Vintage views: Mitsubishi Starion ESI-R and Chrysler Conquest TSI

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Dec 8, 2021 | Chrysler, Mitsubishi, Starion, Conquest | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the June 2017 issue | Never miss an article

There’s just something so right about a car sporting box flares from the factory. It’s like its engineers got partway through the design before realizing, “Nope, we need to stretch the car even wider in order to fit in all of this awesomeness.”

It’s a solution perfectly demonstrated by several favorites, including the Porsche 944, Nissan Skyline GT-R and, of course, the original BMW M3. There’s one more to add to that list, though: the Mitsubishi Starion ESI-R and its stateside twin, the Conquest TSI.

The car didn’t start out so beefy. Mitsubishi released the Starion in 1982 as a narrow-bodied, somewhat meek 2+2 sports coupe. Turbo and non-turbo variants were offered in the home market.

American imports started with the 1983 model year, and stateside consumers weren’t limited to shopping at their local Mitsubishi dealer. The exact same car, with the appropriate labels, was also sold as a Plymouth Conquest and, later, a Chrysler Conquest. Either way, all U.S.-market cars received a turbocharged 2.6-liter, single-cam inline-four.

Somewhat meek” doesn’t mean it was a dud, though. Dave Wolin and others turned that original Starion into an endurance race winner, and before he became a Hollywood movie star, Jackie Chan drove one across the silver screen in “Cannonball Run II.”

And then things got serious for 1986: a set of IMSA-worthy box flares for those top-of-the-line Starion ESI-R and Conquest TSI models. Fat, 16-inch wheels–7s up front and 8s in the back–filled those flares. Mitsubishi also added an intercooler, boosting horsepower to 176. (Starting with the 1988 model year, an ECU change helped push that figure to 188 ponies.)

While it was a bit of a niche player in the mass market, the wide wheels, torquey engine and limited-slip differential helped the car dominate the G Stock class in SCCA Solo competition from 1989 to 1993–until competitors figured out the Mazda MX-6, the class’s next superstar.

The Conquest and Starion left our showrooms after the 1989 model year, with Mitsubishi abandoning the rear-drive sport coupe market in favor of the all-wheel-drive 3000GT Enthusiasts, too, seemed to gravitate to options sporting either more power or less weight. As a result, prices have remained kind of flat. A nice 1987 example recently went unsold on Bring a Trailer at $6518.

Still, if you’re looking for the perfect, unique accessory for that Members Only jacket, then a clean Starion might fit the bill.

Practical Guidance

Steve Nelson is president of Top-End Performance and has been working on these cars ever since they were new. In fact, he’s one of the country’s very few parts suppliers–if not the only one–remaining for these cars.

To own one of these cars you need to be a hands-on owner, willing to look for answers and do your own work on the car. Since they require specific knowledge to maintain, you can’t pay your local mechanic to fix something when it goes wrong. Basically, it’s not a car for check writers.

Think you’re up to the task? There are still a couple guidelines you need to follow when shopping. First, never buy one that’s not running. This rule should never be broken unless you plan to engine-swap the car–not an uncommon move these days. There’s a huge amount of vehicle-specific knowledge needed to make a basket case run again.

Next, you’ll want to pick your year. Ideally you want a 1988 or ’89 car. A 1987 car may suffice, but avoid cars from 1985 and ’86. The earlier cars had terrible fuel injection systems, and the computers limited the power output. The 1987 received the upgraded fuel system found in the later cars, but it still ran the earlier computer. Keep in mind, too, that computers from ’88 and ’89 cars are basically unobtainable.

Just as a point of reference, 1988 and ‘89 cars can see boost of up to 18 to 20 psi with the stock ECU. Earlier cars cut out at 10 psi.

Stay far away from any car with electrical problems. It will most likely never run again no matter who you take it to, unless you want to spend more than the car’s value in labor.

Going to standalone engine management cures almost everything wrong with these cars.

