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.
Our previous subject was the Ghia-designed Ford Brezza — a futuristic, midengine EXP from 1982 that offered a glimpse at what a true Pontiac Fiero rival from the Blue Oval might’ve looked like. If that sort of wish casting strikes your fancy, I’d like to introduce you to this week’s subject: a Mitsubishi that looks like it belongs on a WRC special stage today, despite the fact it’s 20 years old.
This punchy, puffy ball of red aggression is the Mitsubishi CZ3 Tarmac. First shown at the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show, the CZ3 Tarmac was another hit from a brand that knew how to make nothing but hits throughout the ’90s before running out of steam post-millennium.
It’s important to note that 2001 was also the first year for the Lancer Evolution VII — a truly all-new Evo based on a different car from its predecessors, known as the Lancer Cedia in Japan. During this time, Mitsubishi was still active in the World Rally Championship, and Tommi Mäkinen was coming off four-straight drivers’ titles, all earned driving Lancers. The team’s fortunes would begin its turn to utter disaster right after the Evo VII made its WRC debut, though that’s a story for another day.
All this is to say Mitsubishi was on top of the world at this moment, all thanks to rally fever. And the CZ3 Tarmac sought to bring that tenacity to the automaker’s subcompacts.
Beneath its hood was a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder producing an undisclosed amount of horsepower (Gran Turismo quotes 220 HP, though that can’t really be taken as fact.) The CZ3 sent power to all four wheels, helped by the Active Center Differential and Active Yaw Control systems present in the Evo VII, adding to its rallying pedigree. On the flip side, the CZ3 regrettably packed a continuously variable transmission. These were of course the days when automakers were desperate to endear enthusiasts to CVTs; despite their best efforts, public perception never really panned out in their favor.
Still, Mitsubishi wanted to convey that the CZ3 was a baby Evo with a hatchback, so it made the shifter resemble the one inside its WRC car. If you squint really hard at these low-resolution CGI renders, you might be able to make it out. The manufacturer evidently understood its market well; the press release also touted a DVD player behind the infotainment screen atop the center stack.
I’ve always loved the CZ3’s design, and my feelings on it haven’t soured one bit over the years. This was a very pretty, very clean hot hatch that Mitsubishi certainly could’ve used at the time to better round out its enthusiast offerings. I’m into the elongated vertical headlights, the subtly-surfaced sides, the delightfully of-the-era five-spoke wheels and the prominent lower grille ensuring that you couldn’t miss this car’s intercooler. The rear was admittedly a little featureless, though you figure a production model would have looked less empty back there with dedicated space for a license plate.
You’re never going to hear me say anything damning about any hot hatch, and so the CZ3 sure as hell won’t receive criticism from me. Mitsubishi was evidently smitten with the design too, as two years later it paraded around a drop top version of the CZ3 Tarmac, called the Tarmac Spyder. That concept had a larger displacement engine, 2.0 liters, that actually came with power figures. Stephen Newbury’s The Car Design Yearbook 2 quoted 300 HP from the Spyder’s four-cylinder, indicating it might’ve been lifted from an Evo.
As an idea, the CZ3 is pretty difficult to fault, then. But I’ve only grown to love it more as time has passed. In hindsight it was actually something of a premonition.
Not for Mitsubishi, of course — heavens, no. But rather, for rallying in general. Early in the 2010s, the sport’s premier class began to shift from C-segment cars like the Focus, Lancer and Impreza, to B-segment cars, like the Fiesta, Polo and Yaris. (Those headlights could almost pass as last-gen Fiesta lamps, no?)
The CZ3 fits perfectly into that latter group and still doesn’t look all that dated, even if it arrived a decade too early. This could have been the next generation of Mitsubishi rallying to inherit the Lancer Evo’s throne.
Hell no! Mitsubishi never brought the CZ3 Tarmac to production, which is actually a little surprising when you consider it was constantly tweaking the car and its smaller two-door sibling, the CZ2, ferrying them to auto shows around the globe for years. Somebody at the company clearly dug the pitch, but the bean counters just couldn’t make it so.
Some will argue that the ensuing Z30 generation of the Mitsubishi Colt that debuted in 2002 pulled inspiration from the CZ3, though I’d consider that a stretch. Sure, you can observe some CZ3 inspiration in the position of the taillights, but the overall design is much softer and more subdued, and the Colt is roundly considered to be more basic economy car than legitimate hot hatch. The 161-HP Colt Ralliart Version-R certainly drew closer to the spirit of the CZ3, though it was still markedly less powerful and didn’t have all-wheel drive. While it looks nice, it ain’t topping the CZ3 in a beauty contest, that’s for sure.
For once here on Cars Of Future Past, I’m so relieved to say yes, you most certainly can! The CZ3 Tarmac has been included in a handful of Gran Turismo titles, from Gran Turismo Concept all the way through Gran Turismo 6. I suppose that’s one benefit of the puzzling decision to copy and paste all of GT3 and GT4's woefully low-poly car models in GT5 and GT6; it kept cars like the CZ3 around far beyond their expiration dates.
Here’s the kicker though: Not only can you drive the CZ-3 in all of those Gran Turismos, you can also drive a fantasy rally version of it. In true GT tradition, developer Polyphony Digital envisioned a competition-spec CZ3 that never existed in reality, with the same 4G63 motor as the Evo.
The in-game description of the CZ3 rally car doesn’t fuck around, which I love about it. Polyphony goes right out there and tells Mitsubishi they royally screwed up by abandoning the CZ3 on the cutting room floor:
As a future vision of what a compact car would look like, Mitsubishi announced its next-generation concept car — the CZ-3 Tarmac — at the 2001 Tokyo Auto Show. Sadly, this tautly-styled and affordable small car never made it to production, at least not with this crisp sheetmetal; a less impressive-looking version later appeared as the Mitsubishi Colt in Japan... so the Gran Turismo team took it upon themselves to create a rally version!
If that wasn’t enough, Polyphony clad this CZ3 in a white, gray, black and red livery as a tribute to the beloved Evo IV rally car, with a big rear wing to boot. The real world often disappoints, but thank goodness for Gran Turismo.