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Mitsubishi Magna VR-X

A classic overlooked fast six

by Julian Edgar

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This article was first published in Sept 2000.
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Look hard at the car you see on your screen. Real hard. Why? Cos you're ogling the fastest Australian six cylinder family car that money can buy. Forget the Falcon XR6 - in either HP or VCT guises. Forget the blown Commodore V6 - let alone the naturally aspirated one. The $50,000 supercharged HSV XU6? - in a straight line, wasted. Up the ante to eight cylinders, then. The Falcon XR8? - back in the rear vision mirror. In fact, you gotta go all the way up to the 63 per cent bigger engine capacity of the 5.7-litre Holden V8 to find any homegrown car that's faster...

With a Correvit-verified 0-100 time of 7.04 seconds and a standing 400 metres of 15.07 seconds, the 5-speed VR-X Magna is just stunningly fast. One hundred and sixty three kilowatts and three hundred and seventeen newton metres in a body weighing only 1472kg does that... Throw in a sweet chassis and $37,490 sticker ($3000 cheaper for the un-kitted Sports) and we're talking bargain performance.

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But you could be forgiven for saying that we're stretching it here. Imeantersay, what factory Magna runs these sorta times? What'd the last model 3.5 Sport do? With a 0-100 of 8.2 seconds, it was a mile away from this TJ model. But some relatively minor tweaking of the cams and engine management maps - and the fitment of a big exhaust - has wrought a change totally out of proportion with those apparently minor mods. With power up by a claimed 9 per cent and torque beefier by 6 per cent, you'd expect some performance gains - but this?!

Forget preconceived notions of Magna performance. This car has the grunt - and the sheer, exhilarating throttle response - to shove you back in your seat and keep you pinned there as you charge through first, second and third gears. As with all Magnas, top speed is limited to 210 km/h, but Mitsubishi engineers casually talk of a de-restricted max velocity of over 240... We can easily believe it.

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And with its performance catharsis, has the Australian-built single overhead cam per bank V6 become an undriveable dog? Not a bit of it. In fact, this is one of the most delightful big naturally aspirated engines we've ever had the pleasure of booting down the road. With strong torque from 1000 rpm to 5500 (forget the rev cut at 6800), when it's tied to the 5-speed manual this engine performs a stirring symphony. Even if you're used to fast cars - let alone previous Magnas - the incredibly strong throttle response is startling. Drive along in fifth at 60 and then floor the pedal and passengers' heads are whipped backwards. Do the same in second and you'll need to retrieve them from the boot space.

The sheer grunt is made even more exhilarating by the disbelief of others. Authoritatively punch your way through urban traffic, obliterate pretenders at traffic lights or even smoke your way out of the petrol station - all are mere throttle twitches away. Heads rotate with gyroscopic speed, Mazda rotary drivers eyeing the body kit and starting to mouth the word 'wanker' forget to lift their jaws as the rear of the Magna squats, the noise lifts and you get wheelspin in second. In the wet, change that to third.

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And that's one of the downsides of the car. This much response - the throttle ignition timing must stay at huge numbers even with throttle movement - and this much torque being fed through what quickly becomes one protesting 215/60 Bridgestone Grid II, means that dry-road wheelspin in first and second gear is easy. Cornering hard at speed in the wet you can even be lighting up the inside wheel in third gear... Without the (soon to arrive) LSD, this is a car where traction can be a real issue. But except in full-bore launches in the wet (where axle tramp can occur), the wheelspin doesn't provoke other nasties like massive torque steer or a slithering front end; it just slows you down. Sometimes a lot. Without lifting power (and yep, even more power is also in the skunkworks) an LSD would get this full-size family car down into the sixes for the hundred klicks time.

The suspension and steering of the TJ Sports (and the new VR-X) stays the same as the previous model - why change a good thing? Well, we can think of one reason. With this much power available to steer the front end on the throttle, it's a pity that the rear isn't anywhere near as throttle controllable. Just a touch of lift-off oversteer would balance the car so much better; at the moment the understeering car simply stops understeering when you reduce the front tyres' torqueing - rather than a gentle transition to oversteer being that foot movement away.

