One of my earliest automotive obsessions was born when I was poking around a Mitsubishi dealer in the late 1990s with my dad. I was about nine or 10. There in the showroom was a Caracas Red 1999 Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4 — by far the rarest and most outlandish-looking of all the 3000GTs built, and quite possibly of all the high-performance Japanese sports cars sold in the U.S. in the late 1990s. I remember not knowing what it was, but noting the hefty sticker price. It was treated by the dealership staff as being special … and fast. Considering this was the time when my automotive obsession was really starting to take hold — and since this was a low-volume, high performance vehicle — the memory has stuck with me ever since. About five years later, when I started to consider what it would be like to actually own a car, this red VR-4 was all I could think of. I could finally appreciate how rare it was (I’ve only ever seen one other since that day). All of a sudden, this forgotten AWD supercar from Japan became the object of my dreams.
The Mitsubishi 3000GT was known as the Mitsubishi GTO in Japan, and it was built from 1990 to 2000, with U.S. sales taking place from the 1991 to 1999 model years. It was renamed the 3000GT for the North American market due to Pontiac having called dibs on the ‘GTO’ moniker a few decades earlier. How can you tell the different model years apart? 1991 to 1993 models had pop-up headlights, while a facelift for 1994 introduced fixed headlights and revised body lines. A third-party-installed hardtop convertible was available in 1995 and 1996 (the 3000GT Spyder). Finally, another facelift in 1999 — the 3000GT’s last year of U.S. sales — introduced a more modernized and aggressive overall demeanor, made complete on the VR-4 by a massive new ‘combat wing’ mounted to the rear trunk lid. Featuring front-wheel-drive in base and SL trim, the 3000GT was oddly the only high-end Japanese sports car of the era not based on a rear-wheel-drive platform. This hardly mattered, though, as the only version you really wanted was the all-wheel-drive, twin turbo VR-4.
Early VR-4s were technological marvels, featuring 4-wheel steering, automatically adjusting front and rear spoilers, a tunable exhaust and an electronically controlled suspension. As the years went on, though, this tech was eliminated in the interest of simplicity and cost-cutting. Power went up, at least: While early VR-4s made 296 horsepower, the 1999 model put out 320 hp from the same twin-turbocharged V6 engine.
The 1999 edition of the 3000GT VR-4 is the most special. Altogether, only 287 were made for the U.S. market, offered in four colors: red, white, black and dark green (the rarest). I’ve seen only two in my life: the aforementioned red example at the Mitsubishi dealership, and then a white one in a Best Buy parking lot sometime in the mid-2000s. Needless to say, a 1999 3000GT VR-4 is a unicorn among unicorns.
It’s been almost two full decades since the end of the Japanese performance-car wars of the 1990s. Since then, Nissan has introduced the unbeatable GT-R, Acura has introduced a new NSX, Toyota will soon be rolling out a revival of the Supra, and Mazda is rumored to be working on a spiritual successor to the RX-7. While these automakers can still make a business case for such vehicles thanks to market conditions and industry consolidation, it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see another vehicle of this caliber from Mitsubishi — leaving the 3000GT VR-4 to be but a technological flash in the pan, and a distant memory for 1990s kids like me everywhere. Find a 1999 Mitsubishi 3000GT for sale
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.