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Practical Performers - Part One

We check out the Mazda 626/Ford Telstar V6, quad-cam Nissan Maxima and Mitsubishi Magna Sports wagon - all highly practical used vehicles with generous performance.

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • First of 2-part series
  • Second-hand cars combining practicality with performance
  • Mazda 626/Ford Telstar V6
  • Nissan Maxima quad-cam
  • Mitsubishi Magna Sports wagon
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It’s likely that at some stage your automotive requirements will change.

While you might now be happy to drive a Toyota MR-2 with only two seats and little cargo space, there will probably come a time when you need something that’s a bit more practical. A car with accommodation for four or more people, a generous cargo volume and the ability to tow a 6 x 4 trailer.

At this point you might be rolling your eyes and thinking “cop out” but, as you’ll see, there are plenty of affordable second-hand vehicles that combine practicality and performance on par with a selfish sportscar...

Mazda 626/Ford Telstar V6

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This is a car that was extremely fashionable during the early/mid ‘90s but has recently slipped off the radar. Nobody takes a second glance at the V6 626/Telstar twins anymore.

Forget the base-spec four-cylinder models. When equipped with the upmarket quad-cam 2.5 litre V6, the 1990s 626 and Telstar are spritely performers that can crack 100 km/h in the low/mid 8s. With performance like that, you can virtually run alongside a contemporary 5 litre automatic Holden Commodore!

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Mazda's 2.5 litre V6 (coded KL-03) doesn't offer a lot of torque at the bottom end of the rev range but it comes alive at about 3000 rpm. It's a trait that is common to the Mazda-designed Eunos 30X V6, Eunos 500 and Mazda 323 Astina V6. Peak torque (213Nm) is accessible at 5000 rpm while peak power (121kW) can be found just 600 rpm further around the tacho. The engine is happy to run on normal unleaded but premium should be used for maximum performance.

To reach 100 km/h in the low/mid 8s you’ll need to buy a V6 626/Telstar with a 5-speed manual gearbox. A 4-speed automatic was also sold, but these are around half a second slower in the sprint to 100 clicks. Average weight is 1300kg – pretty much as you’d expect from a mid-size vehicle with a V6 donk.

Both Mazda and Ford sold hatchback and sedan versions of the V6. Ford labelled the sedan Telstar Ghia and reserved the sporty TX5 badge for the hatchback. Ford also offered a sophisticated four-wheel-steer version of the hatch.

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Inside, the 626/Telstar twins receive power windows, cruise control and a six speaker sound system. The top-line Mazda is also fitted with climate control and leather trim (as seen here) while Ford’s four-wheel-steer version is fitted with an electric sunroof. Compared to the sedan, the hatchback version offers better cargo access.

Released in 1992, the GE-series Mazda 626 and AX/AY-series Ford Telstar are well built and practical vehicles. Sold until 1997, a second-hand example can now be picked up from just AUD$7000.

That 7 grand gets you a nicely sized and practical car with plenty of equipment, a sporty shape and a sweet revving quad-cam V6 that runs side-by-side with some contemporary V8s.

You can’t ask for much more than that!

Nissan Maxima 5-Speed (A32 Series)

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The 1995 Nissan Maxima is a very conservative automotive statement. But few people are aware that the first batch of A32-series Maximas delivered to Australia was available with a 5-speed manual gearbox. This is the only time in local history that the Maxie was available with a do-it-yourself ‘box.

With the combination of a then-new quad-cam V6 and manual ‘box, the Maxima should be able to bustle to 100 km/h in a shade over 8 seconds. Four-speed auto versions can do it in 8.8 seconds.

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In Australian spec, the 3.0 litre quad-cam V6 (VQ30DE) generates 142kW at 5600 rpm and 278Nm of torque at 4000 rpm. The engine was widely regarded as one of the best engines in the world at the time of release thanks to its smooth idle and willingness to rev to the 6500 rpm redline. Interestingly, the Australian-spec engine (which has a 10.0:1 compression ratio) comes with a recommendation to use premium unleaded fuel.

In Japanese market versions, the Maxima (aka Cefiro) makes a substantial 162kW at 6400 rpm. We believe this extra top-end power comes from a variable intake manifold.

There are three trim levels – the base-spec 30J, mid-spec 30G and 30GV.

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The base models comes with ABS, driver’s airbag and electric windows while the mid-spec model adds alloy wheels, a better CD sound system, leather wheel, climate control, cruise and a remote security system. Both the 30J and 30G were sold with a manual gearbox. The top-line 30GV is packed with dual airbags, leather trim, an electric sunroof and fog lights – but was sold as auto only.

The Maxima rides softly and is a fairly determined understeerer – it wasn’t pitched as a hot handler. Interestingly, despite its upmarket appeal, the A32 Maxima was fitted with a multi-link beam rear suspension which is said to help maximise boot volume. Certainly, the boot is a useable size but the lack of a folding rear seat is a point against the Maxima. Its ski port isn’t enough.

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Curiously, just a year after the A32 Maxima was released in Australia, the range was updated. The S2 update brought numerous detail changes but, more importantly, the 5-speed manual was dropped from the range. And we’ve been without a manual gearbox Maxima ever since (sob, sob).

The first generation A32 Nissan Maxima offers stunning value for money. You get that sweet VQ-series V6, grunty performance, high equipment levels (in all but the base model), good practicality and an understated appearance that has zero attraction to thieves – all from around AUD$8000!

If only that back seat folded...

Mitsubishi Magna Sports Wagon (TJ Series)

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Regular AutoSpeed readers will know we’re fans of the 163kW Mitsubishi Magna Sports/VR-X. Unfortunately, the flexibility of the Magna sedan is impaired due to the lack of a folding rear seat - all you get is a ski port (like in the Nissan Maxima).

Well, check out the Magna Sports wagon!

Sure, it’s a huge step away from the appeal of a sportscar but there’s no denying this beast’s practicality and performance. With a 3.5 litre SOHC V6 tied to a glorious 5-speed sequential auto, the go-fast Magna can rip to 100 km/h in around 8 seconds. Throttle response is very strong, there’s torque everywhere and it doesn’t slurp through fuel. And, yes, it’s happy to accept normal unleaded. Peak output is 163kW along with 317Nm.

The Sports wagon has a good balance of suspension firmness and ride comfort. The Magna will understeer when hustled through tight corners but its open-road poise is outstanding. The beam rear axle fitted to the wagon is also relatively jitter-free. One of the biggest letdowns of the Magna is the steering – it lacks feel and precision around centre.

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Inside, the cabin is trimmed like any other contemporary Magna Sports. There are sports seats and door trims, white-face gauges, digital climate control, leather wheel and all other essentials. It’s out back where there the difference is. The tailgate lifts to reveal a huge area that can accommodate pretty well any load. But for extreme carrying capacity, the backrest can be folded forward to provide a massive 2110 litre cargo volume (around four times bigger than the boot of a Magna sedan!).

We doubt whether such carrying capacity earns much cred with your car freak buddies, but at least the Sports wagon has some visual attitude. A front spoiler, skirts, rear wing and 16 x 7 inch alloy wheels comprise an effective dress-up.

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Released in late 2001, the TJ series Magna Sports wagon has now run past its factory 3 year/100,00km warranty and you can pick them up for obscenely little money. For between 15 and 20 grand these are ripper bargains.

For a full test on the go-fast Magna wagon check out Mitsubishi Magna Sports Wagon

Stick around for Part Two (the final) of this series – there are some more cars you should know about...

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