What would be your vehicle of choice when venturing out into the wilderness? If you pose this question to off-road enthusiasts in the UAE, the reply would invariably be either the Toyota Land Cruiser or the Nissan Patrol, two undisputed kings of the desert. Anyone care for a Mitsubishi Pajero? A Pajero? To the desert? No way. Isn't it an ordinary SUV that's just about good for the school run and that evening trip to the grocery?
Not really. The fact is that this unassuming machine is the most successful vehicle in the history of the Dakar Rally, the toughest motorsport event known to man, with 12 wins from 26 races, out of which seven were on the trot.
When Mitsubishi launched the Pajero in 1982, Land Rover Discovery, Toyota Land Cruiser and the Nissan Patrol had already been around for decades and established themselves as highly capable off-road vehicles. So in order to get some attention, Mitsubishi knew they had to do something drastic, and what better way to make an impression than showcase it at Dakar right away. They fielded a production trim Pajero in the 1983 Paris-Algiers Dakar rally with Andrew Cowan and Colin Malkin behind the wheel. The upstart SUV surprised one and all with its impressive capabilities and continued its amazing run in the next year's event by edging out many specialist machines including Jacky Ickx's Porsche to clinch the third place overall. Mitsubishi couldn't have asked for a better debut for its new car, but the best was yet to come.
With over 500 competitors and a route spanning 14,000km, the 1985 Dakar rally was the toughest yet, and there were close to 40 Pajeros in the fray. After a gruelling 22 days of race over some of the most treacherous terrain in the world, a Pajero driven by Patrick Zaniroli finished first, with the second spot taken by yet another Pajero, driven by Andrew Cowan. This win was a shot in the arm for the Pajero's reputation and sales, and cemented its position as one of the most capable all-terrain machines, merely three years after its launch.
From then on, podium finishes became a habit for the Pajero, with the first three positions taken by the SUV in the 1992 and 1997 rallies and the first four spots in 1998. And then came the unbelievable streak of seven consecutive victories from 2001 to 2007, before the VW Touareg broke this starting 2009.
Ironically, although it's the Pajero's reputation as a tough off-roader that boosted its sales initially, somewhere down the line, that reputation got diluted and in many markets, including the Middle East, it's seen more as a daily runabout than a competent off-roader.