The Big Ask

This item begins a special one-day series devoted to the Mitsubishi Carisma. During the series we will look at the car from a variety of angles. First, the overview…

1995 Mitsubishi Carisma: source
1995 Mitsubishi Carisma: source

The story of the 1995 Mitsubishi Carisma serves as a sterling example of why timing, as much as the product, influences a car’s chances at the showrooms. A lot of the criticism fired at the Carisma takes aim at the car’s lack of visual drama. While it is true the Carisma didn’t break new ground so much as smooth it over, to think that the car’s carefully conservative appearance is the reason for the lacklustre performance is to miss the sharper point. Read on to find out several rather surprising things about this cherishably overlooked car…

As a package, the Carisma is wholly uncontroversial. It weighed just over 1100 kg, had a range of four engines and a front wheel drive arrangement. It came as a saloon or hatchback. You need to walk 4.4 metres from its nose to its tail, to stretch 1.6 metres from one side to the other and to be taller than 1.4 metres to see over its domed roof. This car is the one Mitsubishi asked to take on the best of the C-class and the cheapest of the C-D class. While it might have appeared to be one of those half-size cars, straddling the C and C-D sectors, in fact it was not the smallest nor biggest (although among the taller saloons of the time) of the C-D class. The 1993 Mondeo had more millimetres from side to side, the 1982 Sierra had more metal from front to back. Of its peers, the Honda Accord boasted the greatest length.

Bad timing: launches of C-D class cars in the 90s
Bad timing: launches of C-D class cars in the 90s

You’ll notice that for those comparisons I used a mixture of cars, ones launched and on sale when Mitsubishi finalised the Carisma specification (circa 1990-1991) and ones on sale when the car eventually appeared on the market. The Carisma is closer in size to the cars on sale in the three years before its launch than to the ones launched around the same time: Opel Vectra B, Renault 21, VW Passat B3, Peugeot 406 and Toyota Carina E. Has there been such a roll-call of exceptionally competent and closely matched cars?

Of the older cars, the biggest outlier is the Ford Sierra whose length advantage did not translate into roominess due to its outmoded RWD package. You’ll also notice how implausible the Carisma’s position appeared when the Vectra and Mondeo updates appeared after the year 2000.

1993 Renault Laguna, or part thereof
1994 Renault Laguna, or part thereof

If we take a look at the cars that the Carisma accompanied onto the market in 1995 we find that it had to compete not only with the benchmarks of, say, 1990/1991 but with the Rover 600 series of 1991, the Toyota Carina of 1992, the Accord and Xantia of 1993 and then, critically, Ford’s startlingly different Mondeo and Renault’s shapely Laguna of 1994. These cars both showed the new wave of vehicles carefully positioned in the new order of rigid car-class dimensions, prices and capabilities. For the year of launch, the Carisma also had to do battle with the highly capable 406, blessed with its much-lauded styling, ride and comfort. In 1995 Opel released the almost scientifically rational Vectra – and whatever Clarkson might have thought, this car met the needs and pockets of a large part of the fleet market. Nissan launched their visibly daring Primera in the same year too.

1993 Citroen Xantia: "a special, spicy, Gallic flavour" and "first rate build quality" said Car. Try finding one.
1993 Citroen Xantia: mobile.de

The field the Carisma entered thronged with highly capable and affordable vehicles, often with broader engine ranges and more body-styles than the Carisma which never came as a coupe or estate. Toyota’s Carina, comparable for its blandness, had 6 or 7 powerplants. The Xantia had 8. Opel sold the Vectra with 6.

(One other car appeared in 1995 alongside the Carisma: the Volvo S40, produced at the same plant as the Mitsubishi. Dimensionally similar, it offered a USP the Carisma didn’t have: obvious safety, though it also had 200 extra kilos stuffed somewhere in its very sober, nearly-Volvo bodywork. An estate option could be ordered too. Volvo revised the car thoroughly as well, around the year 2000. It cost a lot more though, by half. As the most expensive car considered here, you could say the Carisma would steal sales from its costlier stablemate. That didn’t happen.)

What we see here is that the Carisma landed in the heart of an intensely fought battle for the custom of C-D class customers (size) and Golf/Astra customers (price). It didn´t offer anything distinct to tempt people away from the competition, all of which had a better reason to justify a purchase. Opel and Ford had large dealer networks, if nothing else. Toyota had its reputation for reliability. Renault and Peugeot offered two variations on French style  The former came as a hatch and estate and the latter as a saloon, and estate. Citroen proffered French style (of sorts) alongside well-received ride and handling.

