Mitsubishi's Mini Me: The Mid-'90s Pajero Mini is the Adventure Ready Compact Crossover You Crave
Climbing into a Pajero Mini as a 6’5” 225lb individual is quite a sight to behold. Seeing pictures online of the diminutive off-roader online doesn’t quite convey the scale properly. The Mitsubishi kei-car is smaller than a CJ Jeep, smaller than a Suzuki Samurai, and most likely smaller than a performance side-by-side UTV. Available in the first generation '94-'98 with either two-wheel or AWD, the Pajero Mini was a compact crossover when “compact” actually described the vehicle.
Made in Japan, for Japan.
To put the Pajero Mini in context, one needs to consider the automotive landscape of '80s and '90s Japan. The same environment that gave birth to the golden era performance cars that enthusiasts have held so closely to their hearts over the years also allowed for a host of wild, creative, and interesting automotive experiments that otherwise would have been nixed in the accounting department. This explosion of creativity was none more apparent than in the kei car space. Limited to varying size and power regulations throughout the years, the Pajero Mini was created during the 660cc era, limiting the vehicles to about 63hp, and 10.8ft x 4.6ft x 6.6ft of space.
With many years of success in the off-road space with their popular Pajero model (Montero in the states), Mitsubishi seized on the chance to create a cuter, chibi-style version of their classic off-roader. Sharing the boxy-dimensions and round-headlight face of the first generation, the Mini offered some cool off-road equipment to make up for its lack of the true BOF 4WD capabilities of its bigger brother.
The Pajero Mini could be optioned with a dash-mounted digital inclinometer, a compass, and interior/exterior temperature gauges, and AWD models featured seven inches of ground clearance and a two-speed transfer case. Coming in at around 1800lbs, this little kei off-roader would be a blast on the right trails.
Take It Slow
Power-wise, the Pajero Mini was available in two configurations. This particular example, loaned to us by Georgia JDM dealer Ocmulgee Autosport, is equipped with the 52hp non-turbo 659cc I4, while the turbo'd motor made do with 12 more horsepower. As one could imagine, the Pajero Mini is in absolutely no hurry to get anywhere.
Produced from 1994 to 1998, the first generation Pajero Mini’s are available for import into the American market under the 25 year rule. The question, of course, is why? Primarily, the Pajero Mini is probably best enjoyed as an automotive oddity, turning heads and sparking conversations at Cars and Coffee style events.
As an off-roader, the Pajero Mini is mostly competing for enthusiast dollars with Suzuki Samurais, CJ Jeeps, and specialty side-by-sides like the Mahindra Roxor. Although it may be outclassed by those options on the trails, the Pajero Mini is likely to be the cheapest, with low mileage options available for under $10k. The Mitsubishi also has lightness and size on its side, and when compared with a side-by-side, can actually be driven on-road.
Interestingly, the Pajero Mini outlasted the '90s JDM wacky car boom, and remained in production until 2012 in its second generation. Nissan even sold a rebadged version called the Nissan Kix (not to be confused with the current Nissan Kicks). As more and more compact crossovers begin showing up with “adventure-ready” appointments like the Jeep Renegade, Subaru Crosstrek, and Chevrolet Trailblazer, it's hard not to look at little cars like the Pajero Mini as spiritual relatives, tiny as they may be.
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