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Subaru BRZ Reno-to-Vegas

The Long Way Home: Ending my military service with a 1,300-mile road trip in my track car

“Life has many doors, Ed Boy,” said a character in a hallucinogenic-fueled fever dream of an Ed Edd N’ Eddy episode. My, oh my, how that throwaway line stood the test of time.

Six years ago, 19-year-old me had signed one of the most transformative contracts to have ever put leashed me. Lost, despondent, in search of an edge in life after my first trainwreck of a college career, I enlisted in my state’s Air National Guard unit, and soon, it was a life of monthly drills and annual training with one of the best C-130 airlift wings. Fast forward six years, plenty of training months, a COVID emergency activation, another short-lived college attempt, a couple of entry-level car dealership jobs, and an overseas deployment, and my tenure has reached its end.

To extend my contract or not to extend? That was the question. Ultimately, it was the latter choice I thought would suit an older me best. But was the journey worth it, the option to join years ago and the choice to leave to fully pursue a career in automotive media? I couldn’t even say with a hundred percent certainty at the time, and my mind raced with a million possibilities for a life I hadn’t fully sorted out. But perhaps a little road trip would give me time to think.

By February of this year, my contract had finally timed out. Come April, I embarked on one last journey from my home in sandy, sunny Las Vegas up north to Reno to collect trinkets-turned-memorabilia from my locker and say some goodbyes to old friends. “Never say never,” they say, so I’m certain it wouldn’t be the last I’d see of any of them. But it’d certainly be the last I’d see most of them for a long while. So I prepared for the long haul and loaded a weekend’s worth of attire in the trunk of my less-than-practical 2022 Subaru BRZ, heavily modified for track duty by a good friend who previously owned it yet just livable enough to be my just-good-enough daily driver and, for this instance, an all-weather road-tripper. Maybe I should’ve listened to my mom and bought a Forester.

Subaru BRZ Reno-to-Vegas
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

One last time on familiar roads

8 a.m. on a Friday, I psyched myself in for yet another 400-plus mile excursion on familiar two-lanes I’ve driven dozens of times on my way to Reno for Guard training and activation. It’s a simple trip, and I’ve driven for longer. But my goodness, that first run up to Reno is always a dreary haul.

Miles and miles of nothing but sand, rocks, the color brown, and, oh, look at that! More sand. The I-95 northbound eventually widdles down from a traditional four-lane highway to a two-lane country road, cutting through one of the most desolate parts of the entire United States without much in the way of other traffic to enjoy on-the-go car spotting. When you do, it’s often an 18-wheeler, a lifted pickup, or some Malaise-era rust bucket. Snoresville. Travelers making this journey, please bring lots of caffeine and a playlist of heavy music, and know that passing the inevitable semi takes a sharp mind and a bit of horsepower.

Occasionally, the wandering mind is treated to historic mining towns like Goldfield and Tonopah, popular stops for lab-brewed caffeine-in-a-can, fresh octane, and junkyard car spotting. Walker Lake near Hawthorne is Middle Mevada’s sample tasting of French Riviera motoring, with cliffside views, roadside homes and lodging, and flowing sweepers to let the BRZ stretch its legs a little, or at least when it’s not stuck behind a convoy of lumbering semi-trucks. Otherwise, the drive is mostly a bore.

Thankfully, the persistent bunch who cross into the Reno-Tahoe area are rewarded with flowing hills and lush greenery unheard of to a desert rat like me. But not me, though. I was greeted with a flash snowstorm that my all-seasons thankfully dispatched with somewhat ease and with only a little bit of pants-browning on my end.

Farewell and thanks to the airmen who guided me

Through snow and slush, I made it to my home away from home in time to make one last round at the local Air Guard base. I didn’t think much about my future on the way up. All I could think of was escaping the The Hills Have Eyes counties and high-tailing it to civilization to the hotel check-in desk without turning the BRZ into another road safety statistic. Shoutout to Goodyear for making stellar rubber and my friend who loaned me these hand-me-down tires.

The next couple days were spent filling my travel cup with sentiment and nostalgia for days when younger me didn’t give a damn about anything other than the weekend. Coworkers in my shop said their goodbyes and their best wishes, imparting their post-service benefits advice as I loaded my Little Subie That Could with old military uniforms. I rendezvoused with old friends and reminisced on our times together, from student flight to basic training and on to our first and only deployment together to the shores of Northeast Africa. Djibouti was a blast, and now we were left pondering on the next steps in our lives as my friends also contemplated life after service and whether they should continue or also part ways.

