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

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
We’re committed to finding, researching, and recommending the best products. We earn commissions from purchases you make using links in our articles. Learn more here
abandoned history 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]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Writing things for TTAC since late 2016 from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can find me on Twitter @CoreyLewis86, and I also contribute at Forbes Wheels.

More by Corey Lewis

Join the conversation
5 of 30 comments
  • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Feb 15, 2022

    How were these viewed by the buyers of the period?

    • See 2 previous
    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Feb 15, 2022

      @Russycle Thanks both of you. I think I would like the truck, and the Challenger seems intriguing.

  • Edsel Maserati Edsel Maserati on Feb 17, 2022

    My first new car was a 1983 Dodge Colt. Kind of a creamy beige. But, coming after years of old smokers, I loved that zippy thing. It was marked down to $4,995 and I swooped over to the dealer to grab it. My girlfriend liked it so much she bought one in blue. The gas mileage was great and when later equipped with better tires it was fun to drive in the twisties. The Colt that really gave me a buzz was the Turbo model. The dealer let me take it out and I could see immediately that I'd lose my license fast in one of those. It was raucous and quick and snarly. I don't remember the power it produced, but it was so damned light that it didn't take much to give it a big boost.

  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.
  • FreedMike Many F150s I encounter are autonomously driven...and by that I mean they're driving themselves because the dips**ts at the wheel are paying attention to everything else but the road.
  • Tassos A "small car", TIM????????????This is the GLE. Have you even ever SEEN the huge thing at a dealer's??? NOT even the GLC,and Merc has TWO classes even SMALLER than the C (The A and the B, you guessed it? You must be a GENIUS!).THe E is a "MIDSIZED" crossover, NOT A SMALL ONE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION, oh CLUELESS one.I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THE NONSENSE you post here every god damned day.And I BET you will never even CORRECT your NONSENSE, much less APOLOGIZE for your cluelessness and unprofessionalism.