Welcome to another installment of Cars Of Future Past, a series here at Jalopnik where we flip through the pages of history to explore long-forgotten concepts and how they had a hand in shaping the cars we know today.
Two weeks ago we discussed the 2001 Mitsubishi CZ3 Tarmac, an all-wheel drive hot hatch that, regrettably and in hindsight, sort of served as the swan song for the brand’s tenure as a purveyor of engaging, technologically advanced performance cars. Today, however, we’re turning the clock back 12 years earlier — before the Lancer Evolution and even the GTO. Today we’re paying tribute to one of the concepts that touched off Mitsubishi’s golden era.
This sci-fi space suit on wheels is the Mitsubishi HSR-II, and it first graced the public at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show. It was the second project in Mitsubishi’s HSR series, as the name conveys, which kicked off with the first HSR at the previous Tokyo event two years earlier. (The Tokyo Motor Show runs like clockwork every other year, and never missed a date until 2021!)
The HSR supposedly stood for Highly Sophisticated Research, which is a delightfully of-the-time acronym that meshes with the likes of Honda’s New Sportscar Experimental and Toyota’s Advanced Experimental Vehicle prototypes. It also happened to be a very truthful and appropriate name because wow, was this thing highly sophisticated.
To explain why, we’ll backpedal to that first HSR concept that Mitsubishi efficiently summed up in the bizarre magazine ad seen above. The HSR was envisioned as a testbed for all the active ride control functions the automaker was developing at the time, including electronically managed, four-wheel independent suspension for level cornering, four-wheel steering and ABS on all corners. But the HSR was high tech in other respects too, with its integrated microphone and keyboard, night vision monitor, traffic and weather reports and navigation system.
Mitsubishi called it “the most intelligent car ever built” in that ad. If it could do all the things the company boasted it could, then sure — that seems like a valid claim.
For the HSR-II, Mitsubishi streamlined the original concept’s melty design, evolved the suspension system and replaced the first HSR’s 2.0-liter, 16-valve turbocharged inline-four with a new 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V6 producing somewhere in the region of 350 horsepower. It also added a bunch of flaps.
You see those areas of red-painted negative space beneath some panels around the car? Many of them moved. Part of a system called Active Aero Control, it comprised a movable front splitter and canards that popped out, as well as a rear wing divided into two halves that raised and lowered on each side depending on the car’s trajectory. Then again, air brakes might be a more appropriate term for whatever purpose those dinner trays on the back are serving.
Details on the Active Aero Control system or its efficacy are slim, though Mitsubishi stated that with all the movable elements down and tucked away, the HSR-II could slice through the air with a drag coefficient of 0.2. For reference, the current Mercedes-Benz A-Class is said to have the lowest drag coefficient of any production car on sale right now, of 0.22. The HSR-II was special, though, because the shape of the car was dynamic, as the flaps selectively deployed themselves based on driving characteristics. All ordinary stuff today, but innovative for 32 years ago.
The sheer ambition of everything Mitsubishi was attempting to do with the HSR program is impressive enough on its own, even if some of it seems a bit aspirational. For example, Mitsubishi credited an on-board computer called the OSCII as the brain inside the HSR-II; in addition to all of the electronically managed systems mentioned earlier, it supposedly also gave the car adaptive cruise control to safely follow vehicles ahead, as well as the ability to park itself. Something tells me the conditions had to be precisely right for that last feat of automation.
The design is also peak ’80s and early-’90s futurism. I love the double-bubble canopy, smooth haunches with nary an edge or crease in sight, and the gaping expanse at the rear for the diffuser and exhaust, right behind the powerful V6. I’ve never considered what a Mitsubishi supercar might have looked like if the brand ever had the audacity to produce one, but the HSR-II would’ve made for a fitting candidate.
Finally, I have to call attention to the very curious symbol adorning the top of the hood (or frunk) there — right next to the name of the car that inexplicably is facing occupants and not the outside world. That figure is one of the Nazca Lines — geoglyphs etched into the Nazca Desert in Peru millenia ago. This one depicts a bird, and measures 320 feet long and 216 feet wide in its actual form. I’ll admit I only recognized it because I’ve been playing obscene amounts of Tetris Effect: Connected lately.
Why does the HSR-II bear the mark of ancient geological art? Who knows! It does tie into the theme of some of these promotional shots, where the car was evidently photographed in the desert. And it kind of adds to the car’s mystique in a way — almost like Mitsubishi was trying to sell it as an intergalactic relic, hoping some alien race would unearth it tens of thousands of years in the future, recognize the symbol and draw erroneous conclusions about human history. Oh, and the convergence of cryptic symbols and advanced technology is Evangelion as hell and I’m here for it.
Obviously not, but here’s the thing: Much of what Mitsubishi learned and explored in developing the HSR-II flowed into the driver-focused vehicles it’d later build. Like the overcomplicated GTO, which sported all-wheel drive, all-wheel steering, computer-controlled suspension and an active rear wing. In fact, Mitsubishi brought a prototype of what would later be known as the GTO, called the HSX, to the very same 1989 Tokyo Motor Show the HSR-II bowed at.
So while Mitsubishi never sold a completely unfettered display of its technological prowess to the public, it did quickly turnaround a watered-down version regular people could actually afford and enjoy. That’s more admirable, don’t you think?
Once again we have Gran Turismo to thank for allowing us to virtually experience this forgotten but very significant moment in Mitsubishi’s past. The HSR-II was first featured in Gran Turismo 4 back in 2005; since then, it’s appeared in the fifth and sixth iterations, in addition to the PSP version that gets more hate than it deserves.
GT developer Polyphony Digital even animated the concept’s split rear wing to move while cornering, which is impressive for a PlayStation 2 racer. And while the HSR-II didn’t turn up in the latest entry, Gran Turismo Sport, that game does include a 1991 GTO Twin Turbo — the production car that the HSR-II directly inspired. The behavior of the GTO’s active wing was recreated in that game too, which I don’t believe is true of any other title that car has ever appeared in.
A fair bit of the information in this article was in fact sourced from the HSR-II’s description in Gran Turismo, which speaks to the fact there’s so little out there about it floating on the web. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s quite literally the progenitor to the Mitsubishi we all cherish and miss today.