Subaru BRZ Reno-to-Vegas
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

It’s a volatile time in the world, and we Gen Z brats hardly give much thought to where we’ll be in a year, let alone where we’ll be in a decade. Keeping with the typical Asian-American family dynamic, I’ve faced immeasurable pressure to succeed and fall into a field where stability and security are at arm’s length away. Doctor. Nurse. Engineer. Stay in the Air Force and make officer ranks. Right. Perhaps I damned myself with any sort of digital media gig, instead falling into a purgatory where I teeter between abundant hope, feeling like a million bucks and that I’m on top of the world, or feeling like I’m on the verge of imminent failure at all times. Better Help, take my money.

Anyway, enough existential crisis. We’d rather not spoil the moment. We had late-night pancakes to finish and celebratory liquor to down.

The long way home

So came the end of my military service, out with a laugh and some drinks rather than some big bang of a TDY like I thought it would. Still, so many friends I wish I could say goodbye to who were either away on their own TDYs or had already separated from our unit and dropped off the face of the earth. It was goodbye, but not for forever. I still owe my best friend from basic training a dual at Thunderhill against her Camaro. That’s for certain. Now, how to make this final run home count.

Ah, yes. Here comes Apple Maps to the rescue once again. This time, pitching me an alternate scenic route that takes me down past Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes, running alongside the Sierra Nevadan mountains before dumping me in the I-15 between home and Los Angeles. It’d extend my trip by over a hundred miles and turn a six-hour drive into nearly nine.

Sure. Why not? It’s the weekend, after all. It was one of the routes Maps always recommends you take, but you never do out of “I ain’t got time for that.” But on that particular weekend, I had all the time in the world.

Onward I went. From Reno down south past Washoe Lake and into Carson City. From Carson City into Gardnerville. And from Gardnerville into God knows where I was after that, but man, it sure was breathtaking. The highway departs northern Nevada suburbia and begins to snake up and down, in and out of the nearby snow-capped hills, soon dumping me on the coast of Topaz Lake. Or so the signs said it was Topaz Lake.

Subaru BRZ Reno-to-Vegas
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco
Subaru BRZ Reno-to-Vegas
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

I was in and out of agricultural lands I never even knew existed in this corner of Nevada and northeast California. I wanted to believe that once you’ve seen a few patches of grass driving up the I-5 between SoCal and The Bay, you’ve seen them all, but this was different. Familiar yet alien. It was like the drive up here except with more greenery and less creepy crack houses and brothels. The hours ticked away, and a few podcasts and playlists were crossed off. I passed a junction flooding with tourists bound for Mammoth Lakes, soon followed by a drastic descent from the treeline down into a valley where the Sierra Nevada mountains grew from mere hills to gargantuan towers, with their snow line soon disappearing from beneath your hood and rising high above.

Subaru BRZ Reno-to-Vegas
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

I know we car enthusiasts often bemoan freeway road trips versus secluded backroads, but come on now. Sometimes, it’s worthwhile to leave the sports car in Comfort mode and cruise, especially when the freeways look like this so you can stare at nature’s creations you wouldn’t see anywhere else. And I couldn’t ask for a better sports car for such a journey. Or, well, maybe I could. Nah, who am I kidding? I could. But it got the job done.

The greatest and worst GT car

For hundreds of miles upon miles, the little BRZ came into its own and made good on my claim that it’s the world’s cheapest GT car and surprisingly capable tourer. Mostly. I mean, that GranTurismo Trofeo from a couple months ago would’ve been epic, but we embark on journeys with the tools we have, not the tools we want.

My main compliments from my press car review last fall stood strong: ride quality was remarkable for such a small, cheap car, even on track-focused coilovers that my friend had set to nearly maximum stiffness. Potholes were of little to no concern. All-season tires were game-changing in how my car tackled the rain and later snow and slush in the Reno-Tahoe area, encouraging me to explore the snowed-out country two lanes nearby. The seats were oh-so-cozy, and their fiery-hot, ass-searing heating elements came in clutch. Toasty!

