The real Mitsubishi Pajero is coming back to Malaysia, and we’ve been lucky enough to experience the latest generation of the legend both from behind the wheel and being ferried off-road by Hiroshi Masuoka, a two-time Dakar Rally champion.

This ride and drive session happened at Mitsubishi’s vast Tokachi proving ground (said to be the largest in Japan), nestled deep in the middle of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. It was part of a Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia initiative introducing to us a range of exciting new models that will hit our shores this year. We aren’t at liberty to divulge too much at this moment, so let’s focus on the Pajero, the first of the new arrivals that should be launched sometime next month.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

Original Pajero made its debut in 1982, over 2.5 million units sold so far

The Pajero name needs little introduction, having been on our roads and jungles for decades. It wasn’t that long ago when most 4X4 types were called “Pajero”, almost like how we call instant noodles “Maggi mee” irregardless of brand. Such is the power of the name that Mitsubishi calls its latest Triton based SUV Pajero Sport to ride on the rich heritage (the L200 based SUV used to be called Challenger). While not taking anything away from the Pajero Sport, which is large, tough and comfy, this is the real deal we’re looking at.

But this fourth-generation Pajero, which the world first saw at the 2006 Paris Motor Show, has evolved into a different kind of machine from the V32 model – sold by USF and popular with law enforcers – that was last seen here (the third-gen Pajero skipped our country). While still extremely capable off road and tough as nails, it’s now more accommodating in terms of civility, comfort and luxury – something like a minor Range Rover, if you like.

Third-gen Pajero (1999-2006) looks ungainly and clumsy next to the new one

Like the desirable Brit, this latest Pajero carries itself with confidence. Although the design isn’t dramatically different from the third-gen car, it manages to look more classy and less fussy. That unashamedly square shape mixes well with those swelled wheelarches (they’re actually less bulging than before) and the bold face, which proud grille and “big eyes” makes the Pajero look intimidating. The latter is apparently inspired by the eyes of a wildcat, but I like the fact that the bumper cuts into the lower outside edge of the headlamps – a unique design cue.

The rear design stands out too, as it does away with the traditional wheel on one side layout. Here, the spare wheel is mounted dead centre, and its hard cover doubles as a number plate holder and “name tag” bearing the Pajero emblem. There’s also a rear fog lamp here, and the wheel is mounted lower than before (by 50 mm) to maximise vision and help lower the centre of gravity.

It’s tough to explain in words, but the design is modern yet “very Pajero” – we’re sure many would have guessed so even if it didn’t come with badges. But as debated in the Nissan X-Trail test drive report, this traditional 4X4 look with squared off edges is not for all – those who find it repulsive have softer looking options such as the Mazda CX-9. If you’re wondering, the Pajero’s natural rivals are the Land Rover Discovery and the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, the latter only available as a grey import.

In terms of dimensions, the Pajero has about the same footprint as the previous gen Prado (latest version just out this year), but is narrower than the over 2m wide Discovery. Compared to the Pajero Sport, the Pajero is 205 mm longer and 60 mm wider, so we’re looking at one big 4X4 here. Approach and departure angles may be alien terms to the urban SUV owner, but this is a Pajero, and it’s worth mentioning – 36.6 degrees approach angle, 22.5 breakover and 25 departure are useful off the beaten path. For comparison, the air suspended Discovery 4 measures in at 36.2, 27.3 and 29.6.

Speaking about going off-road, Mitsubishi is the manufacturer with the most Dakar Rally wins ever (12 in total), and we can safely expect them to put all that experience and know-how to good use on their flagship 4X4 that shares the same name as the Dakar machine. On this generation, the Pajero’s built-in ladder frame monocoque body is stiffer thanks to more spot welds, a stiffer cowl top, switching to higher tensile strength steel (from 270 MPa to 440 MPa grade), and the strategic use of structural adhesives. The aluminium engine hood saves 9kg, improving weight distribution and making it easier to lift.

The Super Select 4WD II system is carried forward from the previous model. SS4-II offers four drive modes for various road conditions – 2H mode for normal driving, standard 4H mode for better traction, 4HLc with locked centre differential (equal power to all four wheels) and 4LLc, which is like 4HLc plus low range gears for you to crawl out of extreme situations. The default torque split is 33:67 front rear and the three high range modes can be shifted “on the fly” at speeds up to 100 km/h.

The difference between SS4-II and SS4 is that the newer system works hand-in-hand with Active Stability & Traction Control (ASTC), which has multi-mode ABS, EBD, Engine Brake Assist Control (EBAC), traction control and stability control under one umbrella. The Pajero rides on front double wishbone suspension and rear multi links. Ventilated disc brakes with 4-pot opposing calipers reside in each corner.

