The Big Ask – A Second Try

This is the third of five items today which look more closely at a rather special car, the …. um, whatsitsname. 

It's no goog, I still can't see it - image ; migatuning.com
It’s no good, I still can’t see it – image : migatuning.com

Imagine yourself stranded on that hypothetical desert island. With nothing else, you start playing intellectual games. Game 56 is carving in the bark of a large tree the name of every car that you can remember. Will you ever, even if you live for 1,000 years, come to the Mitsubishi Carisma?

The Japanese have a fine tradition of irreverent wordplay with the English language. Sometimes, on the Anglo side, this causes the sort of patronising “gosh, can’t these foreigners get it right?” reaction at names like ‘Bongo Wagon’ and ‘Starion’. But this underestimates the obvious fact that the Japanese industry is very thorough. Certain English words get chosen, not because of their meaning but their sound, hence some surreal combinations. Based on this, I’d suggest that the rather lacklustre and oxymoronic Mitsubishi Carisma name possibly originated in Europe rather than Japan, since it lacks the mischievous playing with language such as ‘Pajero’ and, although you could buy it in Japan if you insisted, the car was built in the Netherlands and aimed at the European market. It actually sounds like it should belong to another Japanese company, but I think that even the Toyota Carisma would have been more characterful.

The Carisma is the distilled essence of forgetability. It was competently styled to pass for several other adequate cars of the time. It went. It stopped. It was decently equipped. it didn’t break down that much. It wasn’t expensive to insure. There is no mad, Japanese market, quad turbo Carisma to give it a minor cult following – the 140 bhp version available only for the first two years of its life was as hot as it got. But there is nothing bad about the Carisma. In short, if you were wanting a good value, reliable anonymous car (and there’s a lot to be said for them) you could do a lot worse. You might also do a lot better with a Mondeo.

Under the skin, it was also, more-or-less, a Volvo S40. Did people buy the Carisma thinking that they were getting a cut-price Volvo? Or did they avoid the Volvo thinking it was just a dressed up Carisma. Probably a bit of both though, as with so many shared platform cars, the majority might never have made the connection. Obviously the joint development of a manufacturing facility with Volvo, at the old Daf factory, was an incentive for Mitsubishi, though they eventually bought out Volvo’s share and finally, four years ago, after large operating losses, they stopped building cars there entirely and sold the factory to VDL Groep who now build Minis there.

Produced for 9 years from 1995, sales figures, in this century at least, were unimpressive. The Carisma was a victim of its invisibility, and changing taste in types of cars. We discussed recently the irritation at manufacturers who no longer offer a full range of vehicles, concentrating instead on just the niches in which they have success. Mitsubishi’s UK range now consists of a small hatchback, a crossover, a pickup, a 4WD and an SUV, this last being available as a plug-in hybrid and being generally responsible for the firm being the UK’s fastest growing brand for the past three years.  So, you can’t blame them for not offering a saloon.  Since the Outlander PHEV is actually something that other manufacturers didn’t have the wit to do, even if it seems the sort of vehicle that would inevitably do well, it can only be my antipathy to SUVs that means that, to my eyes, none of these is that much more charismatic than a Carisma, though if the Ground Tourer makes it to production next year much as is, it won’t go un-noticed, though I’m not convinced that is a positive observation.

When we had a secondhand white Mark 2 Astra estate at work I liked it for various reasons. One was that it was stealth car that no-one really noticed. Race past a policeman and unless they caught your number plate, you were just another straw in the haystack. But that was because there were lots of Astras like it back then. What is unremarkably remarkable about the Carisma is that, even if they had only ever made one, it would still have been invisible. Now, what was I writing about?

9 thoughts on “The Big Ask – A Second Try”

  1. While the Carisma was on sale Mitsubishi had a good chance to revise the car and didn´t bother. It might have been better to give up after five years and at least free space for another more desirable car. But instead they left it there, in the face of a mass of criticism, and did nothing. The Carisma represents one of the larger examples of Mitsubishi´s quite poor management. Having looked at a lot of reviews, the car was a few small changes away from being dependable and good to drive. Opel do this to some extent: imagine that people only buy cars on rational grounds. A bit of icing on the cake can´t hurt and doesn´t cost much. If Mitsibishi “saved” seventy five million by dodging steering and suspension mods, they lost a flip of a lot more by doing nothing. Subaru shows that you can steadily sell a mediocre-looking car if it´s good to drive. Fiat show you can sell a mediocre car it it´s nice to look at.

    1. Fred. The meaning of Pajero is well known to us in Carry On Britain, where the knowledge would make us fall into fits of giggles, so much so that we’d crash into the back of the Pajero we were following. Hence its renaming here as the chunky sounding Shogun. Though Shogun obviously didn’t sound well across the Atlantic where you got Montero.

      But, just as I can believe that Starion was a self-aware Pony Car reference at the difficulty that born Japanese speakers have in pronouncing ‘R’ in English, so I like to believe that Mitsubishi were perfectly aware of the ‘vulgar usage’ of Pajero.

