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When Mitsubishi-built cars first appeared in the U.S., they wore badges from other companies. More than a decade passed before the first subcompacts arrived under their own name. Adding sporty models in the 1990s, led by the Eclipse coupe and the upscale 3000GT, gave the Japanese automaker a stronger position in the U.S. market. Even so, achieving consistently high sales has often been a struggle.
Starting in 1970, those Mitsubishi-built minicars came to the U.S. displaying Dodge and Plymouth nameplates. Early on, Mitsubishi had established a close connection with the Chrysler Corporation. But Mitsubishi's heritage reaches back a lot further. In fact, Mitsubishi built the first series-production car in Japan: the 1917 Model A. Corporate history actually dates back to 1870.
Along the way, the company turned to planes and trucks, along with shipbuilding. Motor scooters and three-wheelers were produced during the 1950s. Mitsubishi also built Henry J and Jeep vehicles for Japanese consumption, under license from Kaiser in America.
Not until 1960 did Mitsubishi turn out its first modern passenger car: the 500, with a two-cylinder rear engine. Two years later, the 500 evolved into the Colt 600. The Colt name would continue when Mitsubishi entered the U.S. market later on.
In 1963, Mitsubishi issued a Colt 1000 and a new Debonair series, soon followed by a fastback Colt 800. Then, in 1969, a Colt Galant was introduced-another model name that would later go to America.
Although Mitsubishi manufactured plenty of Dodge/Plymouth subcompacts in the 1970s, not every customer knew their source. Finally, for 1983, Mitsubishi began to issue vehicles under its own name. Mechanically related to Colts, Challengers, and Sapporos, they were called Cordia, Tredia, and Starion. Starion coupes got a turbocharged 2.6-liter engine, and by 1984, turbos also were available in the Cordia and Tredia.
None of those models enjoyed stellar sales, but 1985 saw the debut of a new Mirage and a larger Galant sedan. Then, as an early 1990 model, Mitsubishi introduced the Eclipse coupe, manufactured at a new Diamond-Star plant in Normal, Illinois. Eclipse was a joint venture with Chrysler, which had owned a substantial share of Mitsubishi for years. Available with front- or all-wheel drive, the Eclipse sport coupe created quite a stir at first, though not as much as Mazda's Miata roadster, which appeared around the same time. Soon, Eclipses were offered with turbocharged engines, and a convertible also went on sale.
Mitsubishi had something hotter yet for 1991: the Japanese-built 3000GT sports car, related to the Dodge Stealth. Ranking as a near-supercar, the 3000GT could be fitted with a 300-horsepower twin-turbo engine in the VR4 edition. Spyder convertibles were offered briefly, but failed to capture lasting interest.
In addition to the Eclipse, Mirage, Galant sedan and 3000GT, Mitsubishi's product line during the 1990s included the upscale Diamante sedan, little Expo and Expo LRV wagons, and the micro-size Precis. Mitsubishi's first SUV, the Montero, arrived for 1992, followed in 1997 by a smaller, midsize Montero Sport.
A 21st-century compact sedan debuted for 2002. Lancers first came in family-values form, but super-hot Evolution models arrived later, many with an innovative dual-clutch transmission. Enthusiasts were well aware of prior Japanese-market Evos' prowess on worldwide racetracks.
Outlander, Mitsubishi's compact crossover SUV, emerged for 2003, joined later by an Outlander Sport. A couple of shorter-lived models turned up, too, including the Raider pickup truck and the Galant-based Endeavor crossover SUV.
As the 2000s progressed, analysts expressed concern about Mitsubishi's survival, due to sluggish sales. In 2011, Mitsubishi announced that after two decades on the market, the Eclipse sport coupe would be dropped. On the other hand, a wholly new direction marked the 2012 model year, as one of the first pure electric cars went on sale: the Mitsubishi i (i-MiEV).