made for a high and low range on each of the four gears. With “Economy” and “Power” (high and low) ranges, the Mirage’s standard four-speed manual had eight forward gears, effectively.

At introduction, there were three manual transmissions on offer, and one automatic. The aforementioned Twin Stick four-speed was joined by a standard Mitsubishi four-speed, as well as a five-speed manual. Chrysler implemented its three-speed TorqueFlite automatic too, in a nod to American consumer preference. Shortly after introduction, a larger engine joined the Colt hatchback’s lineup: The familiar 1.6-liter 4G32 engine (88 HP), from the prior generation Colt. It was also adapted for front-drive duty by the hard-working engineers at Mitsubishi.

Initially, the Colt and Champ were available as base Deluxe or slightly upmarket Custom trims, but that expanded into an additional unnamed base model in 1981. At the same time, the RS package joined as top of the line. Serving as an additional trim, RS implemented a revised suspension, full gauge package, and a larger fuel tank for that free-wheelin’ cruising lifestyle. 1981 was also the final year of the third-gen Colt wagon. The considerably larger wagon was rear-drive and better equipped than the hatchback Colt but was canceled without a direct replacement.

Dealers inevitably directed former Colt wagon buyers to the all-new five-door Colt in 1982. Unlike economy cars of today, the five-door hatchback used a longer wheelbase than the three-door. At 93.74 inches, its wheelbase was about three inches longer than its sibling. Other markets received a four-door sedan on this longer wheelbase too, but that one was never imported as a Colt.

With its second body style, Chrysler renamed Colt and Champ trims to E and DL to accompany the RS package. The new names arrived with some additional emissions strangulation in the engine bay. Power dropped in the 1.4 and 1.6 engines from 70 and 88 horses to 64 and 72, respectively.

1982 was an important year for Mitsubishi as well. Recall in 1971 the company’s CEO wanted big market share expansion, which he accomplished through strategic alliances to sell Mitsubishi cars in markets where the company had no official presence. Expansion completed and cash received, Mitsubishi set up their own dealers in the United States in 1982. The company did not sell versions of the Colt at the get-go but instead marketed the Cordia and Starion. The brand launched in the US with 70 dealers across 22 states, and a first-year importation allotment of 30,000 cars.

The fourth-generation Colt was feeling its Seventies roots by 1983 and had two model years remaining. The only notable change that year was the removal of the Plymouth Champ name. In anticipation of upcoming consolidation, the Plymouth wore Colt branding from 1983 onward. 1984 brought with it the most performance-oriented Colt there had ever been: The GTS. A new package that replaced RS, GTS brought with it a new turbocharged engine. Mitsubishi attached a turbo to the 1.6 4G32 to create the 4G32T. The engine was present in the Cordia at Mitsubishi lots, so it was a natural addition to create a higher performance Colt.

The turbocharged 1.6 was unique to the North American market, as high-power Mirages in other countries used a turbocharged 1.4. The mill offered a generous 102 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and benefitted from fuel injection. GTS also used the Twin Stick manual. To slow down the speedy hatch, front disc brakes were ventilated on the GTS. It was available as a three-door only and used a larger fuel tank like the discontinued RS. GTS continued the RS tradition of a sportier suspension but added black exterior trim.

In 1985 things got a lot more complicated for the Colt. The model expanded into different body styles, more drive types, and was called an Eagle in the Canadian market. Around that time, Mitsubishi was through holding back models from its dealers and started to sell an identical Mirage at its own lots. More in Part IV.

[Images: Chrysler]

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