Subaru BRZ Reno-to-Vegas
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

The aggressive alignment could do with a little less tramlining, even with skinny, not-so-race-ready rubber. Just a little. And the fuel economy with the massive aero took a notable hit versus a stock BRZ. The mpg wasn’t bad, but the economy hit, plus the small tank, meant the range was sometimes a bitch. Still, I couldn’t complain. It was a fantastic and wonderfully capable driver’s car, and nearly running dry near a gas station at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, just within a stone’s throw of Mount Whitney, was its own blessing in disguise.

Even Bob Ross would still stop and stare, and maybe he’d even paint my car a happy little friend.

Final thoughts on my final stretch

A great trip needs a great finale, and I found one on a familiar highway traversed by my family as well as millions on a regular basis. As the valley of otherworldly mountains spat me out onto the I-15 and the arid desert, I reflected on the life I led and the one I had been given. If you told 20-year-old me that those high school dreams of getting paid to write about cars like my favorite automotive personalities, I would scoff and probably give you a good gut check for playing with me like that. It was a dream that felt out of reach under the pressure of family conformity and utter confusion at how people even broke into this industry. Now, I look back, grateful I took the leap I made, although fearful for an increasingly uncertain future in such a volatile field. But hell, I made it this far, didn’t I?

Subaru BRZ Reno-to-Vegas
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

Whether I was a humble freelancer or Supreme Editor Overlord of Road & DriverTrend, the truth was I had made it into a career I had dreamed of but didn’t think possible. All I have to do is run away with it and not look back. And that’s probably the best advice I can give a stubborn dreamer fueled more by passion than material desires. If you see a window of opportunity, any window, big or small, jump straight through it and never stop. Of course, play your cards right and play them smart, but don’t back down lest you discover the biggest life regrets come when you throw in the towel on your endeavors.

Is my career perfect? Fuck no. But I’d still be parking cars or bouncing between lecture halls for some dead-end major at the university right now if I didn’t take that chance.

As for the Air Force, it’s safe to say that chapter ran its course as this new avenue of digital media and the oh-so-fantastic world of adulting (and for realsies this time) just turned green for me. Come to think of it, aside from extra coin, a splash of life guidance, and a bit of adventure, I can’t fully recall why exactly I enlisted in the first place. But while I’m deciding to part ways and begin anew, I’ll forever be grateful for all it gifted me, even as a mere Guardsman. And so onward I go into this new career I’m building from scratch. I will always look back on that uniform fondly.

I started this trip overflowing with anxiety and my mind racing. “What’s next? What am I going to do? What if I fail at this? Should I have stayed enlisted? Should I change careers?” On the last leg home, my mind fell at ease, only asking one thing at the moment: “Lake Dolores Waterpark looks beautiful under the setting sun, doesn’t it?”

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Acceleramota Eats
Saturday Morning Car Tune!

Here are some awesome gearhead restaurants for your next Southern California trip

Following a recent trip to view the soft launch of the new-to-us Fiat 500e, I decided to extend my stay to tour the local touges and sample SoCal’s finest eateries, soon realizing there were plenty of places that serve someone in search of both. Call these a cafe racer’s delight! Yes, I know that term is primarily for motorcycles, but bear with me here as I showcase to you a few of the best places in LA that I’ve discovered to be culinary havens for car enthusiasts in one way or another.

Some on this list may be blatantly in-your-face about their affinity for car culture, while others serve as more of a mere convenience to gearheads due to their location rather than a tribute. Either way, every place I’ve tried on this list is a worthwhile destination for your next LA excursion, and I implore you to take that damn McDonald’s pin off your CarPlay map and indulge in some real Californian eats.

The cherry on top? All these places are within a stone’s throw from some iconic driving roads. Or, well, you know. A stone’s throw by California traffic standards.

Neptune’s Net – From that one scene in that one movie

On Highway 1, next to Yerba Buena Road, minutes from Decker Canyon, Topanga, Tuna Canyon, and more

Acceleramota Eats Neptunes Net
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

What’s hot?

  • Self-service fridge full of drinks (like a convenience store)
  • Slap bang in the middle of many technical Malibu mountain roads

What’s not?

  • Pretty expensive menu items
  • Woefully crowded on any weekend

“What’s the retail on one of those?”

“More than you can afford, pal. Neptune’s Net Sampler combo.”