Looking at pricing, the Carisma is halfway between the cheapest and most expensive Golf/Escort class of car. But at the same time, it’s within £605 of the dimensionally similar Nissan Primera. The cheapest Laguna is £950 more. After that the new prices for the C-D class clearly get further and further away from the base Carisma’s. The point to remember here is that the new Carisma could not only be compared to new car prices but the price of used cars as well. And within one year of sale, a lot of very good cars suddenly become cheaper than a gleaming, untouched Carisma: in 1995 a nearly new Xantia or Mondeo could be had for the same or less money as the box-fresh Carisma.

In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I have made graphs showing the Carisma’s price in relation to 1) all similarly sized or similarly priced cars, 2) all the Golf/Astra cars and 3) all the Mondeo/Laguna/Vectra class. I have not included anything from BMW, Audi and Mercedes or Alfa Romeo.

First here are the all the cars, ranked by price. The theory is customers could have considered on size or price or both. If you afford a Rover 600 you might consider a Carisma, which cost less and did the same kind of thing, for example.

All the mid-size, mid-price cars of 1997.
All the mid-size, mid-price cars of 1997.

In the graph of all peers, the Carisma is on the lowest quarter of the price range. We find the Citroen ZX is dirt cheap and note the Chrysler Neon in there, costing just a bit more than the Carisma, for no reason. There were not many takers for that one, another cheap, biggish car.

Golf-Astra class cars prices for 1997
Golf-Astra class cars prices for 1997. The 306 is pricy, isn´t it?

The Golf/Astra class chart is not so revealing. The Escort was very cheap compared to the four door Astra (apologies: I’ve put in the price of the 3 door; the four door cost £12,280, more than the Carisma). Why are the Golf-sized cars here? Because notionally, at least anyone looking at the C-D class might have been considering something slightly smaller at a lower cost. Someone looking at a base model Mondeo or Vectra might also think “Well, I can get most of what I want for a grand less…” Thus the Carisma buyer is tempted at all stages by slightly smaller cars for nearly the same or less money from more substantial brands. Even if my slippery-slope buyer doesn’t really exist, I reckon the pricing of the full range puts the car into proper context.

1997 Mondeo/Vectra class prices.
1997 Mondeo/Vectra class prices.

If we go to the chart of Mondeo-class cars we see the Carisma as the cheapest car there, and the S40 at the very top, at the other end of the scale. With it are the Honda Accord and Rover 600, battling to be taken seriously as BMW-beaters.

So, in the Carisma we see a car with a muddled and muddling size-pricing strategy. I think that making a car that is priced to draw comparisons with the Golf-Escort class on the one side and sized to mix with the Mondeo-Vectra class on the other simply confuses people. Instead of being considered roomier than an Escort, the car is considered of lower quality than the Mondeo (Mitsubishi had to save money somewhere and it showed).

The market kept moving after 1995, beating the Carisma as ever more impressive peers rolled along. And the hammer blows never stopped landing. In 1996 the Passat received a striking redesign; in 1997 Toyota’s Carina 2 arrived and Mazda’s 626 turned up in 1997, again in three body-styles along with some challenging styling. Perhaps most ominously, Skoda launched the Octavia, a car apparently designed to appeal to the customer base of Volvo’s 400-series and indeed anyone who was price conscious and uninterested in what is fatuously called “image”. Sales of the Skoda in the UK began in 1998 and it cost £11,499 versus £12,420 for the Mitsu.

1998 Skoda Octavia
1998 Skoda Octavia: Rudolf Stricker

Remarkably, the Carisma carried on as part of Mitsubishi’s ever-withering product range for nine years, meaning that in 2004 it still offered a milquetoast, equivocal riposte to the cars conceived in the late 80s. In the year before it ceased production it faced the wholly new Mondeo, Vectra, Laguna and Passat to say nothing of the other cars renewed between 1995 and 2003. Somehow, they sold 300,000 Carismas globally.

Mitsubishi did’´t replace it and the car the Carisma supposedly supplanted, the Lancer, continued its presence in their catalogues. The Carisma landed at a time we can call peak saloon. Since 1995 sales of mid-size saloons have declined outside what was once known as the prestige class. In a declining market, not a lot of space existed for a nothing-special car. Perhaps it could have survived in a time of expansion. But as the least able of two classes of very able cars, its failure signalled that customers were not going to put their money down except for what they considered the best, and this meant Astras, Golfs, Mondeos, Vectras and Passats. None of these cars is especially fascinating or rich in character. Critically, they had just enough of an identity, broad ranges of engines plus large dealer networks to keep customers ponying up. At the same time customers also rejected cars more individual than the Carisma as they took their money to the middle of the sector. If there was only a bit of room for 407s, Accords and C5’s in 2004, there was nearly no room at all for vehicles such as the Mitsubishi Carisma.

