Photo: Andrew P. Collins
Truck YeahThe trucks are good!  

As classic Ford Broncos become as precious as Porsches and 200,000-mile Toyota Land Cruisers manage to maintain ridiculous prices, it’s getting harder to find a cool and capable SUV for reasonable money. If you’re lamenting this too, then it’s time to learn about the Mitsubishi Montero.

The Montero has legitimate racing pedigree, rock-solid off-road chops, a raft of unique and interesting features, and right now you can pick one up for next to nothing.

Photo: Mitsubishi

Let’s say you have $5,000 to spend on a fun and interesting 4x4 that can take you to cool places and look good doing it. Oh, and, you don’t want to have to rub rosary beads for a safe return.

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People prompt me with that scenario all the time. There are a few usual suspects most Craigslist-prowling adventure enthusiasts will regularly suggest:

  • The third-generation Toyota 4Runner, but they can be hard to find with the right options and less than 200,000 miles.
  • The robust frame and twin traction beam suspension of the OJ-Simpson-style Ford Bronco makes it a favorite for desert people, but they turn out abysmal fuel economy and their interiors are about as beautiful as a shower curtain in a Gold’s Gym.
  • The Jeep Cherokee XJ, thanks to its combination of two solid axles and famously indefatigable 4.0-liter inline six cylinder engine. But they’re pretty small. Taking two couples and their gear on a meandering adventure through national parks, or on a long weekend Baja incursion, would be tight.
  • A Land Rover Discovery is too much work to keep alive and a Nissan Xterra, OK, well, that might be a story for another time.

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Photo: Mitsubishi

Enter the Montero. Capable, reliable, affordable. Optional three-row seating, mandatory badassness. The catch is that good ones don’t come up for sale very often. But when they do, they offer an immense amount of coolness and features for the prices people are asking.

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You might notice I haven’t specified a particular model year Montero yet, because they’re all pretty excellent in their own way. And, somewhat oddly, they all seem to command about the same prices on used markets as of this writing.

Janky but viable ones are $2,000 and a little less, beautiful ones are $6,000 and little more.

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I just found one myself that’s pretty much right smack in the middle, which you’d know if you were part of Jalopnik’s Facebook group for cool kids. But more about that later.

The Montero, also commonly known as the Pajero (or Colt Shogun or Dodge Raider or Hyundai Galloper or Palath Sabha) in other markets, was sold in the U.S. for three generations from the early 1980s all the way until the 2006 model year.

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Early Monteros were aesthetically simplistic but remarkably sophisticated. The cab is loaded with cool toys like an inclinometer gauge and suspension seats, and underneath the boxy body is a coil-sprung suspension system.

Photo: Mitsubishi

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Today, a lot of the first gen Montero’s appeal is its simplicity. Like most 4x4s from the 1980s, there is just not a lot to go wrong. Short wheelbase versions are great for scampering off-road, the full four-doors are good long haulers. The biggest drawbacks would be a lack of refinement and power. If you’re coming out of a modern vehicle, it might be hard to find the patience for a road trip in one of these. But you’ll find some more tips on why they’re great in the Adventure Driven Design Forum.

Mitsubishi came out swinging on the motorsports front, too. Six months after these vehicles hit dealerships they went up against the Dakar Rally. Back in 1982, the Dakar was the Dakar. Further-flung locales, more primitive technology, extremely earnest danger.

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Photo: Mitsubishi

Not only did Mitsubishi compete at the highest level of off-road racing, the Japanese car company crushed it, racking up 12 wins between 1982 and 2009. (’09 was the first race held in South America, after the 2008 event was canceled.) You can read more about it on Mitsubishi’s cool Pajero/Montero Historical Museum website.

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The second-generation Montero, which was around from about ’92 to 2000, is my personal favorite with its fantastic off-road architecture and passable highway manners, that make it suited for both going to a trailhead and scrambling over rocks.

