A new star over Japan.
Founded by Yataro Iwasaki in 1870, what was then named Mitsubishi Shokai would eventually grow into one of the largest and most diverse companies in Asia. Shipbuilding was the company’s initial field of business but, as time went by, diversification took place into activities such as mining of coal and precious metals, insurance, banking, aircraft production, real estate and, of course, automobiles.
The name Mitsubishi is made up of two words: ‘Mitsu’ meaning three in Japanese, and ‘Hishi’ which is a species of water chestnut. When these two words are combined, the ‘h’ of hishi is pronounced in Japanese as a ‘b’, hence Mitsubishi. The logo of the company was chosen by Yataro Iwasaki himself and combined the triple crest of the coat of arms belonging to the Tosa clan, Iwasaki’s ruler and employer before the Meiji restoration(1), and the Iwasaki family sign, which was three stacked diamond shapes.
Having entered the car manufacturing realm in 1917 with the model A, heavily influenced by the FIAT Tipo 3, by the end of the 1970s Mitsubishi Motors was a well established car manufacturer with a strong motorsports record, especially in rallying. The company was also the first in Japan to employ turbocharging in road cars and produced its own turbochargers. Unsurprisingly, to ensure its first serious entry into the high(ish) performance sports coupé field delivered the kind of performance expected of such a car, Mitsubishi fitted a turbocharged engine to it.
The Starion, introduced in 1982, was thus powered by the turbocharged 2-litre SOHC four-cylinder ‘4G63’ engine that had already entered service a few years before in the limited edition Lancer EX2000 Turbo. Because early Japanese TV commercials for the car prominently featured a horse accompanying Mitsubishi’s new coupé, a misconception ensued that the Japanese marketing staff had failed to pronounce the word ‘stallion’ correctly, so the car ended up called the Starion as a consequence.
The reality, however, was quite different: Starion is derived from Arion, Hercules’ horse in Greek mythology after which a star was also named. The name Starion is thus a contraction of ‘star of Arion’. The fact that other Mitsubishis such as the Colt and Eclipse also used the genus equus as an inspiration gives further credence to the mythological explanation.
The main competitors of the new Starion were the soon to be replaced Datsun/Nissan 280ZX, Mazda’s lithe RX-7, the recently unveiled Toyota Celica Supra and, from Europe, the equally new Porsche 944 and the well established Alfa Romeo GTV. Within this group there was a pleasing variety of engine choices available: four cylinders (naturally aspirated or turbocharged), six cylinders (inline or V configuration) and a rotary for those who preferred a left-field alternative. Initially, however, only the Mitsubishi and Datsun (optionally) had a turbocharged powerplant, although Mazda and Porsche would follow suit a few years later.
The Starion’s external appearance was said to be in some ways influenced by the Porsche 924, although it was a more angular eighties rendition typical of Japanese cars of the era. Its underpinnings were well proven MacPherson struts in front and independent rear suspension with anti-roll bars, ventilated disc brakes on all four wheels (with anti-lock brakes acting on the rear wheels only in the case of the EX top model) and, later on, a limited slip differential. Not counting pick-up trucks, the Starion would be the last RWD car produced by Mitsubishi.
The turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder engine with its twin balance shafts, a single overhead camshaft and electronic fuel injection gained praise for its smooth running, but excessive turbo lag would invariably be mentioned in road test reports as a negative aspect of the Starion, despite its good performance figures: 0 to 62mph (100km/h) in 7.6 seconds and a maximum speed of 137mph (220km/h).
Other gripes mentioned were poor pedal placement and lack of steering feel, while on the other side of the ledger the brakes, handling, seating comfort(2) and general practicality received good marks.
Despite offering – for the time – exciting performance and achieving a respectable record in motorsports in SCCA racing and rallying, only just shy of 50,000 Starions(3) would leave Mitsubishi’s Nagoya plant in Okazaki between 1982 and 1989. Apart from the Alfa Romeo GTV, its competitors outsold it by some margin: more than 63,000 Datsun 280ZX’s found owners in 1982 alone, and almost the same number of Toyota Supras were shifted in that same single year. For the Mazda RX-7, no breakdown per year could be found, but 474,565 sold between 1978 and 1985 paint a clear picture, as do the 173,238 substantially more expensive Porsche 944s produced between 1982 and 1991.
The Starion would receive several upgrades over its life, such as the addition of an intercooler and, in some markets, a larger 2.6-litre engine as well as – again in selected markets – a wide body variant with correspondingly wider front and rear track, but all this made little impact on sales. Consequently, encountering a Starion in the wild these days is a rare occurence, although its rarity has not resulted in especially high values. This also rings true for the publicity material such as the 1983 and 1985 brochures seen here showcasing the original Starion and the mildly facelifted one respectively.
The last photo is from the Chrysler Conquest TSi brochure, showing the later wide body car , known amongst Starion enthusiasts as the ‘fattie’ as opposed to the regular ‘flattie’. None of these brochures is very hard to find these days, nor will they command elevated prices.
(1) The 1868 event that led to radical changes in Japan’s political, military and social structure and restored practical imperial rule to Japan under Emperor Meiji.
(2) The Starion’s seats were doubtless influenced by those of Renault as first seen in the facelifted 15 and 17 coupés, hence the small comparison inset in one of the accompanying photos of this article.
(3) This includes the American ‘Conquest’ variants were badged as either a Plymouth, Dodge or Chrysler.