Mitsubishi’s name is synonymous with adventure and dirt as the brand has won countless World Rally races with its fire-spitting Lancer Evolution. There’ve been multiple Dakar Rally podiums thanks to the legendary Mitsubishi Pajero, too. Yet, when most go looking for an adventure-ready vehicle that’ll take you to far-flung camping spots deep in the woods, Toyota tends to trump Mitsubishi in the fantasy rig department. But don’t get it twisted, new cars are boring and the JDM Mitsubishi Delica minivan is the real adventure mobile you should be dreaming of.
Have we got your attention? Good. Keep reading for the full breakdown of this wolf in sheep’s clothing.
History of the Mitsubishi Delica 4x4 Van
With a name made from a combination of “delivery” and “car,” Mitsubishi first introduced the Delica in 1968 for a very different audience than the growing group that makes up its modern following. Originally brought to market as a cab-over delivery vehicle, it was a 1,000cc pickup truck for the working class and offered a payload of 1,300 pounds, which still puts many new trucks to shame. A year and change later, Mitsubishi saw the need for a van version that could carry more than two humans.
Enter the Delica Coach, which could seat nine people with its three seated rows. How’d they fit nine people into something with a wheelbase an inch shorter than the current two-seat Mazda Miata sports car? Were people smaller back in the day? Did they use Japanese subway packers? Was everyone required to cut off a limb? Who knows, but it worked, and the Delica platform became popular not only in Japan but in Europe and Indonesia, too. Greek demand was even high enough that the country knocked off the design for its GS2000.
Mitsubishi Motors gave it a second generation model a few years later and it was equally successful, though it shied away from the more rounded shape of the first generation in favor of a boxy exterior body style. But it wasn’t until the Delica’s third-generation that the platform really transitioned into the adventure-ready camper van that’s become so in-demand today.
Debuting in 1986 with a unibody design, this version of the Delica van was designed to satiate the growing recreational vehicle market in Japan and some other locales like Australia. Powered by numerous gas and turbo diesel engines, you could get a four-speed automatic or 5 speed manual transmission, rear- or four-wheel drive, a two-speed transfer case, and five inches of ground clearance for better off-roading. That spread of mechanical options and upgrades made customization and personalization supremely easy. It also meant the Delica was ready to take on the world’s backroads and wilderness.
During this generation model, the 4wd van became known as the Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon in Japan, and the Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear elsewhere, which everybody can agree are very rad names. (Especially for what's essentially a 4x4 minivan.) And don’t forget the highly sought after 1993 Mitsubishi Delica Chamonix. Or the Delish Super Exceed for that matter.
Mitsubishi also offered a full range of different trim levels with even wilder names (Exceed Low, High Top Crystal Lite, Active World High Top, Low, Exceed Turbo D, Crystal Lite, etc, etc). Other upgrades included different types of interiors and accessories, seating for seven to eight individuals, and even different types of roofs, including a high roof. Such widely varying specs made the Delica a platform that you could tailor almost infinitely to your own needs.
But while the names for the many Mitsubishi Delica iterations are certainly cool and all the options provided vehicle variety, it's the combination of stout powertrains, reliable drivetrains, and the interior’s flexibility that set it apart from other off-road adventure mobiles and captivated outdoors types. Western markets took notice of this super-fun oddity, and due to its import status it became something of a forbidden fruit, which only helped its legend grow.
You see, the Delica was never really truly sold in the United States. One model made its way to our shores for a very short time but it wasn’t the same as the coveted Japanese market vans. When the third-generation Delica and all its variants hit their 25th birthday, however, they were no longer subject to the International Vehicle Safety Compliance Act, which prevented US importers from bringing them into the country. Now all bets are off—apart from emissions testing.
Things to Know Before Buying a Mitsubishi Delica
Thousands have since found their way to the United States and into owners’ hands. To get a better sense of that experience, including how people sourced their cars and why they like them, I talked with Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire podcast and owner of Westside Collector Car Storage, Andrew Groves of Miscellaneous Adventures, and Andy Lilienthal of Crankshaft Culture. All of them are proud owners of a Mitsubishi Delica.
“I originally wanted a van-type vehicle to use as a cool, affordable, and interesting shop truck and airport pickup vehicle for my customers at WCCS,” said Farah, who owns a 1991 Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon Exceed Turbo D, “but I bought it about six months before we actually opened and my wife started driving it. She told me that if I wanted a shop truck I could go buy another one because this was her car now.”
“The Delica offers a true 4WD system with a two-speed transfer case paired with the versatility of a van platform,” said Lilienthal, who owns a 1994 Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear, adding “No domestically sold vehicles readily offer this, and certainly not at a Delica price point.”
Delicas do, however, have their quirks.
“Does the entire vehicle count?” said Lilienthal when asked about things would-be Delica owners should know about before buying one. “It's right-hand drive. The transfer case lever is in the middle of the floor. It has electricity-actuated curtains that slide into place. The rear seats swivel like 270 degrees.”
