The Fast & The Forbidden: 1994-2000 Mitsubishi FTO

Over the years, the auto industry has more or less agreed upon minimum displacements for engines with a given number of cylinders. Four-bangers seldom go smaller than 1.5L (at least in this market), sixes rarely dip below 3.0L, and these days you hardly ever see a V8 smaller than about 4.5L. Obviously, there are no hard and fast official rules regarding engine size, and there have been some noteworthy powerplants that bucked the trend.

One example that springs right to our mind is a line of peewee V6s made by Mitsubishi from the early-‘90s to the mid-2000s. Codenamed the 6A1 engine family, these overhead cam six-pots ranged in size from 2.5L all the way down to an a-DOR-able 1.6L unit offered in Japanese and Pacific Rim market Mirages and Lancers.  But the middle child of the family – the DOHC version of the 2.0L 6A12 – was found in a snappy compact, front-drive sport coupe called the FTO.

Mitsubishi FTO rear 3/4 view

Named after a fastback coupe that was made between 1971 and 1975 and based on a short wheelbase version of the first generation Galant platform, the modern FTO (allegedly standing for “Fresh Touring Origination”) bowed in Japan in 1994. It was promptly named Car of the Year by members of the archipelago nation’s automotive media, a high honor given the large number of makes and models on offer. But it really wasn’t a massive surprise, given the variety of trim levels and powertrains on offer: The base GS model packed a 1.8L inline-four making 123hp, while the uplevel GR, GP, GX and GPX trims featured the 2.0L V6 producing anywhere from 168hp in the GR to a rorty 197hp in the MIVEC (Mitsubishi’s variable valve timing and lift system) equipped GPX and GP Version R. Transmission choices were a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic with a manual shift mode. The manumatic was upgraded to a 5-speed in 1997, the same year the front end was treated to a minor restyle.

And what style it was. The blistered front fenders, rounded nose, truncated tail and tidy greenhouse all serve to clearly spell out the FTO’s sporting intentions. Slip behind the wheel and those intentions become even clearer as you stand on the gas. The MIVEC version of the V6 comes alive at about 5,000 rpm, letting out an otherworldly bay on its way up to its insane-in-the-membrane 8,000+ rpm redline. But the fun doesn’t end with the straight line show; the MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear suspension is tuned to make you forget this baby is front-wheel-drive, providing freakishly balanced handling through the twisties. (Fun fact: The best handling car we’ve owned in any game in the Gran Turismo series? Our race modified FTO GPX in GT1, hands down.)

Mitsubishi FTO engine view

Unsurprisingly, word of the FTO’s remarkable engine and stellar agility spread quickly, filtering out of Japan and into places like Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. And thanks to fairly liberal vehicle importation laws (and the fact that they, like Japan, drive on the left and seat the driver on the right), a great many enthusiasts in those countries brought in FTOs on their own. Mitsubishi took note of this, eventually exporting the FTO to other RHD countries on a low volume, quasi-official basis (British FTOs, for example, were actually sold through Mitsubishi’s tuning arm, Ralliart.) When all was said and done, a mere 36,512 FTOs were produced over the span of seven years.

And since it’s the subject of this series, you know that not a single one of those 36,512 ever made it to the U.S. Maybe Mitsubishi feared it would siphon sales from the already-popular (and similarly-sized) Illinois-built Eclipse and the pricey, all-singing all-dancing 3000GT. Perhaps it looked at the dismal sales figures racked up by the Mazda MX-3 (another small sport coupe offered with a pigmy V6) a couple years prior and got cold feet. Or it ran the numbers on federalization costs for the drivetrain and body and came up with the GDP of a small country. Whatever the reason or reasons, the suits at the Diamond Star deemed this continent unworthy of its six-packin’ Integra fighter.

Mitsubishi FTO interior view

As if that wasn’t galling enough, our friends in the Great White North are free to bring in pre-facelift examples thanks to their home and native land’s eminently sensible 15-year-or-older import exemption law. Those of us residing below the 49th Parallel will have to wait until 2019 before we can start bringing in FTOs willy-nilly, and even then, you still won’t be able to register it here in California. Remember when your parents told you life isn’t fair? This proves they were right. Scary, huh?