The Mitsubishi Montero never quite became a household name in the United States, but fans of true SUVs, whose attention extends beyond America's borders know what it's about. Fact is, this rugged rock-hopper has been off-roading its way around the world for decades and taking home more than a few trophies in the famously grueling Dakar Rally in the process. Mitsubishi has built up plenty of respect for the name Montero -- or Pajero, as this midsize SUV is known in other global markets.
In the three generations and 24 years that the Montero was sold here, Mitsubishi moved it upscale in terms of size, power and class. But all the way through, the Montero never lost its roots as an off-road-worthy vehicle. Four-wheel drive was always standard, and specialty items such as locking differentials and adjustable shock absorbers were available on the second-generation Montero.
Unfortunately, this off-road bias became increasingly at odds with the way many Americans drove their SUVs. The Mitsubishi Montero was tall, heavy and high off the ground, and consequently felt slow-witted on the street. For the third generation, Mitsubishi made fundamental shifts to the Montero's hardware and driving character in hopes of improving the vehicle's appeal. It wasn't enough, however, as this model suffered in regards to on-road performance, engine power and interior roominess. Furthermore, the Montero received some injurious publicity when Consumer Reports reported that this midsize SUV had a susceptibility to rolling over in high-speed turns.
While the Montero was reborn for a fourth life in other nations, Mitsubishi decided America's midsize SUV needs would be better filled by the more efficient, more street-oriented Endeavor crossover. That's a sentiment we share, though the Montero still deserves a look for those shoppers needing a used SUV with solid off-road credentials.
Most Recent Mitsubishi Montero
The third-generation Montero midsize SUV was sold from 2001-'06 and marked several key design changes over the previous generation. The most significant was a switch from body-on-frame to unibody construction to lighten and stiffen the chassis. The suspension was also revised and became fully independent for the first time. These changes, along with a switch from recirculating-ball steering to a more precise rack-and-pinion setup, promised that this model would be the best-riding, best on-road-driving Montero yet.
To a degree, it delivered. The new Mitsubishi Montero certainly dealt with bumps more forgivingly and handled with more precision than before. Off-road ability was still intact as well. However, it still lagged in too many key areas. First, the Montero used the same 3.5-liter V6 as before, and its 200 horsepower provided anemic acceleration at higher speeds. Its handling was also a letdown due to a combination of too-slow steering and excessive body lean, giving it a ponderous feel. We found little compensation in ride quality, which was on the stiff side.
We were more impressed by the Montero's interior, at least in appearance. Solid ergonomics, upscale materials and supremely comfortable front seats made the Montero feel like part of a more expensive class of SUV. Cargo space was generous, too. But comfort wasn't uniform throughout the cabin. The second-row seats were short on thigh support, and the Montero's standard third-row bench had legroom skimpy enough to cramp all but small children.
When this Montero debuted, there were two trim levels: XLS and Limited. The XLS came with a decent amount of equipment including air-conditioning, a CD stereo, power accessories, cruise control, antilock brakes and front seat side airbags. A four-speed automatic came paired to the V6 engine, and part-time four-wheel drive was standard. The Limited added a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode, "Active Trac" full-time four-wheel drive, a limited-slip rear differential and upgraded interior appointments such as leather seats and an Infinity stereo.
In 2003, the XLS gained two useful items formerly reserved for the Limited: the five-speed transmission and Active Trac. Also in 2003, Monteros received a 3.8-liter V6 with 215 hp, a stability control system and a head restraint and a three-point belt for the center rear seat. For this model's final two years, Mitsubishi discontinued the XLS trim.
To anyone drawn to a Mitsubishi Montero, we recommend models from 2003 onwards. The added engine power helps to improve the vehicle's acceleration times slightly, while providing more usable torque for highway maneuvers, and the stability control system is a valuable safety feature. Additionally, the XLS's upgraded hardware put it on more equal footing with the Limited. Prior to that, the Limited makes a better choice.
Past Mitsubishi Montero Models
The second-generation Montero was sold from 1992-2000. Smaller than its predecessor in every way but height, this Montero was a traditional four-wheel-drive SUV with body-on-frame construction and a solid rear axle.
Power initially came from a 3.0-liter V6 with 151 hp, available with either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. In 1994, a 3.5-liter DOHC V6 with 215 hp joined the lineup (with the automatic transmission only), and in 1995 the base 3.0-liter V6 got a boost to 177 hp. In 1997 both engines were discontinued in favor of a new single-cam 3.5-liter V6 with 200 hp, and the manual transmission disappeared.
Initially, the second-gen Mitsubishi Montero came in four trim levels: base, RS, LS and SR. The top two, LS and SR, came only with the automatic transmission and added amenities like power accessories, a tilt steering wheel and cruise control, plus optional electronic adjustable shock absorbers. The LS had antilock brakes from the start; the SR got them the next year. The SR could also be had with a rear differential with limited-slip and full locking capability.
For 1994, the Montero lineup was simplified to LS and SR lines, with the latter getting the new 3.5-liter V6 plus alloy wheels, antilock brakes, air-conditioning, a sunroof, CD stereo, keyless entry and in certain years, adjustable shocks and a locking rear differential. All Monteros now had seven-passenger seating and a driver-side front airbag. A passenger airbag was fitted in 1996, and in '98, Mitsubishi consolidated the trim lines into one well-equipped, slightly restyled model.
This Montero definitely drove more like a truck than did its successor: It was slow to move off the line, tippy in turns and sloppy in steering. Still, since there was no such thing as a "crossover" midsize SUV at the time, the Montero wasn't an entirely bad choice. Its interior was rather luxurious (if busily styled), its first two rows of seats were fairly comfortable and it was bigger and roomier than most rivals. Plus, rear passengers got a kick out of its gigantic sunroof. Only after the 1996 Nissan Pathfinder came along did the Montero start to seem dynamically primitive.
Because no Montero of this generation can hit 60 mph in fewer than 10 seconds, we'd recommend at least picking a sample with one of the two 3.5-liter V6s. The dual-cam version in the 1994-'96 SR would pack the most punch, though the single-cam version found in all Mitsubishi Monteros from 1997 onwards is nearly as quick, and the dual airbags and extra standard equipment of the later models are certainly pluses.
You could also go way back to the first-generation Mitsubishi Montero of 1983-'91. Its structure, mechanical layout and four-wheel-drive hardware were similar to the second-generation's, though it was a tad smaller and was available in two-door form through 1990. There was no third-row seat back then, and the interior has a dated, spartan appearance by today's standards.