  2. Do you think that Mitsubishi really wanted the name Pajero if they knew its connotations? Similarly, someone was being a bit mean when proposing Stallion/Starion. I really didn´t want to deal with the naming of the Carisma but I will: that was a massive mistake in the highly and tiringly ironic British market. Had it been the Mitsubishi G2000 that would have dodged the flak the car took in the last twenty years.

    1. It is a good point that the British are far more ready to be snide about things than other nations. When viewed as irreverence it is quite an admirable trait. However, more often it isn’t (eg Top Gear’s ‘wildly amusing’ capers in the Argentine). As such, what probably seemed to be an innocent little pun was jumped on here. Another trait we have is to think that we are the only ones in town who possess a ‘sense of humour’. Hence the Brit thing that, no matter how many darkly ironic US TV shows we watch that ‘Yanks don’t do irony’.

      As such, many Japanese people are well aware that a lifetime pronouncing their own language causes difficulties adjusting mouth movements to different sounds. They know it sounds different, but they probably find the level of amusement it causes some native English speakers a bit bemusing, particularly when they speculate how well they’d fare the other way round. So why not spell Starion in a sort of phonetic way – it’s quite self-aware. I heard an explanation long ago from a Japanese person that English words would often be combined and used on items in shops in a seemingly nonsensical way, but this was not through ignorance, but because they formed a pleasantly interesting sound to Japanese ears.

      And whereas I’m sure Mitsubishi’s senior management wouldn’t have chosen ‘Pajero’ had they known its secondary meaning (“surely the Mitsubishi Masturbator is better, sounds much more alliterative”), I can’t believe that no-one knew and now everyone knows, but still they use it ‘in selected markets’. So why is that? I suspect subversion.

    2. At least some parts of the Mitsubishi empire had clueless management. Other, not so much. One of my father’s friends, quite a bright and thoughtful person, retired from Mitsubishi Electric as a vice president. His wife, another bright and thoughtful person and a koto virtuoso to boot, and my mother were close. The last time my mother visited Suzuki-san picked her up at Narita and on the way out to his car apologized to her for driving a Mitsubishi. A second-rate car, he said, but he had no choice.

  3. What at an odd company. With billions at stake they never managed to hire decent managers to halt the car business’s decline. That someone with connections to the firm called the car second rate is an eye-opener.

  4. Perhaps the fact that Mitsubishi Motors were found guilty in both 2001 and 2011 for various crimes by the Japanese government in court themselves was indicative of the corporate DNA that developed the Carisma ten years earlier. Their latest act of infamy since 2011 engendering huge fines has been in overstating fuel economy to such an extent that Nissan and Mr Ghosn, themselves purveyors of nothing cars in the main, were able to sweep in and take over as the stock price hovered near zero.

    I used to drive an Eagle Talon TSi AWD, 1990 model with DOHC 16 valve 2.0 litre turbo. The predecessor of various Evos but a two door coupe. Following four Audis, it was a surprise to discover reliability and the 195 bhp made the secondhand 1986 160 hp UR quattro I had considered for the same price seem very slow. Ditto the brand new 1990 Nissan 300ZX V6 equipped with 222 underfed donkeys. These Mitsubishi cars were made in a brand new plant in Normal, Illinois for Chrysler distribution in North America.

    After this was when the rot set in at Mitsubishi, one presumes. Still, after having read the first two articles on the Carisma here on DTW, a vehicle never inflicted on us across the pond, one wonders at the sense of humour that picked this underachiever for its time in the spotlight!

    One could also expend the words to describe the Hillman Avenger, Chrysler’s first attempt to sell a British tinbox on the US market as the Cricket. 18 months of absolute rubbish later, Chrysler began importing Mitsubishis to replace the Hillman. They were dogs to drive, mid 1970s, the sense of straight ahead entirely missing as they wandered the changing surfaces of actual roads, so one has to wonder just how awful the Avenger was or did it just mechanically fail early as per usual British car practice of the time? Luckily I have never driven one so can offer nothing but guesses.

    Mitsubishi, king of the second tier car makers, closely followed by Suzuki. Generally to be avoided at all costs.

    1. “one wonders at the sense of humour that picked this underachiever for its time in the spotlight!” Bill, I thank you. We agonised long and hard over our first choice for a special spotlight. There were so many cars to choose from. I am glad we brought a little rising sunshine into your day.
      I have to say that Suzuki is a lot more worthy than Mitsubishi. They don´t have a complete range of car, yes, but the Swift has always been a good little car and in the last two iterations very nice looking to boot. Further there is a 4wd version. And that brings me to the Baleno which might earn sneers from some, actually is a tough and sensible vehicle. The Vitara has been a steady seller too alongside the Jimny which is a robust and useful small tank. No, you can kick Mitsubishi if you like but I would gently suggest Suzuki deserves reconsideration.

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