Photo: Mitsubishi

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Like its predecessor, the Gen 2 Montero is a traditional body-on-frame SUV with coil suspension in the back and torsion bars up front (Correction: I originally wrote it was coils all around!), as opposed to stiff and sloppy leaf springs like some other truck-ish people-movers (suck it, Jeep) had at the time.

On top of that, the mid-90s Monty shipped with four-wheel disc brakes (suck it, Toyota) and can be ordered with ABS that actually worked with four-wheel-drive engaged, something that not too many other 4x4s in that era could claim.

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The Montero’s four-wheel drive system is also a 4WD/AWD hybrid with a center differential. That means it can be driven as an all-wheel drive vehicle (up to 60 mph) on pavement, great for bad weather, or lock the front and rear axles together as a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to through rougher stuff.

First and second-gen Monteros had lots of fun off-roady toys on board
Screenshot: MotorWeek

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When that’s not enough, the Montero has low range. And when you’re really, really stuck there’s an optional factory air locker in the rear differential.

You’ll have to look for an “SR” trim or “Winter Package” truck if you want that, though. Gen 2 Monteros had a 3.0-liter V6, a 3.5 DOHC and a 3.5 SOHC for its last three model years. Any gen 2 is decent but the final run, the 1998 to 2000 ones known colloquially as “Gen 2.5,” are the most desirable. Particularly ’98s and ’99s, as those were the ones that could be spec’d with the rear locker.

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The famous Pajero Evolution was also wrought from the vehicle’s second generation, but unfortunately that vehicle was never sold stateside.

The design, inside and out, is decidedly ’90s. I’m partial to the big blistered fenders that came with the 1998 model year facelift, but if you really like your SUV served up with swooping body lines, you’re going to want to look at the third gen Montero.

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Photo: Mitsubishi

Most Monteros you see running around the U.S., especially in states where cheap cars from the ’80s and ’90s tend to have mostly all succumbed to rust, are from the third and final generation.

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Well, “final” here. The Montero moved out of America in 2006 but it soldiers on in a fourth-generation pretty much everywhere else.

The ’01 Montero represented a huge departure from the outgoing truck–third gens are unibody, with a much more car-like interior. I have heard them described as “obese rally cars,” though 2001 was also the year that Consumer Reports called the Montero “unsafe” and liable to lift its wheels off the ground in emergency maneuvers.

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Mitsubishi vehemently denied this, but as with any tall SUV, you probably want to be careful when you corner.

Photo: Mitsubishi

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Otherwise, the third-generation Montero is supposed to be an excellent long-range cruiser. Four-wheel independent suspension should make for a smooth ride and the five speed automatic transmission that was introduced in 2003 should unlock a better tier of fuel economy. There’s also traction control which, despite what some say, is generally helpful in normal driving.

Later models with that five-speed are the most desirable, although sadly quite a few of them have (shudder) white gauge faces.

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You don’t get quite as many off-road toys with a third gen. The cool center-mounted triple gauge pod is gone and the rear diff is an optional limited slip instead of a true locker, but you still get low range. The sunroof is gigantic, and actually positioned over the front seats (unlike the Gen 2’s, which is weirdly in the middle of the truck).

Photo: Mitsubishi

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So, the only question left is which Montero should you buy, right? That depends on what you want to use it for. Early ones are going to be better off-roaders, later ones will be better daily drivers, and the second-generation is kind of in the middle.

The Montero Sport, also known as the Mitsubishi Challenger, is a totally different vehicle that we might have to talk about another time. It’s not quite as tough, it’s a lot more common, but it is pretty cool looking.

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As far as future classic status, the 1998 and 1999 Winter Package trucks have the best combination of earnest capability and uniqueness to go down in history as Damn Good Trucks and hold value into the next decade. That’s why I bought one, at least.

I don’t think Mitsubishi Monteros are ever going to hit stratospheric prices like early Ford Broncos or Shorty Forty Land Cruisers, but I’m dead sure that they are underrated and undervalued right now.