We can see in the Carisma a more recent example of the Tagora phenomenon: coming late to a declining market. (Counterpoint: Skoda did very nicely with the Octavia – was it any more thrilling than the Carisma?). Another curiosity to consider is that Mitsubishi did not sell the Carisma in the US (nor did Volvo sell the S40 there either). Volvo did sell the S40 in Australia and the Far East and racked up more than a million sales on the way, at a price point 50% higher too. So, the Carisma not only benchmarked the cars of 1990. They managed for it not to be a world car too. Adding all these things up, it is glaringly apparent that bland looks weren’t the real reason for its poor performance but that, in conceiving the car, Mitsubishi looked backwards rather than forwards.

And finally, one detail is telling: in 1998 Skoda had two models and Mitsubishi had seven.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

12 thoughts on “The Big Ask”

  1. Great analysis, Richard.
    If I recall it correctly, the Carisma received one USP: the first mass market direct injection petrol engine, arriving in 1997 (?). Would things have looked differently, if that engine would have been available with the launch?

    1. Hi:
      Thanks – that engine provided a lot of power or good economy according to the RAC. I’d call it a necessary feature but not enough. I read all the available reviews last night (and not until I’d finished the article). They usually referred to that engine, low running costs, spaciousness and impressive reliability as the Carisma’s selling points. It seems like it’s a good car for people concerned with dependability and costs – very good in those regards. We may never know why Mitsubishi didn’t revise the suspension and restyle the car more convincingly. I’d guess suspension changes could have been made for quite modest sums and not affected the car’s good aspects. Those changes are all well-known too so it’s not like the problem is mysterious.

  2. Well that’s a first, seeing the Vectra described as almost scientifically rational; launched after the timelessly elegant and relatively characterful Citroen Xantia, in my humble opinion, the joint best looking medium sized, mass produced car ever (it ties with the Alfa 156), albeit not as engaging to drive as the BX before it.

    1. The Vectra’s not a car I’d want to own but Opel made a product that met the practical needs of a lot of customers. In that sense it was well-researched, affordable and cheap to run. Clarkson’s critique was hopelessly ill-judged. I also think the styling was very neat and professional. Sexy? No, but the car is not aimed at the emotional purchaser. They sold loads too. By most reasonable standards it was a very able entry in a ruthless market.
      The 2000 Mondeo is my candidate for the best-looking midsizer in the C-D sector at that time.

  3. The Carisma deserves a whole month’s theme to itself. I’m not a great fan of hermeneutics, but I’m partial to the odd exegesis.

    Nobody seems to have mentioned the third frame in the triptych, the Proton Waja, or Impian, which repeated the Carisma’s errors on a smaller stage. I suspect there was a bit more S40 than Carisma in that car, which may have driven Proton’s hubristic market ambitions, trying to place it as a far eastern Audi A4.

    On which matter, has the Carisma sedan been mentioned? A baggy, amorphous thing – a Proton in the making, except such a thing never happened. Many people deny its very existence, but about three years ago I encountered one in a foreign city – Edinburgh possibly – my recall is blunted by the horror of the experience.

    Euro-Japanese ‘twins’ did seem to be a feature of the 1990s . Frontera, Taro, Mistral/Terrano/Maverick, and of course the Honda Rovers of varying virtue. I’ve never had first-hand experience of the Carisma, but I imagine it was no Primera P10 – a brilliant car in everything which really matters. I’d like to think the Carisma was nowhere nearly as bad as its mid-’90s competitor the Rover 400 (HHR), an example of which I endured for two and a half years and 80,000 miles. An inexcusably poor car, though utterly reliable.

    1. A whole month of Carisma is just what Eoin and Sean felt would be sufficient but I talked them out of it at the last minute. We still have about eighteen Carismarticles left in reserve.
      We did mention that the Carisma came as a saloon and hatchback – Big Ask, Pt 1 if memory serves….

    2. Robertas,

      Thanks for mentioning. Proton used this S40/Carisma platform as a cookie cutter and made a decade’s worth of cars from it – two cheaper variants of the Impian (one sedan and one hatch), another two door hatch, and a stretched Impian with an ageing Mitsubishi V6 upfront. The entire rear & front suspension and associated mechanicals were exactly the same across these cars (except for ride heights, spring rates and damping). In terms of units sold based on this platform, cumulatively over the years I doubt Proton sold more than Volvo or Mitsubishi.

  4. Lim – that stretched Waja would be the Chancellor. As mad an idea as the KV6 engined Rover 400/45, but not as half-hearted. The Waja / Impian looks more S40 than Carisma, which may be coincidental, given that the Volvo continued for four years after the Proton was first produced.

    1. Richard, thanks for writing about the Carisma! 🙂

      Robertas, you are correct about the Chancellor. The S40/Impian may make look the same, but the monocoque is different. Word is that the EDAG-developed Impian monocoque has greater torsional rigidity than that of the S40.

      Would be interested to know if anyone knew why the S40 suspension was upgraded mid-life. Perhaps there were some collaboration work when Proton/Lotus had their fingers in the pie!

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