You already know. After beating up on Ferrari F355s on Highway 1 or coming down a downhill rager on Yerba Buena, you can treat yourself to a buffet of self-serve refreshments and some roadside food at that one set from that one movie. Established in 1956, Neptune’s Net has seen its fair share of pop culture usage, even being recreated in Grand Theft Auto V. Today, its popularity fails to waver for better or worse.

Seriously, don’t even bother on a weekend unless you’re ready to box a mom and her kids for a parking spot.

Still, the litany of convenience store refreshments, from energy drinks to booze, and the top-notch fried seafood are worth the adventure, even if the price tag can climb quite a bit. The fried shrimp and scallops are my favorite, and the coleslaw actually ain’t bad! Haters be damned. I’ll eat their slaw every time. Burgers, salads, and sandwiches are also available, although I have yet to try them in my months of visiting here.

Fujiwara Tofu Cafe – Here’s one for the racers and weeaboos alike

Off the 10 in El Monte, CA, 30 minutes from San Gabriel Canyon Road and Glendora Mountain Road

Acceleramota Eats Fujiwara Tofu Cafe
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

What’s hot?

  • A fun, unconventional menu like few milk tea shops around
  • Doubles as a lifestyle brand for Initial D and local grassroots motorsports fans

What’s not?

  • Soymilk-based everything is an acquired taste
  • Most merch is usually only sold online or at events

Order food. Order drinks. Play the arcade games, and go tear up Glendora Mountain Road afterward. Doesn’t matter to me. Just don’t spill the water.

A personal favorite of mine that I’m now shoving down all of your throats, Fujiwara Tofu Cafe is probably one of the best, most honest, and true-to-its-roots take on a themed eatery outside of an amusement park. I mean, come on. There’s Initial D playing on the tele. The order counter is adorned with various car culture, racing, and Initial D stickers with signage from Bunta’s tofu shop overhead. Over the ordering tablets is an AE86 Corolla door with the tofu shop script. And beyond that, they’re a retailer for kickass automotive lifestyle merch and Initial D memorabilia and a venue for small-scale car meets. Oh yeah. And the menu.

Iketani Senpai (green Thai tea) is my current favorite, which is ironic because I hate Iketani in the show. The fried tofu with its sweet-and-sour sauce is (insert Italian hand gesture emoji), and as a Filipino-American, their tofu puddings send me into Anton Ego mode, vividly reminding me of taho.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the franchise or not. If that doesn’t scream car enthusiast haven, I don’t know what does. Go here and give them your money. Sure, soy-based everything is an acquired taste, and I have an even split of friends who love and hate the menu, but it’s certainly a whimsical take on your typical tea shop offerings and still worth every bit of your time to stop by after a long road trip or a hard canyon drive.

Wild Oak Cafe – Brekkie under the trees near LA’s most famous driving road

On Chevy Chase Drive in Glendale, CA, minutes from Angeles Crest Highway and Angeles Forest

Acceleramota Eats Wild Oak Cafe
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

What’s hot?

  • Expansive breakfast and coffee menu for a small shop
  • Gorgeous patio area and decor

What’s not?

  • Limited parking spaces
  • In the middle of a neighborhood, so don’t be a dick if you have a loud exhaust

Perhaps the least car culture-oriented place on this list and the most quaint, serene, and lowkey. Wild Oak Cafe is saddled right in the middle of a lovably peaceful Glendale neighborhood in the hills at the base of Angeles Crest Highway, one of the most famous driving roads in the LA area. Just a few minutes from the entrance of the road is this breakfast joint seemingly built out of an old market or gas station, with trees filtering the sunlight over the hilltops and potted plants and a dilapidated old Model T setting the mood.

The entire dining area is outdoors on the patio, and you can treat yourself to an array of familiar and cozy breakfast dishes to start or end your morning drive. Breakfast sandwiches, burritos, traditional American breakfasts with eggs and bacon, and waffles are staples here. A treat for those who’ve never had it would be the Armenian coffee served in a traditionally small portion but brewed with enough of a kick to the teeth to jumpstart any coffee junkie.

No, it’s not really car enthusiast-centric, but its location makes it the perfect stop before or after the canyons. Just don’t be a dickhead and respect the neighbors who probably paid an arm and a leg for homes I can never afford in my lifetime.

Motoring Coffee – Mochas, matcha, and motor oil in the air

On Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA, 25 minutes to downtown and 30 minutes to Topanga Canyon

Acceleramota Eats Motoring Coffee
Image credit: Jeric Jaleco

What’s hot?

