It’s like a scene out of an early-90s teen comedy. A gang of tough high school kids are sitting at a light in their souped-up hot rod, laughing in mockery while they rev their straight-piped engine over and over at the tiny pizza delivery van sitting in the lane beside them. Red turns to green, and suddenly, that box-shaped pie-bringer has put three car lengths on the muscle machine that’s now filled with more embarrassment than testosterone. Smiling, the delivery driver screams through the night, moral victory firmly clutched to their chest.
It’s exactly this cinematic fantasy that Micah Dehn lives every day in sunny San Diego, California – or at least, when he takes to the 1/8 mile track in his 1992 Plymouth Colt Vista minivan. This all-wheel drive turbocharged terror is the definition of innocence until the go-pedal is floored, at which point it sheds its Clark Kent persona to eviscerate an unlucky challenger.
“The reactions to the car are awesome,” says Micah. “Literally, people are like, ‘what the hell is this?’ and they always laugh a little when I pulled into the staging lane. Then I launch, and the shock is incredible.”
Never heard of the Colt Vista? You’re not alone. In the late 80s and early 90s Chrysler and company were riding a wave of “captive imports,” vehicles that were built by partners like Mitsubishi so that they could be re-badged and sold at domestic dealerships. A fair chunk of these non-import imports were tall wagons, predecessors to the crossover that weren’t quite big enough to be vans but certainly larger than similarly-priced compact hatchbacks. The Colt Vista – sold as both a Plymouth and a Dodge, as well as the Eagle Summit Wagon and the Mitsubishi Expo LRV – was one of these, and it filled a niche that gradually evaporated by the middle of the grunge decade.
This plucky little Plymouth might have been left to slumber in obscurity were it not for one very important detail. While the Colt Vistas that were sold in the United States were outfitted with Mitsubishi’s slow but venerable 2.4-liter 4G64 four-cylinder engine, in other markets it was possible to order the turbocharged version of the van. That’s right – the same 4G63T found in the Mitsubishi Eclipse/Eagle Talon/Plymouth Laser is perfectly at home between the front-fenders of this mini-wagon. Throw in the factory-available all-wheel drive system, and you can start to see where this is going.
“I had a couple of friends that had done an all-wheel drive swap on the regular Dodge Colt, the two-door hatch, which was available here in America with a very rare 1.6-liter turbocharged engine. We did some digging online and found out about the Colt Vista, that it was all-wheel drive right from the factory,” explains Dehn. “I’d never really been into Mitsubishis, but because I had so many contacts and buddies in the DSM world, and I really wanted a sleeper, I started looking around for a Vista of my own. I really had no idea the project would ever go this far.”
One of Micah’s buddies on the East Coast found him the van he was looking for in Los Angeles, a 60,000 mile example whose owner was asking a mere $2,000. The car had the stock 2.4-liter 4G64 engine in it matched to a three-speed automatic transmission, but it wasn’t long before the turbo drivetrain swap was in progress. Initially, Dehn bought two 1G Eclipse parts cars, one wrecked and one complete. He decided to sell the running 7-bolt engine and keep the 6-bolt as the base on which to build, with the vehicle’s 3-bolt rear end coming along for the ride. Along the way, he also scored a sweet deal on a 2G five-speed manual gearbox originally built by Shep to replace the somewhat sketchy unit lifted from the 1G keeper.
“I had been having problems with the rear engine mount being wrong when trying to install my 1G engine with the 1G transmission in the Vista, and I couldn’t figure it out. When I tried again with the better 2G gearbox I found out that these wagons actually used 2G transmission from the factory, and I lucked out big time and found someone who had the right bracket for back of that transmission. Everything fell into place,” Micah says.
Still, even with the engine and trans fitted to the car, the 1G/2G weirdness continued to rear its head. “These are kind of an unusual mix of a car in that they started using 2G parts back in ’92, before they had made it into the Eclipse or the Talon,” Dehn explains. “I had to search countless junkyards throughout southern California before I could find five-speed parts from a scrapped wagon, including the shifter cables, clutch master cylinder, clutch pedal, and the shifter itself. I’ve had rough shifting in the wagon since day one, and it still sometimes wants to lock me out of reverse. I’m currently working with TMZ Performance to see if changing the selector arm in the gearbox from the original Eclipse component to one sourced from an all-wheel drive manual van will solve my problems. I’ve got the part in hand right now, and I should be able to swap it out without having to disassemble the entire box.”
A 1G transfer case feeds the engine’s power to all four wheels, with a 1G Eclipse manual rear end handling the load out back. It’s a 3 bolt setup, and while Micah says he’d love to have a stronger 4-bolt setup under his Vista, no one in the community has yet been able to make that possible. ‘I’m running the van’s original auto rear axles,” he says.
Can you feel the creep in project scope at this point? It took Micah by surprise, too.
“Originally, I was just going to drop the motor in an run it as-is, but then it lost compression and when I went to re-ring it the ring landing came off, and at the point I decided to get serious. It’s now a fully-built motor running JE pistons, Manley rods, an Forced Performance exhaust manifold, HKS 272 cams, and an Evo III 16g turbocharger.” Other notable parts powering the Vista include Brian Crower valve springs and retainers, 60 lb Siemens Deka injectors, a Forced Performance 255 fuel pump, a front-mount intercooler, and a Halman manual boost controller.
Despite the ferocity of what lies beneath, this particular Plymouth Colt Vista retains its almost completely stock looks. Suspension-wise, the van sits on an Evo suspension, which fits surprisingly well given the completely different mission statements of the two vehicles. “The rear shocks are very stiff, because they’re made for an Evo, and I had to cut the springs on the back to give it an even ride height because no one makes anything specific for the car – but for a $200 suspension, it’s really sweet,” says Micah. “The front bumper is only mildly, and you can’t see the black-painted intercooler, so the only giveaways really are the lowered height and the rims. For a while I was even running Ronal teddy bear wheels on it, which made it look even sleepier.”
Future plans for the van include getting it tuned via DSM link, ditching the MAG setup for speed density, continuing to iron out the issues with shifting, and getting a dyno baseline for the power the Vista’s putting out. A bigger turbo might even be in the cards. Even with that ahead of him, the Plymouth’s blend of anonymous, conservative styling and unexpected performance continue to keep Dehn passionate about the project.
“If this had just been an Eclipse, it would have zero appeal to me, but it’s so rare and unsuspecting that it’s a blast to drive on both the street and the track. I’ve even had people come over to the van in stop-and-go traffic and tell me how much they love it,” he explains. “It’s got so much grip on launch that most people can’t catch me on the 1/8 mile, but even if I lose, people cheer for the car because it’s so funny. I’ve never had anyone not smile and laugh, and as someone who’s owned a number of different high performance cars, I can tell you that’s an unusual experience.”
The next time you’re dusted by a 25 year old wagon wearing a period-correct pizza delivery sign on the roof, you can’t say we didn’t warn you.