“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” is a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, the late-19th century writer. Whether he really uttered this phrase is still being disputed, but those same sentiments echo around the local head office of Mitsubishi Motors when referring to the full-sized Pajero SUV. This is all due to last year’s announcement that Mitsubishi won’t be developing a successor to this long-running model, and will instead focus on their smaller SUV ranges while leaving the old stager to soldier on as long as there’s sufficient demand. There’s a high-tech new Pajero Sport due very soon (in fact, some examples have already been spied on their premises), the Outlander is still fairly fresh following a recent facelift, and the ASX is coming up for replacement as well. With such a wide range on offer, is there really any need to replace the old big-body Pajero?
The short answer is “not at all”, but not for the reasons you might think. The current generation has essentially been with us for almost 18 years now, albeit with a few facelifts in that time. There’s no denying that, in automotive terms, it is rather elderly, but in reality it’s far from outdated. Yes, its original competition has moved on – the Prado has gone upmarket and fancy, the Mercedes ML has evolved into an road-biased wagon, and the Land Rover Discovery has progressed through two whole model cycles. That however only means that the Pajero now has an entire market segment essentially to itself.
With the field of rugged, genuinely go-anywhere options shrinking, we’re left with a reduced choice between the highly agricultural Land Cruiser 70-series, Nissan Patrol wagons and Jeep Wrangler Unlimited on the one end, the preposterously expensive Mercedes G-wagen on the other, with the Pajero sitting comfortably in the middle. The only thing these brutes really share with the Pajero is off-road ability, because unlike them, the Mitsubishi is the only one with a modern unitary construction and independent suspension, instead of the traditional body-on-frame design and live axles.
Don’t imagine that this softer focus translates into an SUV meant only for urban confinement, though – its proven off-road credentials means that it will go anywhere you’d wish it to. All Pajeros come with Mitsubishi’s Super Select II four wheel drive, which allows the driver to choose between traditional rear wheel drive, two high-range all wheel drive modes (with its viscous centre differential either open or locked), and low range four wheel drive with the centre diff locked. And speaking of diff locks, there’s another unit on the rear axle to really help the Pajero scrabble over low-traction surfaces. There’s some serious wheel articulation when clambering over rocks and through dongas too, while the short wheelbase helps it ease over sharp hill crests.
But for all its 4×4 abilities, it also avoids another downside traditionally associated with serious off-roaders: the miserably jittery ride en route to the tarmac’s end. That coil-sprung suspension affords a pillow-soft, compliant ride quality that almost puts the Pajero in the class of modern luxury 4x4s, and makes for an immediately agreeable daily driver. Sure, it’s not the least bit sporty to drive, with a relaxed steering ratio and heaps of body roll, but it’s unlikely that anyone in the market for such a vehicle would care about that. These things aren’t meant for sporty driving in any case.
Something else which isn’t sporty at all is the grumbly diesel engine up front. Its outputs are quite respectable (141 kw and 441 Nm), but its basic character is that of an old-school turbodiesel: clattery when cold, rather vibratory when working hard and with a narrow power band. The 5-speed automatic gearbox tries its best to keep the engine running in its optimal rev range, but its relaxed shift speed and generally lazy behaviour means that performance errs far on the leisurely side of lively: the Pajero ambles from rest to 100 km/h in a casual 12 seconds and will eventually top out at 180 km/h. Quick, it isn’t.
What it is, is unstoppable. Show it an uphill or an off-road trail and that torquey engine will buckle down and haul you up there without raising an eyebrow. Point it into an overtaking opportunity, and it’s dealt with seldom even a downshift to be felt. It’s not quick to get there, but once it’s up to speed, it hauls the hefty Pajero around with surprising authority. This gentlemanly power delivery actually ties in nicely with the soft suspension setup, and encourages a laid-back approach to driving.
Apart from its distinctly non-sporting demeanour, the other tell-tale of the Pajero’s age will be found in the cabin. The driver’s seat has almost enough space to comfortably accommodate a 1.9 metre tall male and the rear seats (on this SWB version) are reasonably roomy as well, but the cabin feels narrow, and that upright windscreen gives a cosier ambience than the vehicle’s sheer size would suggest. The dashboard is equally antiquated, with angular styling and switches scattered all over the place. This is partly as a result of those facelifts over the years, which added features such as heated seats, a rear view camera, and a touch screen infotainment system. Most of the modern conveniences are present, but many of them are poorly integrated into the overall layout, which in turn ages the design even more. The strips of “wood veneer” trim doesn’t help either – that trend really died about a decade ago already.
That said, the Pajero projects an impression of solidity. The doors close with a solid thunk, and as old-fashioned as the dashboard looks, it’s really well screwed together. Our test unit exhibited no rattles or creaks in spite of clearly having had a few serious brushes with the bush. There’s an overriding feeling that all the design- and assembly bugs have been ironed out by now. This is actually reflected in the loyalty of Pajero owners to their vehicles: these things tend to stay in the family and get passed on to the new generations as they emerge, only to be replaced by newer iterations of the same thing.
And that is the crux of the Pajero’s curious staying power: their owners love them and wouldn’t trade them for anything but another, newer Pajero. Those owners would absolutely love the latest “Legend II” iterations too, for they add most of the popular aftermarket accessories into one convenient package: underbody protection plates, a towbar, chromed nudge bar in front, Yokohama Geolandar tyres, heavy duty rubber floor mats, and a Garmin nuviCam GPS unit with a built-in dashcam and Tracks4Africa off-road map set. All in, these options add R40 000 worth of value as part of its R719 900 purchase price.
That might appear to be quite a steep ask for a rather dated SUV, but the reality is that it represents surprisingly good value in this class. A diesel Prado comes closest in terms of design philosophy, yet costs a lot more and has less power and torque. The other, more utilitarian off-roaders aren’t less expensive either, but offer far less in terms of on-road refinement and comfort features. For all its antiquated quirks, the Pajero finds itself the star student in a class of one. Its off-road ability and long-lived reputation merely strengthens its unique appeal, mainly because there really isn’t anything like it on the market anymore. Does it need a redesign? Probably. Does that matter? Not in the least. It’s good to go for at least another decade.
Mitsubishi Pajero 3.2 Di-D 3-door Legend II specifications
Engine :3200 cc straight-four, turbocharged diesel
Gearbox :5-speed torque converter auto, Super Select II four wheel drive
Output :140 kW @ 3800 r/min, 442 Nm @ 2000 r/min
Performance :0-100 km/h in 12.0 seconds, max speed 180 km/h
Consumption (official) :10.1 ℓ/100 km
Price (before options) :R 719 900