The 3000GT VR-4 is a sign of both what's right and what's terminally wrong with the automotive industry. Which is remarkable, because they haven't made one since, oh - 2000. US imports ceased in 1999, meaning the freshest of 3000GT's are more than a decade old at this point, so the relevance of the VR-4 is questionable. But it was quite telling.
The 3000GT (marketed in Japan and other countries as the GTO, which you know wouldn't have gone over well here) was Mitsubishi's flagship halo car, a rolling testbed to show just what the company could do. It replaced the ancient (but awesome) Starion Coupe when it debuted in 1990, and when the specifications were announced it sounded like a world-killer.
Based on a shortened Diamante platform, the 3000GT used a transverse-mounted 3.0L 24v V6 to drive the front wheels in base form. 222bhp wasn't too shabby (exactly on par with the also new-for-1990 Nissan 300ZX) but the front-wheel-drive 3000GT wasn't the one anyone (besides poseurs) cared about. The top-of-the-line VR4 model was a big, metal punch in the face to the sports car pecking order.
The 3.0L engine gained a pair of turbochargers and intercoolers, a transfer case and two more driven wheels at the back, four-wheel-steering, active aerodynamics, ECS (Electronically Controlled Suspension), and even a variable-noise exhaust system which used a solenoid-controlled exhaust flapper to make it louder or quieter depending on your mood. The monster twin-turbo engine sent 300bhp and 306lb-ft of torque to all four wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox.
Was it fast? Well, of course. It was a small 2-door coupe with four wheel drive and a twin-turbo 300bhp engine. Early VR-4's could crack the sixty mark in about six seconds, which was fairly fast for the time. The problem was that all that technology didn't come for free: the VR-4 was one heavy sonofabitch. Even the early VR-4's weighed in around 3800lbs, which is a lot even by today's standards. It has massive grip and lateral adhesion, but it was sort of like dancing with a bear. By comparison, even though the RX-7 of time was down on power (255bhp vs 300), thanks to a nearly half-ton weight advantage, it was almost a whole second faster to 60 than the portly VR-4. The heavy turbo sideways V6 also meant the VR-4 had a much more pronounced front weight bias than competitors like the Supra, 300ZX, RX-7, 968, and Corvette, resulting in rental-car understeer when you pushed it really hard. Still, it's overall ability to annihilate a twisty road wasn't exactly ruined by all that weight; I'm just saying it could've done with 500lbs less weight under it's belt.
It is also worth noting that, at least in this country, you could buy a 3000GT from your local Dodge dealer - with a mild restyling job and "Dodge Stealth" badges on the back. There were no significant mechanical differences, so for all intents and purposes, let's say that 3000GT=Stealth. Regardless of the badge and name on the back, these cars were head-turners: long, low, and wider than Oprah Winfrey.
Changes over the 3000GT's lifespan were remarkably minimal, considering it was sold here from 1990-1999. There were minor updates in 1994 to keep the car fresh: a new front bumper with projector-beam headlights replaced the old pop-up units, and the 5-speed 'box gave way to a new heavy-duty Getrag 6-speed manual. Power was up to 320bhp and 317lb-ft thanks to a hike in boost from 10psi to 12psi. Wheels and tires got bigger (base models got 17's, VR-4's sported some shiny 18's) and the passenger got to enjoy the fluffy comfort of an airbag too.
The Stealth clone was discontinued due to super-slow sales in 1996, Mitsubishi began to de-content the car to combat the rising dollar-yen exchange rate, which was making it (and cars like the aforementioned Supra and RX-7) an increasingly difficult-to-justify financial proposition. The weird exhaust flaps disappeared for '94, and the adaptive suspension and active-aero bit the dust for '95. Still, the price continued to swell drastically: what started out as a reasonably-price rocketship in '90 was suddenly a $45,580 car with a Mitsubishi badge on it in 1996, which was a hard pill to swallow when that kind of money would buy you an M3. Or a Corvette.
Mitsubishi kept updating the car a little bit at a time to keep people interested, but the most interesting thing they did with the 3000GT came out in 1995. Called the Spyder, it really was a 3000GT with a retracting metal hardtop, making it the first such vehicle on the US market - a few years ahead of the super-popular Mercedes-Benz SLK. The conversions were done by ASC (American Sunroof Company) and it offered something nothing else on the market did: true top-down wind in the hair motoring when you wanted it, and a real roof when you didn't.
