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Mitsubishi VR AWD Test

An aging design - but that wonderful AWD driveline is hard to resist!

By Michael Knowling

Click on pics to view larger images

At a glance...

  • Awkward front-end styling and ugly wheels
  • No recent engine developments (eg variable cam timing or electronic throttle control)
  • Lack of straight-line go
  • AWD driveline vibration
  • Brilliant roadholding and balance
  • 3.5-litre V6 engine still a sweetie
  • Minimal price increase over front-wheel-drive version
  • Practical and roomy
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Has time finally caught up with one of our favourite performance sedans? It’s been eight years since we first saw the TE-series Magna body and with no major mechanical changes in that time, well, it’s starting to get left behind.

But there's one notable exception.

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The AWD version of the Magna VR (formerly known as the Sports model) is the only locally-built all-paw performance sedan. And it’s a cracker. From a half-arsed flick through roundabout to an all-out assault on a narrow, winding road, the VR AWD is incredibly stable, balanced – and damn fast!

Throw it into a corner and the VR AWD will understeer a little in the early stages of turn-in. But from then on it’s dream stuff. Lift off the accelerator mid-corner and the rear-end will obediently peel away allowing you to tighten your cornering line - if necessary. But more often that not, the VR AWD can be perfectly set up for a corner and you can jump on the accelerator very early. There’s traction everywhere. Sure, the 215/60 Bridgestone Turanzas wail and carry on but it’s extremely stable and the mid-corner and exit speed is breathtaking.

Forget what everybody tells you about Magnas – the VR AWD is a handling enthusiast’s delight!

The QuadTec all-wheel-drive system in the Magna is not as sophisticated as the electronic-controlled arrangement used in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR, but it is certainly one of our favourites. The viscous centre drive coupling, tailshaft, transfer case and open-centre front diff are parts previously used in the Lancer Evolution 6. The rear diff is the mechanical plate type as fitted to the motorsport Evolution RS.

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Mitsubishi engineers found a way to incorporate AWD and retain the suspension arrangement used in existing front-wheel-drive models. The basics of the MacPherson strut/lower A-arm front suspension and multi-link IRS remain the same, but with revised springs, dampers and rear swaybar. Ride is firm but always very comfortable.

In addition to its brilliant handling and poise, the VR AWD is equipped with a big set of stoppers. Ralliart-spec brakes - 294mm at the front and 284mm at the rear – perform very well and the ABS system has been recalibrated to suit the AWD driveline.

But perhaps due to the high limits of the VR AWD chassis, straight-line acceleration is relatively disappointing.

Sure, the car lunges off the line with urgency but the extra bulk put on during the TL-series upgrade and the effect of the AWD driveline have taken their toll. The VR AWD weighs 1670kg, which is around 200kg more than the original Magna Sports/VR-X. Together with a re-routed exhaust that kills 4kW (compared to the front-wheel-drive VR), the VR AWD struggles to accelerate to 100 km/h in anything under 9 seconds. It’s a far cry from our test of the ‘original’ VR-X manual, which could storm to 100 km/h in a little over 7 seconds!

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A look under the bonnet shows a five-year lack of development. The 24-valve 3.5-litre V6 marches on using non-variable intake manifold, a single (non-variable) camshaft per bank and without electronic throttle control. A free-flow exhaust system nets 4kW and 2Nm over the base Magna, bringing the tally up to 159kW at 5500 rpm and 318Nm at 4000 rpm. As mentioned, the front-drive version of the VR makes the full 163kW monty.

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On the upside, the engine remains responsive, torquey at all revs and its low 9.0:1 compression ratio means it’ll run on even the crumbiest grade fuel. We averaged mid-high 12-litres of ULP per 100km during our test, which is slightly more than we’d expect driving a front-wheel-drive version under the same conditions. Fuel tank capacity is 70-litres – 2-litres less than the FWD.

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Interestingly, the VR AWD – like other AWD Magna/Verada models – comes only with a 5-speed automatic. Fortunately, it’s a very sweet trannie that’s willing to kick down when left in Drive and featuring one of the best sequential-style systems in the business. All that’s lacking is the neck-snapping throttle response of the manual front-wheel-drive.

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Onboard, the VR AWD has all the features you’d expect - but it’s all pretty ho-hum. There are electric mirrors and windows, analogue climate control (with rear outlets), cruise control, a trip computer, four airbags, white-face dials and a semi-electric driver’s seat (backrest adjustment is by lever). The VR’s sports seats are firm but comfortable. The new-to-TL series single CD/tuner looks and feels cheap – and it doesn’t sound any better when cranked up. The only option is an $1850 electric sunroof.

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The Magna has always had impressive NVH levels, but the AWD system detracts from this – there is noticeably more vibration during acceleration. On the upside, there isn’t the exhaust resonance found in 163kW front-wheel-drive models – the revised rear section of exhaust for the AWD conversion has shut it up.

The Magna remains a very practical vehicle with its huge boot, generous front space and good rear seat width. Rear legroom has been improved in the TL-series, but headroom remains marginal if you’re tall. The body has also had significant crash safety upgrades since the TJ Series 2 Magna.

And now for the visuals.

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The global styling of the TL Magna front-end hasn’t grown on us – and it seems we’re not alone! Fortunately, the side and rear views of the Magna are smooth and inoffensive. The VR AWD can be spotted in a government carpark by its fog lights, black surround headlights, subtle rear spoiler, slightly lower stance and the all-telling AWD badges on the boot lid and front quarter panels.

In our book the VR’s 10-spoke 16 x 7-inch wheels are pretty ugly - the 5-spoke 17s on the VR-X front-wheel-drive are much more attractive.

Now let’s get down to business.

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At AUD$41,990 the VR AWD is absolute ripper value when compared to other Magna models. The AWD driveline (and don’t forget the associated big brake package) sets you back just $1400 more than a front-wheel-drive version. That’s great value.

But compare the VR AWD to other brands and it’s obvious that you’d really want to have that glorious handling and stability to make it a worthwhile purchase. The benchmark Australian performance sedan – the 240kW Ford XR6 Turbo – retails for just over 46 grand in automatic form. Sure, the Ford doesn’t have the grip of the Magna AWD but there aren’t too many other areas where it loses out.

The fight wouldn’t be so one-sided if the VR AWD had more power. Surely Mitsubishi has some Ralliart Magna bits lying around...

The Magna VR AWD was provided for this test by Mitsubishi Motors Australia.

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