Common issues are almost always fuel injection related. If your car is running rough, it’s probably bad fuel injectors or fuel injector connectors. You can get the injectors cleaned and flowed or buy a new set (we offer both options at Top-End Performance), but new injectors are only available for 1987–’89 cars. Mass air-flow sensors are also known to go bad.

Strangely enough, there aren’t really any super-secret special maintenance tips. The normal tune-up–oil, plugs, caps, rotor, etc.–will keep a car running for quite some time.

Once you have your hands on a car that runs well, you can start the fun stuff. A downpipe and exhaust make a good first upgrade. A blow-off valve and boost controller of your choice is also a nice touch. Keep in mind that if you push boost over one bar, you need an upgraded fuel pump.

Turbocharger upgrades are limited, but we offer T3 and T4 kits.

Be cautious with power upgrades unless you’re confident the internals of the engine have been upgraded enough. The heads on these engines are prone to failure when pushed too far.


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4cylndrfury MegaDork
7/14/17 7:56 a.m.

Ahh the 80s...Starions, Celicas, Corollas, Turbo Buicks & T-top much quirkiness to love. SWMBO will never understand my affection for the blocky whips of my youth.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
7/14/17 8:05 a.m.

Cool, glad that you're digging it. Look for some turbo Buicks in the near future.

4cylndrfury MegaDork
7/14/17 8:11 a.m.
David S. Wallens wrote: Look for some turbo Buicks in the near future.

tuna55 MegaDork
7/14/17 8:13 a.m.

I have wanted one of those forever.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
7/14/17 8:53 a.m.

A dude in my high school had a black one--this was back when they were new. I didn't know him, but I remember seeing it out in the parking lot.

NickD SuperDork
7/14/17 9:20 a.m.

A guy I knew in college bought a used Conquest TSi. It blew black smoke like a diesel from the day he got it. Turns out that it had a massive boost leak. He fixed that and it immediately kicked the rods out of the block.

yupididit GRM+ Memberand Dork
7/14/17 10:44 a.m.

I have two black one's sitting in my garage. An 87 and an 88 SHP.

I believe in 85 or 86 they had intercooled flatties. Which were rare. And dont forget the SHP package that were available for the 88 and 89's. It had adjustable shocks, 16x8 front and 16x9 rear wheels, and a stronger 6 bolt rear and axles.

I love these cars, the looks are beautiful and the interior is so 80's. What I dont love about the car, the engine. The 2.6 made lots of torque because its size but it was heavy and was basically a truck/forklift engine. With tbi injection the 2.6 wasnt reliable and didnt get fuel to all the cylinders evenly especially the 4th cylinder. People had a lot of reliablity issues because of the injection system even some cars catching fire. Overseas they got the sohc 4g63 engine with mpi. The aftermarket for these cars is meh at best.

I love my 87 and I'll probably keep it forever. It travels with me when I move across the country, even when it's not running which is always

Joe Gearin
Joe Gearin Associate Publisher
7/14/17 10:58 a.m.

My buddy Vince Kowalski had a very early Starion Turbo when we first got our driver's licenses. (back in 1986) I think his was an 83 or an 84--- before the box flares, and it had an even more ridiculous interior. (like Jackie Chan's car in the first Cannonball Run movie) Digital gadgetry FTW!

I learned how to drive stick in that car. Back then Vince thought it was wasn't. It was cool though, when it was running. I was never sure if it broke so often because Vince beat the everloving E36 M3 out of the car, or because it was flawed to begin with. Turns out, it was a combination of both. I don't think there is car that epitomizes the 80's more than a Starion Turbo. Flashy, funky, cool, and kinda crappy!

yupididit GRM+ Memberand Dork
7/14/17 11:31 a.m.

In reply to Joe Gearin:

The "technica" package had digital gauges and all sorts of talking to you thingy's. I would love to add a technica flatty to my stable!

Trackmouse SuperDork
7/14/17 1:19 p.m.

I believe the common swap for these is a 4G 63 engine with turbo? Either way I love that 80s boxiness. It's one of the reasons I chose my Celica, which also came with a boat anchor open engine. Although I do know of one starion that has a Lexus V eight hint hint

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