  • Top-notch coffee shop offerings
  • Starbucks doesn’t have a Honda Acty dining table

What’s not?

  • Being a storage facility for privately-owned cars, you can’t get too close
  • Limited food menu

Not that hungry but can go for some caffeine? Meander on over to Motoring Coffee between downtown and the coast, where LA’s eclectic upper echelon of car enthusiasts have decided to turn their storage facility into a hip public business. Just don’t breathe too close to someone’s car.

The food menu is quite limited to basic coffee shop affair, like croissants and cookies, and their drinks menu is comprised of fairly standard offerings you’d find at any other cafe. Thankfully, they put forth effort to do it right and make them as good as they can be. Their mocha and matcha lattes are sweet and satisfying without being overly decadent like the liquid candy masquerading as coffee from a chain coffee shop, and the vibes of being surrounded by classic 911s, old Land Cruisers, and a few trick motorcycles make for a pleasant place to kill time for a short period.

Cons? Well. I wish I were a member. Their private rooms in the back, separate from the coffee shop front, are just the place I want to be when I say I feel like going for a drive, but the sheer weight of my laziness keeps me from actually making it to any worthwhile road. So please stop by for a drink and at least feel like a million bucks as you spill coffee all over their Honda Acty dining table.

Sigh. Man, I miss FoodTribe. Those were the days.

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Michael's Mitsubishi Pajero Evo
FeaturesSaturday Morning Car Tune!

Up close and (too) personal with my Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution

When I drove down to the Port of Los Angeles to pick up the 1997 Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution that I had won at an auction in Japan just four months prior, only a teensy little bit of drama ensued. I expected a dead battery after such a long post-auction waiting period plus weeks on a ro-ro ship, but when a jump pack couldn’t even spark the engine to life, two good samaritans with two different trucks and two sets of jumper cables needed to come to my rescue. 

Such is the power of the enthusiast automotive industry, and I chuckled to myself as I sat powerless, occasionally pumping the throttle while surrounded by an expansive parking lot chock-full of (presumably also dead) JDM icons. That rescue attempt proved short-lived, though. After the Pajero’s engine finally cranked over, all of a sudden, a searching idle and lurching acceleration cropped up as I headed for the customs shed to sign some final forms on the dotted line. The truck died twice more throughout those few hundred yards before I nearly wheeled up onto a flatbed trailer. I already felt grateful for the Dakar-developed suspension, to say the least. 

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Bringing this old dog home

A dead battery. Gnarly noises from the engine and transmission. Maybe a dry gas tank. On the long drive home, my mind raced along at breakneck paranoiac pace, wondering what I’d gotten myself into.

Back home, I poured in a few gallons of 91 octane and then checked the automatic transmission fluid dipstick—yep, those exist—only to discover the transmission pan even drier than the fuel tank. Four or five quarts of Mitsubishi Diaqueen SPIII later, I went for a test drive. The engine finally revved happily, and the gearbox shifted smoothly until I switched off the ignition again and hopped out, only to audibly hear fluid flowing out, piddling onto the concrete slab. Oh boy.

Hey, on the bright side, all the mechanical drama gave me an excuse to skip the 405 freeway as my first right-hand-drive experience in the United States. But this first day owning a homologation special went rougher than expected, nonetheless. And that’s considering how many sleepless nights I spent preparing for every last eventuality that might possibly emerge while picking up a rare car with 237,000 kilometers on the odometer and a laundry list of even rarer parts that are almost impossible to find in Japan, let alone the United States. Luckily, the Pajero Evo also shares many parts with Gen 2 and Gen 3 Mitsubishi Monteros sold here in America, and I quickly installed a Montero oil cooler line to replace the burst piece on the PajEvo.

Happily ever after, at least until I used Google Lens to translate the sticker on the timing belt cover, which seemed to suggest the last timing belt job had been completed in ‘22—next, I realized that in Japan, that “22” meant the twenty-second year of the previous emperor’s reign, or 2012 by my math. So the Evo sat for a couple more months while I sourced a timing belt, water pump, and various other “while you’re in there” parts from Japan, Dubai, and, somewhat surprisingly, Rock Auto. With the truck finally running at full gas—knock on wood, I know—seemingly everyone who knows anything about anything wants to learn more about this rare Dakar racecar for the road, especially since its recent uprising in Hagerty prestige. So buckle up, kiddos. Let’s talk about the Mitsubishi Pajero’s Evolution.

