What started out as a recreational jeep eventually turned into an iconic SUV. Dakar proven and off-road ready, the Mitsubishi Pajero is just one of many icons to come out of the Diamond Star brand and, this year, it celebrates its 35th anniversary. Despite the rise of crossovers, the name Pajero still resounds among many Filipinos and has gained a strong following ever since.
So what makes the Pajero such a well-loved name? We take a fond look back at the generations of Mitsubishi's big SUV and trace its roots, and what a better way to do so by spending a day with enthusiasts.
Before we get to the first generation model which was launched in 1982, the history of the Pajero goes far beyond that. Even before the term Sport Utility Vehicle was coined, Mitsubishi set its sights on creating a recreational vehicle that goes up against the likes of the Nissan Patrol and the Toyota Land Cruiser. In 1973, Mitsubishi revealed their entry to what eventually became a hotly contested segment in the automotive industry.
Revealed during the Tokyo Motor Show of that year, it's difficult to imagine that it first started out as a rather basic jeep with no doors and no roof. Dubbed the Pajero Concept, it was essentially a tarted up version of the Mitsubishi Jeep J-Series.
The familiar shape we've come to know arrived in 1979 with the Pajero II Concept. It had a clamshell hood, a squared-off look and an open top. Little would change towards its transition to the production model. Needless to say, the Pajero has come a long way since.
First Generation (1982-1991, NA-NG Series)
As mentioned above, it was a smooth transition from concept to production for the Pajero. It lost the clamshell hood and square headlights and in its place were round units with an upward kink that housed the park lights and the turn signals. It would be a signature of the Pajero from that moment.
Initially released as a 3-door model, it was rather spartan but it did come with an inclinometer, altimeter and even a compass. A 5-door model later arrived in 1983 and further boosted the utility, and the appeal, of the Pajero. Inside, we also see signature details such as the altimeter, compass and inclinometer, key features that will be part of future Pajeros. It may be spartan by today's standards but it screams utilitarian which, for me and its fans, adds charm to the SUV.
In the Philippines, we got the high roof version of the 5-door model that was proudly made in Cainta, Rizal. What we have here is one of the cars that left that line 26 years ago and this pristine example is owned by Jackie Sarao. Jackie admits that he didn't warm up to the car immediately. However, after working on it for so long, “the bug has bitten me,” he says. Needless to say, the utilitarian first-gen has charmed its way to Jackie's heart.
Second Generation (1991-2008, NJ-NH Series)
Following the success of the NA-NG series, Mitsubishi followed up with the second generation Pajero. Featuring softer lines and curves, the Pajero now boasted more creature comforts and made the first model look decidedly basic. That didn't mean Mitsubishi softened up this 4x4.
Still built in the Philippines, the NJ Pajero ushered in the Super Select 4WD system, along with an interior that was a significant upgrade from the first generation. It still retained the utilitarian look from the first generation but with softer curves. Owner Mark Magbanua describes the second-generation Pajero as an SUV that looked rugged and classy at the same time. “ I thought it was the best looking SUV I've seen. I remember reading an article on the US magazine 'Motor Trend' in 1993 where they did a comparison of different SUVs. The US Montero's size was nothing compared to it's American counterparts, but I thought it looked the best. Moreover, I thought it had the best dash, with its signature tri-gauge cluster at the center of the cockpit,” said Mark.
What the second-generation Pajero did was to civilize this ladder-frame SUV. More refined (in the 90's setting) and less agricultural, the NJ Series Pajero established itself as one of the country's hottest cars and status symbols. It had the benefit of off-road capability too.
Then in 1999, the NJ Series was midly facelifted into the NH Series. We better know this particular Pajero as the 'Fieldmaster'. More pronounced lines, a reshaped pair of headlights and an upgraded engine are some of the highlights of the NH Series. It was better appointed too with more luxuries than the old NL Series.
We were lucky to have two Fieldmasters in this group, representing both pristine and daily driven samples. The silver Fieldmaster is owned by Jerson Ledesma and likens it to an expensive watch that one can bring anywhere, anytime. It's tough, rugged and versatile, he adds.
The white Fieldmaster meanwhile belongs to our very own Jose Altoveros. There may be a fair amount of battle scars on it, but it's sturdy, reliable and dependable; just what people expect from this SUV. It's also worth noting that Jose's Fieldmaster is a rather rare one as it is equipped with four-wheel drive, a manual transmission and all the power features.