Bear in mind that the car you see here is a low spec JDM “GR” variant with 16-inch rims and a spartan cabin. The Malaysian market will be getting the highest spec available for the Pajero (called “Super Exceed” in Japan but unlikely to be badged so here). That means a 3,827 cc V6 engine with 247 bhp and 329 Nm of torque available at 2,750 rpm. This SOHC MIVEC unit is paired to an INVECS-II 5-speed automatic transmission, which has an ATF fluid warmer that allows for earlier torque converter lockup after a cold start, reducing friction losses.

Combined fuel economy is rated at 7.6 km/l in Japan (10:15 mode) and 7.4 km/l in Australia’s ADR test. Big car, big engine, so it’s thirsty as expected, but that won’t be such a big deal for those who can afford the Pajero in the first place! The price is unconfirmed and pending approval as we type, but shouldn’t be far from the RM300,000 mark. As a benchmark, the 3.7-litre V6 Mazda CX-9 is currently priced at RM 322,404.60. Like the big Mazda, the Pajero will be a CBU import from Japan.

Malaysian spec Pajero will look more like this. Click to enlarge

As warned, the live dash pic you see above is the “kosong spec” car used to trash around Tokachi’s off-road track. The actual model that’s coming will be much more luxurious and pleasing to the eye. We managed to source this image that, while showing a left-hand drive car, accurately previews the local spec Pajero, I believe. Expect black leather seats and trim, dark wood accents (including on the steering wheel) and a multi-info RV meter that sits on the top tier of the centre console.

Just like how those Mark Levinson ICE systems become the star piece in Lexus cars, the Pajero’s Rockford Acoustic Design stereo is one of its trump cards. The nicely integrated head unit with steering controls is linked to an 860-watt amplifier and 12 speakers including a big subwoofer at the back. The 5.1 channel system can be adjusted to focus on the front seats, middle row or for everyone. By the way, the Pajero is a seven seater, and the rearmost seats fold flat into the boot floor, not sideways.

It’s a slight climb into the cabin, but the commanding view from the high perch is worth the effort. There wasn’t much to fiddle around with (JDM GR spec has no stereo and RV meter) so I found myself a good driving position and proceeded with the slalom course and a short loop that simulated flowing B-roads (almost). Bearing in mind the Pajero’s heft, body roll wasn’t as disconcerting as I feared, and although you do feel the weight shift, quick changes of direction are relatively straightforward without any delayed “tsunami” to catch one out.

Still, for non-pro drivers (like me), it’s likely that we’ll be put off by the lean and the mindfulness of the Pajero’s size way before the car runs out of grip – after we were done, Masuoka-san happily showed us the true limits of the Pajero on the slaloms, which yours truly didn’t reach behind the wheel.

The Pajero’s steering is never going to as quick and sharp as urban crossovers, but the electric assisted rack and pinion unit is quite light and effortless to use. I’m not sure how it’ll fare on Malaysian roads, but the smooth tarmac at Tokachi didn’t trouble the Pajero’s ride comfort. Our test cars were 3.0-litre V6 powered, 66 bhp and 62 Nm down on the 3.8 V6, but they didn’t feel that lacking in acceleration, so the real deal should be quite quick. I still managed to reach 180 km/h down the straights of the oval though, and the Pajero’s stability at those speeds was impressive.

The main event was being ferried by Hiroshi Masouka in the Pajero. I’ve rode shotgun with the Dakar champ before in the Pajero Sport on local soil, but this experience was much more memorable for the difficulty of the course. Deep ruts and big rocks were met with increased speed rather than caution, which caused this writer’s mouth to gape while he was swaying side to side. The speed at which we were tackling the rough route was shocking to say the least. There were of course steep climbs and descents plus the obligatory water puddles.

The Pajero bucked and thumped its way through; it sounded so painful that i was wincing all the way. But nothing broke, and Masuoka put the Pajero through at least 10 rounds of this punishment. With us urging for more and assuring him that we weren’t about to throw up or faint, the mild mannered ace driver pushed harder with every corner. From my front passenger’s view, there were two or three moments where I thought he had lost it, but Masuoka managed to keep the Pajero on trail with milimetres to spare, twirling the steering with a light touch and banging through the autobox’s manual mode – all while smiling. I stepped out of the mud covered Mitsu with my engineer’s helmet totally rearranged! I remembered seeing some wobbly knees too :)

Some might think that there’s no market for a big off-road ready 4X4 with a big capacity engine, but we reckon that there will be enough well to do folks who like the Pajero’s image and looks to snap up MMM’s orders, besides the few who will actually use all those 4X4 hardware. Keep your eyes peeled for the confirmed specs/price and launch story. Welcome back, Pajero!

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Mitsubishi Pajero live images from Tokachi Proving Ground
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