Of course, it wasn't cheap - a fully loaded VR-4 Spyder was more than $65,000 in 1996, and with the folding roof the 3000GT VR-4 tipped the scales near 4100 pounds, so even in twin-turbo trim it still couldn't keep up with the 240bhp E36 M3. The high price tag made it an extremely slow seller, and it was discontinued after just 2 years of sales. Spyders command a pretty big premium over regular 3000GT's today, but if that's your thing, it might be worth it.
The main performance trademark of the VR-4 was the way it could leave a stoplight like it'd been rear-ended by a fast moving dumptruck. 300bhp is a lot of power, but not enough to spin 4 meaty summer tires, meaning the 'Vettes and Cobras would be seeing nothing but taillights at least through most of second gear. Later 6-speed VR-4's with the updated engine were closer to 5 seconds flat to sixty, but that's just the start. VR-4's aren't what I'd call adverse to modifications - in fact, if you're shopping, good look finding one that hasn't been upgraded in some way. Taking a quick look through the dragtimes database (which is a fantastic site, by the way) reveals some alarming numbers. At the top of the food chain is Chris Hill's drag-prepped '91 VR-4, stuffed full of 3SX performance goodies. With a pair of Garrett GT35's(!) and running on VP16 race gas, it layed down a 9.214 second 1/4 mile at 154mph. Now, I don't know your metric, but that's fast in my book. And it's not just 3SX's VR-4 - you've got to wade through 3 pages of VR-4's to even get to one running in the low thirteens.
Of course, with any car this complicated, there are bound to be issues. The VR-4's engine is relatively solid, but there are a few things that need to be checked on. These engines require a 60,000 mile service which is pretty comprehensive - cam belts, tensioners, water pump, oil pump (every 120,000 but preferrably sooner) and some gaskets. As the 6G72 is an interference engine, a snapped timing belt is going to spell bad news. The turbos themselves don't live forever - you can expect 100,00-150,000 miles out of a stock pair, depending on how they were treated. They're fairly small and spin quite fast, and heat buildup under that crammed engine bay can spell an early death for turbo bearings. Check for shaft play if possible. A new set is in the $300-$400 range, but the labor costs involved in replacing them could be quite dire, so keep this in mind.
Transmissions are a weak spot, as you'd suspect - any drivetrain asked to put that much torque to all four wheels is going to run into some problems eventually. There was a recall on 91-93 VR-4 models concerning the transfer case; if it hasn't been done, take care of it ASAP as failing seals in the 'box could have your drivetrain floating tits-up in no time. These trans are picky about regular fluid changes, but that's neither expensive nor a pain in the ass, so just do it. Both Getrag transmissions have their own unique failing points at higher power outputs, and the supply of replacement transmissions has long since dried up, so tweak the boost at your own peril. Stories of twisted output shafts on hard launches are not unusual once you start making some real power, and the brass synchros might only be good for 40,000 miles if you're not gentle with your shifts.
Also, all those fancy electronic gadgets have a limited lifespan. If the ECS is stuck in Sport or the light is flashing, then the computer (in the back) may have packed in and will need replacing. Check bushings, balljoints, engine mounts - all the usual "old car" things. Otherwise, it's your typical complicated Japanese car - so much stuffed into it that it seems impossible, yet it usually works.
How much should you pay for your VR-4? Well, that depends - values range widely. A worn-out early VR-4 with high mileage might only be worth $1,500-$3,000, whereas a low-mileage '96 VR-4 Spyder probably won't be listed for less than $20,000. As with any unusual high-performance car, buying the cheapest, most ragged-out one you can find is just false economy. You'll save a bundle (and a lot of headaches) if you just get the nicest one you can afford. VR-4's in a 300-mile range from me are a little more pricey than the norm - ranging from the low fives for a '91 that's practically driven to the moon and back, up to just below $33,000 for a '95 VR-4 Spyder with only 17k on the clock. It just really depends on what you're looking for.
While the VR-4 might not have the same legions of adoring fans as the other ninties Japanese supercars - I mean, how often do you hear some moron blabbing on about Supras? - but they definetely have their own appeal. They're the swiss army knife of sports cars - they can be loud or quiet, softly sprung or stiff, they can rocket down the dragstrip with a super-quick RT or get through a snowdrift. Try driving that Supra in the snow, or taking a long road trip in an RX-7 R1, and the advantages of this "do-all" design will become more apparent. Sure, it's compromised - but for how little you'll pay for one today, the amount of performance and potential is hardly surpassed by anything. If you're considering a fun used car, take a look at the VR-4 - you just might find what you're searching for.