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A totally different beast

Pictures of Pajero Evos online only tell part of the story. Yes, those hilarious fender flares and Bat-manga-ear vertical stabilizers look awesome on a short-wheelbase truck, but beneath the skin lurk miracles that Mitsubishi’s engineers worked over to produce the Dakar Rally’s winningest vehicle ever (though Can-Am believes the Maverick X3 might soon be able to take the record by managing similar miracles, perhaps). 

The biggest difference between a Pajero Evolution and the utilitarian, almost Spartan run of Pajero and Montero (and Shogun) SUVs sold worldwide involves significant revisions to the suspension in order to cope with racing through the African desert. Mitsubishi raced first-gen Pajeros before developing the Evo proper, which received different unequal-length A-arms and coilovers for the independent front suspension versus a standard version while simultaneously ditching Pajero’s traditional solid rear axle in favor of independent rear suspension. Looking back, the layout blurs the lines between Gen 2 and 3 Monteros, though, unlike the Evo, the Gen 3 switched to a unibody rather than a body-on-frame chassis.

Michael's Mitsubishi Pajero Evo
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

I noticed one of the most impressive parts about that suspension system the first time I got my Evo up on a lift, as the front wheels and tires drooped down and outward rather than swinging inward. Ideal for catching air and nailing landings, obviously, just like those vertical stabilizers. Of course, in a similar fashion to the more well-known Lancer Evolution compact sports sedan, the Pajero also uses a much more powerful engine—though not by bolting on a turbocharger, something of a bummer but a detail which I hope should help to improve reliability and longevity of my high-mileage truck.

Instead, the Evo’s 3.5-liter dual-overhead-cam V6 uses some components from the second-gen SR engine, with an early application of Mitsubishi’s MIVEC valve timing system for the heads. Think VTEC, VANOS, or VarioCam, but the resulting peak of 276 horsepower during the Japanese automaker “Gentlemen’s Agreement” definitely feels underrated once the Evo comes onto that second cam at about 5,000 RPM. 

Michael's Mitsubishi Pajero Evo
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

Meanwhile, the Gen-2 Montero’s Aisin three-speed automatic with overdrive went out the window in favor of a new five-speed automatic. The factory offered a stick shift, though I believe the Dakar race trucks actually used a manual gearbox built by Holinger in Australia for V8 Supercars. That Aisin trans appeared later in the Gen-3 Montero, but desert racing in the Evo’s dictating shorter gear ratios and a reprogrammed TCM that holds gears higher into the rev range.

The four-wheel-drive transfer case also resembles a Montero’s, with a similar Super Select gear lever that allows for shifting between 2-Hi and 4-Hi on the fly to produce all-wheel drive, as well as locking the viscous center differential for more traditional four-wheel drive. Switching to 4-Lo requires coming to a stop in Neutral, though the live axle trucks’ optional rear locker gives way to Torsen automatic torque biasing front and rear differentials on the Evo.

On the interior, the racecar theme continues with unique Recaro seats—most similar to an Isuzu VehiCROSS, actually, but with adjustable bolsters and different cloth upholstery. The Evo, therefore, rides tighter and higher than a Gen 2 Montero, allowing for better visibility over the hood. Almost every Evo needs repairs to the cloth bolsters from drivers and passengers sliding up and into the seats, though, and that cloth also attracts dog hair better than velvet, even though I’ve only allowed the dog in the car twice ever. 

A nice set of original front floor mats features a rubber inset to collect dirt and pebbles while off-roading. Other fun details include carbon fiber trim to distinguish the Evo’s dash from more pedestrian and otherwise identical Pajero dashes. That carbon fiber optionally extended to the tall gearshift lever, which allows for bang-shifting using an early Tiptronic-style selection, with Up towards the front and Down towards the back (the inverse of a present-day sports car’s automatic or a racecar’s sequential). My truck came in relative poverty spec, though, and I do wish I could find a few of the dealer options like front light pods, a ski rack, and an aluminum fuel filler door.

The biggest bummer? Probably that no Evo has cruise control. Because racecar, duh.

Keeping a Mitsubishi stock? Surely not…

The obscure Dakar legend of a short-wheelbase, cartoonified racing truck helps to explain why anyone who knows about the Pajero Evo gets absolutely stoked to see one. I bought the truck to share with the Montero community—which partially explains why I chose an automatic, too—and have met many other owners both online and in person so that we can coordinate parts sourcing and modifications.