Farah concurred, saying, “I think it would be easier to say what the quirks aren’t than what they are. You hang out over the front axle. You sit on the engine. You’re driving on the wrong side. The sliding door is on the wrong side. Even though it has a tiny engine and is from 30 years ago, it has dual-zone climate control. It has mirror appendages hanging off both the front and the rear which make for sort of a primitive backup camera system. It has curtains, like a house. The second-row captain’s chairs swivel and slide, so you can create a conversation pit in the back. Because it’s an old diesel, it has a choke. And it has wild stickers all over it from the factory that say things like ‘The Special Gear for 4x4 Runners’ and ‘Delica Star Wagon 4wd’.”
With the market continuing to explode for these little Japanese vans, Farah and Lilienthal offered advice for prospective owners. “These are—at a minimum—25-year-old rigs,” said Lilienthal. “They're not like hopping in a new Toyota Tacoma or other new vehicles. You have to learn to find parts as you can't waltz into NAPA and ask for a front axle for a 1994 Delica l400 Space Gear. You need to learn how to cross-reference parts and see which parts do transfer between vehicles, like from Mitsubishi’s Montero." (If you're already a lucky Delica owner, Lilenthal wrote an article about this very subject.)
Farah, however, told me more about the Delica’s dynamics, saying, “Would-be owners should just understand that these are not great highway cars. They are slow. They will cruise at 70 mph but are hard-topped out at like 73. They can’t maintain that speed going up hills though. Big, long uphills are really a 50 mph affair, especially if you have five or six people in the back. (There are some aftermarket power kits that help.) And they are also quite unstable under hard braking.”
“But, they are quite reliable as long as the 50,000 kilometer major services are done,” Farah added. “There are resources out there to get parts, and a lot of the mechanical components are interchangeable with USDM (US domestic market) cars, and everyone loves them. They are just the most charming things.”
Groves, who owns a 1995 Delica L300 Star Wagon and has adventure-ified two Delicas in the past, warned of potential issues on the 25-plus-year-old vehicles. “All Delica’s are prone to rust; most mechanical issues can be fixed and there’s a good market for spares but rust can be terminal or at least very expensive to deal with. The Mitsubishi Delica L400 is prone to overheating and cracked cylinder heads are common on this engine, which I know about only too well. There are two extremely helpful forums which got me through all my mechanical issues, one in the UK and one in the US so I’d recommend checking those out for potential pitfalls before buying one!”
How to Buy a Mitsubishi Delica
With all that in mind, buying a Delica and converting it into your perfect adventure vehicle isn’t as easy as buying a new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van and setting off into the woods. Purchasing a gray market vehicle—a vehicle never previously sold in the United States—registering and plating it, and having it pass emissions requires jumping through hoops.
Before you do anything in regards to paying anyone your hard-earned cash, call your local DMV. Laws regarding gray-market and classic cars vary from state to state and your new ride may not even be legal to own depending on the state you live in.
You’ll also have to determine if you’re going to import the vehicle directly from Japan or buy one that’s already been imported. Each method has its own issues, i.e. shipping is expensive, availability of Delicas in the US is slim, finding the right specs, and whether or not a dealership’s stock has what you want are just a few of the major ones. Any would-be Delica owner must ask themself: What am I willing to compromise on?
The good news is that there are quite a few importers that have stock on the way or are already in-country. Many of these speciality shops focus on importing one single style of car, like funky vans like Toyota Hiace, or even Kei Cars. There’s Toprank Importers, Japanese Classics, Duncan Imports, Delica USA, just to name a few, and some others like Japan Car Direct, which works out of Japan. A couple even have numerous Delicas on-hand that you can look through to find the 4x4 of your adventure minivan dreams. For what it’s worth, purchasing one that's already here avoids importation issues, importation fees, and the errant ship fire that could send your prized possession down to Davy Jones’ locker. For many, that'll be worth the compromise of not getting the exact Delica model or specs they hoped for.
Once you have your Delica in hand, you’ll have to make it state-compliant before you can register and plate it. Again, each state has its own laws concerning gray market cars, which can make it difficult to navigate by yourself. Some states just require a bill of sale. Some, like California, require you to make them emissions-compliant, which can be expensive. Luckily, there are services to assist you here, including some importers like Toprank Importers, an industry leader, and where Farah purchased his Delica, or Duncan Imports, which offers emissions services for an extra cost and can help you navigate each state’s idiosyncrasies.
Outfitting your Delica won’t be straightforward either. Though, thankfully, you won’t have to scroll Craigslist Japan for NOS (new old stock) accessories. As the Delica’s popularity has increased in recent years, the adventure industry has seen the light and begun supporting owners. You’ll still have to make some modifications here and there, but the list of supported gear is ever-growing.
Now, who’s ready to get themselves a Delica and brave the wilds?