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The ride is firm but absorbent - you're aware that you're in a sports sedan but the message isn't hammered through your buttocks at every bitumen patch. The steering is now a little more responsive around straightahead - the change from Turanzas to Grid II's on 1-inch wider rims being responsible for that - but we'd still like to see a quicker ratio. On really tight and twisty roads the Magna feels a bit big - and the blame for that can be laid with the steering. Brakes during our test were fine, but as the GTP race Magnas have had major problems over the years stopping with just these brakes, we wonder how they'll cope with all of this extra grunt when it's being used in real anger.

Making the most of that sweet engine are the gearbox and clutch. The clutch has excellent feel - unlike some previous manual Magnas, this is a car very difficult to stall. But the gearshift is a mixed bag. Controlled by a leather knob, the ratios usually fall gently into place. However, at times the shift can become much notchier - usually when rushed or if the gearbox oil is cold.

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The unchanged ratios suit perfectly the slightly higher rpm at which peak power and torque are developed - you can be a lazy driver and sloth around in first, third and fifth. Or you can punch your way through the box, the urge satisfyingly strong after every gearchange. If you're used to a turbo-anything, this naturally aspirated grunt is just so instant that you have to learn to apply throttle more gently if a neck-jerking change isn't to be experienced. When cornering on the limit we found in fact that the driver had to brace his/her right knee against the door panel if throttle was to be fed in with the degree of surgical precision required. Perhaps a slower ratio throttle is needed?

Ignore the wheelspin that's a throttle twitch away and the car corners very well. The wheelspin doesn't unsettled the cornering line - even in the wet - but quickest point-to-point travel will be experienced by using a slight throttle lift on turn-in, followed by a progressive f-e-e-d-i-n-g in of power. That way you'll find yourself travelling surprisingly fast. Any car that can get through my local roundabout with an 80 km/h exit speed is a quick car; the VR-X did it almost nonchalantly. In challenging country driving along bitumen that ducks and weaves - the sort of road with corners posted with 85 and 90 km/h advisories - the Magna is a wonderfully fluid handler. It's also very, very quick. The extra power makes overtaking fast and sure - drop back to fourth, pull out at 100 and you'll be returning to your side of the road at 140 or 150. Forget for a moment the twin standard airbags; this sort of overtaking performance spells real safety.

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The big exhaust is mostly good news - the power it helps release sure as hell is - with the exhaust note satisfyingly high-tech sporty. However, a resonant drone at 2400 rpm is out of keeping with the Magna reputation of absolutely suppressed NVH. The Bridgestones also howl on some surfaces - this still a quiet car but perhaps not as silent as we have come to expect.

As tested in VR-X form, the Magna is fitted with a new body kit comprising front and rear spoilers, sculptured side skirts and a rear skirt. Designed to make a visual impact, the kit is successful - however its aerodynamic advantages are fortuitous, with the car aero-tested in Mitsubishi's Japanese tunnel only after the locally-developed styling was effectively finished. Some downforce is said to be the result, although the drag penalty is apparently unknown. If you don't want the attention, the same mechanical package is available with Sports badging - and minus the 30kg body kit.

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Also changed for the latest model is the sound system that now features a single CD but - as before - the quality is miserable. Other cost cuts that can be quickly seen include the ugly 16-inch alloys (does Mitsubishi actually make a decent looking wheel?) and the mechanical odometer and trip meter. In fact, pretty well the entire interior is a carryover, with the seats now feeling a bit flat and lacking in support in the context of those pews other manufacturers are starting to use. Despite the VR-X insignia on the tacho and woven into the seats, the interior looks a bit bland - unlike the development car that we briefly sampled that had delightful splashes of (albeit fake) carbon fibre around the cabin.

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As always, the Magna is a practical family car with those twin airbags, large boot with ski port, trip computer, leccy windows, remote locking and cupholders. Trundle to the shops for a weekly grocery shop, commute daily to work or do an interstate trip. At each of these the VR-X is highly competent - you lose almost nothing in day-to-day practicality. But tromp the right-hand pedal, listen to that snarling exhaust and watch the road fast-forward towards you. Then you sure as hell forget about things like mere grocery shopping...

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