Third Generation (2000-2007, CK Series)
By this time, the SUV was not just a vehicle for challenging conditions but also serve as a comfortable family shuttle. According to Mitsubishi, the aim was to enhance ride quality and driving dynamics and, at the same time, retain its off-road capability. It may be evolutionary in terms of design but the changes were quite drastic in a bid to make the Pajero more car-like.
Internally known as the CK, it shifted to a unibody platform and it shifted to independent suspension on all four corners. While die-hard off-roads bemoan the loss of the live axle at the back, Mitsubishi says that this independent set up gave it more articulation on the rough, retaining its off-road prowess.
The owner of this unique CK is Jon-B Capay. It's these changes to the Pajero is what drew him to this particular generation, as well as the added safety features and equipment. For him, this is the Pajero that moved it upmarket.
In many ways, the third-generation broke away from tradition with all these changes. Despite that, it stays true to its roots and we love it for that.
Fourth Generation (2007 – Current, BK Series)
We now arrive, sadly, at the final generation Pajero, the BK. It's easy to dismiss it as a re-bodied CK but there are some technical highlights to be seen here as well. For starters, the body is more rigid, and refinement was further enhanced. It is more evolutionary than revolutionary, but that didn't dampen its appeal one bit.
It's classic Pajero cues from bumper to bumper. The upswept headlights, upright styling and tailgate-mounted spare tire, one can that tell it's a Pajero from a mile away. The flared wheel arches are another design signature that has been passed on for generations. If I were to describe it in two words, it would be handsomely purposeful.
Having tested it myself, I understood the appeal of the Pajero. There is an air of presence when you drive one on the road. It's also surprisingly easy to drive and comfortable for a mud-plugger. Speaking of mud-plugging, it retains the off-road ability too. It's the type of car that you can bring to a black tie event right after exploring the great outdoors.
BK Pajero owner Gab Mendoza summed up the whole lineage neatly. “It is the Swiss Army knife of cars,” he said.
During the shoot, I also picked up a few things from the enthusiats. Turns out, the Pajero line also has its fair share of nicknames. You know a car has well and truly established itself here when people start handing it other names. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first generation model is called the Box Pajero. With its "INTERCOOLER TURBO" sticker on the quarter panel, the pre-facelifted second-generation model is called the Intercooler, followed by the Fieldmaster. And then we have the CK, dubbed palaka or frog because of its bulbuos fenders.
In its 35 years, the Pajero also came with a wide (and confusing) array of bodystyles as well and we were lucky enough to include two. What we have here is a three-door Pajero (internally known as the NJ), and the quirky Pajero iO.
While there are scores of three-door Pajeros in the country, no thanks to the influx of Subic imports, the model shown here is rather special. It may lose out on those defining fender flare extensions and alloy wheels, it is an original left-hand drive model. It's as basic as it comes but, at the same time, highlights the Pajero's no-nonesense attitude and appeal that drew a lot of fans in the succeeding years.
The Pajero iO may be a bit of a novelty item. It has the looks of the Pajero, albeit shrunken and it's more crossover than all-out off-roader. However, it is one of the few cars from the 90's that set the precedent for the B-Segment crossover boom we are seeing now. Its direct successor is the Mitsubishi ASX.
Then we have the various roof layouts from the first and second-generation Pajeros. There was the long roof with a lower, flatter top. The most common model would be the high-roof version, as seen in Jackie's first gen example. And then there's the interesting kick-up roof which was reminiscent of the Land Rover Discovery. Also, the three-door models were also available with the canvas top, effectively turning it into a drop-top SUV.
Perhaps cementing its legacy into our consciousness is the Pajero's racing heritage. First entered in the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1983, it was simply an exercise to prove its robust mechanicals and durability.
Then in 1985, it won the grueling rally, one of the first of many victories the Pajero would take. It would be followed up by four wins in the 1990's and seven straight wins in the 2000's. With eleven wins, the Mitsubishi Pajero is the most successful Dakar Rally raider to date. Notable drivers include 2001 winner Jutta Kleinschmitt, being the first woman to win the rally, and, of course, Hiroshi Masuoka.
Back in 2015, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation CEO Osamu Masuko said that the development of the Pajero has been halted in the meantime. Granted, the current model is no spring chicken and has been overtaken by the wave of crossovers and PPVs. However, if there's one thing the Pajero can hold on to, it would be its iconic status in both local and international automotive circles. As these fanatics have shown, the legacy of the car will continue, even if we may not see an all-new model anytime soon.