I plan to keep my PajEvo as close to stock as possible, other than swapping on a three-spoke OEM steering wheel from a Mitsubishi Eclipse to replace the delaminating rim on a surprisingly bland four-spoke that matches an otherwise standard Montero. And I just love a three-spoke steering wheel anyway.

My Evo also arrived with tired Yokohama HT street tires that aren’t even sold here in the States, so I swapped on a set of incrementally taller Geolandar A/T rubber that might better take the beatings I planned to dish out in the dirt. While chatting with some of Yokohama’s engineers at Nitro Rallycross last year, I learned that any of the historical photos I found of Dakar race trucks wearing Yokohama tires probably showed privateer teams. Mitsu’s factory trucks only used BFG and Michelin, apparently. 

Michael's Mitsubishi Pajero Evo
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

So far, those Geolandars have held up quite well, both on-road and off. About 5,000 kilometers in, the front shoulders already show a bit of wear, which I attribute to my penchant for ripping this body-on-frame truck faster than most Porsche 911 or Ferrari owners up in Malibu—but I figure that’s to be expected while driving high-sidewall LT-metric truck tires mounted on a high-powered 4,300-pound vehicle anyway. At highway speeds, the tires barely peep. (No, I haven’t found any snow yet, sorry.)

I also swapped out the flimsy steel underbody panel for true skid plates built by Adventure Driven Design. In fact, the OEM piece looked more sturdy than the typical plastic used by most manufacturers these days, but thicker aluminum should hopefully prevent any flying pebbles from damaging unobtanium parts under there. Again, the similarities to Monteros helped here since only one little tab on a Gen 2’s transmission skid needed trimming to fit the Evo’s revised control arm mounting location. After my guinea pig experimentation, I sent the correct measurements to Adventure Driven Design, so the site now sells perfect Evo skid kits online, along with a host of other Montero and Pajero parts.

Michael's Mitsubishi Pajero Evo
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

Aftermarket parts support for Monteros and Pajeros from companies like ADD, in general, makes up a tiny sliver of the off-roading industry here in the United States. However, the passionate community relies heavily on international suppliers who stockpiled OEM parts before Mitsubishi’s steady decline left everyone in the lurch. For both the Monteros and the Pajero Evo, I regularly order everything from suspension components to oil cooler lines from Partsouq in Dubai, and shipping isn’t even too terrible. 

I’ve also struggled to get mixed results with the incredibly frustrating order systems of Amayama and Nengun Performance out of Japan. I just took a quick gamble on some front upper ball joints from Megazip that actually arrived fairly promptly. But availability for the Evo specifically depends partly on the fact that Mitsu never actually built much in the way of spare parts, so a number of companies in Australia and Europe also cater to custom requirements. My replica aluminum side steps came from Paves Garage down under, while EVO Shop GmbH (in Switzerland, I believe) has sent me a few targeted ads on IG for bushings, brake lines, and other components—priced just high enough to tempt me if a fit of desperation hits.

Sorting out the little details

A little detail that I learned quickly about bringing a JDM car to the United States required much longer to solve than expected: it turns out that AM and FM radio frequencies vary across the Pacific. And my OEM radio, which previous owner(s) clearly never bothered to replace, only made bad noises through what sounded like blown-out speakers. I tried a cassette adaptor, tried swapping in my Montero’s original radio, and even tried to splice in a Bluetooth adaptor through the empty CD changer port. 

Eventually, I broke down and bought a retro-styled VDO Continental aftermarket head unit that almost, but doesn’t quite, match the rest of the Pajero’s blue-green dash lights. The head unit allows for Bluetooth, my main requirement, but not dimming of the screen or button bulbs—so I put a thin dimmer film on the screen to prevent nighttime glare. All this to avoid a double-DIN screen low down in the dash, so that I can keep the so-damn-Japanese felt-lined sunglasses drawer and pull-out cupholders. 

Another “because racecar” moment arrived when I discovered that the Pajero Evo lacks door speakers, despite the standard Pajero front door cards, which do have speaker panels built in. So I broke down again and bought Pioneer four-inch dash speakers in the hopes of gaining a bit of audio crispness with minimal effort involved (pulling the 6×9 rear speakers will eventually happen, but it requires popping off almost all of the rear interior paneling).

Michael's Mitsubishi Pajero Evo
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

A fellow PajEvo owner also came to the rescue in a big way quite recently when he sent me instructions for how to reprogram the OEM key fob that came with my car but seemed not to work despite its little red bulb flashing and a battery replacement. I won’t share the exact details of how to reprogram the fob because it was literally so easy that I’m now scared to park the Evo anywhere even remotely sketchy and plan to wire in a hidden kill switch (and almost certainly invest in The Club as an additional visual deterrent, too). But the simple act of locking and unlocking without needing to slide a key into a tumbler makes the Evo feel so much more modern.

Keeping the Dakar dream alive

Meanwhile, I installed a set of phone and camera mounts from Bulletpoint Mounting Solutions on the original dashtop gauge cluster to hold my phone in place of a double-DIN screen (don’t worry, I found a replacement gauge cover to drill into). And I slid an Element fire extinguisher into the little retaining clip that originally housed a by-now-missing flare in the passenger footwell. Similar other details point to Mitsubishi’s incredible attention to detail during the 1990s, from the rear door toolkit’s easy access and useful selection to the rear wiper’s pour funnel that prevents messes while refilling fluid.

Michael's Mitsubishi Pajero Evo
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

I want to keep the original Japanese stickers on the windows as long as possible, but I did add a few warning stickers from my time in Saudi Arabia at the 2023 Dakar Rally on the driver’s side sun visor. And even if an Optima Yellowtop stands out like a sore thumb in the engine bay, I figure a better battery makes sense given my travel schedule—no matter how much I daily drive the Evo while at home, I’m still not home nearly enough.

In terms of maintenance, after getting the engine and trans running without leaks, my main focus lately has been refreshing the front steering and suspension. Again, most steering components drop right in from a Gen-2 Montero, including the tie rod ends, idler and pitman arms, and steering box (the latter with a tighter ratio, though). Swapping in new pieces for all of the above, plus upper front ball joints, already made a huge difference in tightening up some of the vague play that I formerly attributed to the truck-ness of the Pajero Evo (and I’ve got a story on that, too).

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Just don’t ask how many pullers I needed to actually get the pitman arm off or how much the penetrating oil costs. I still need to pull the hubs to replace the front lower ball joints and maybe a CV boot that I tore in the process of struggling without having the right tools in the past. The Evo, unfortunately, also seems to suffer from the same degraded “redball” transfer case shifter as Gen-2.5 Monteros. Luckily, I have a spare “whiteball” shifter sitting around, but I need a hydraulic press to swap it into the Evo’s shift lever, which bends in the opposite direction compared to an LHD Montero. Then, with a few dash bulbs replaced for the 4WD and gear selection gauges, I should be all set with my (current) to-do list.

But other maintenance items have left me in the lurch. The entire rear suspension uses ball joints and bushings that come built into the arms—more unobtanium. I want to do a valve cover gasket job to stop some slight oil seepage, but I can’t find the wasted spark plugs’ wires with the correct size tubes to fit the taller MIVEC heads. Should I wait and hope to find either OEM or aftermarket parts, or just try to cobble a solution together? A bit of Mickey Mouse mechanical skill already fixed a clunking and squeaking rear door latch, after all, requiring more than a few hours spent fiddling with seals and striker plates and rear cargo area lighting.

So yes, owning a high-mileage Pajero Evolution ends up testing the concept of a labor of love. But I never thought I’d be able to check off owning my third-favorite car of all time by the age of 35 (behind a Lancia Stratos and Porsche 959, no less). And I truly chuckle every single time I see the PajEvo, not to mention every time I rip up a canyon in Malibu or along a dirt track out in the desert. 

Daily driving an RHD JDM legend isn’t even all too bad in traffic, and it has inspired me to keep an eye out for a few others on the off chance I can scrounge up a bit more cash. But in the meantime, I keep reminding myself how lucky I truly am to have taken a leap of faith and imported this homologation special from Japan. So to all those would-be JDM enthusiasts out there, if you happen to see a guy grinning ear to ear from the wrong side of the road in a Pajero Evolution, rest assured that with a little bit of luck (and maybe a lotta bit of) elbow grease), you too might one day soon live out the same dream.

Michael's Mitsubishi Pajero Evo
Image credit: Michael Van Runkle

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