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The Early Days of Turbo - Part Five

The first affordable turbocars in Australia - the Mitsubishi Sigma, Starion and Cordia Turbos...

By Michael Knowling

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This article was first published in 2003.

Through the late 1970s, the cheapest turbocar on the Australian market was Saab 900 Turbo. At nearly $30,000, though - about three times the price of a Holden Commodore family sedan - the Saab kept turbocharging technology well beyond the reach of most enthusiasts. It wasn't until Mitsubishi - who had only recently taken over the reigns from Chrysler - offered their early '80s Sigma, Starion and Cordia turbos that all this changed; turbocharged cars became a viable and truly affordable performance alternative.

The First Affordable TurboCars in Australia

Sigma Turbo - a tentative toe in the water...

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The first turbo Mitsubishi to hit the market was a limited batch of GH-model Sigma Turbos. Only 500 examples were built using the relatively upmarket Sigma SE sedan as the platform. Under the bonnet, the Sigma Turbo used a longitudinally mounted 4G52 2.0-litre, SOHC, 8-valve, Astron four equipped with a completely new intake manifold and a Garrett T03 turbo sucking through a CD 175 Stromberg carburettor. A suck-through carburettor arrangement was already being used successfully on the Lotus Esprit Turbo and, later, Ford's KB Laser Turbo. Details on this engine are few, but we imagine its static compression ratio was also lowered using a new set of pistons and a revised cam profile was employed.

With boost pressure set to around 8 psi and with no form of intercooling or water injection, claimed power was 116.4kW - in excess of 80 percent more power than the basic Sigma naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre!

Driving through a standard 5-speed Borg Warner manual 'box, the Sigma Turbo covered the quarter mile in 16.8-seconds and ran to a top speed in excess of 200 km/h; note that any car from that era that could manage a sub-17 second quarter mile was considered quick. The Sigma Turbo also had decent on-road manners thanks to standard four-wheel-disc brakes and a suspension upgrade similar to that from Peter Wherrett Sigma specials. Standard tyres were grippy Pirelli P6s.

Externally, the Sigma Turbo was distinguished quite tastefully. It came with two-tone paint, colour coded mirrors, unique polished alloys and grille, dual bonnet vents and a few Turbo badges. The interior was pretty much Sigma SE fare - seating for five, comfortable cloth trim and comprehensive instrumentation was what you got.

Given its fairly limited production numbers, Mitsubishi saw no need to heavily advertise the car; instead, they sat back and let it's bargain pricing do the work. At just $13,750, the turbocharged Sigma undercut the pricey Saab by more than 50 percent; it wasn't long before word spread and the 500 Sigma Turbos were snapped up. The Sigma was, however, a fairly low-key entry to the turbo market; the turbo car that followed had nothing low-key about it!

Starion Turbo - the turbocharged racecar for the masses...

Also released in 1982 - just after the Sigma - the Mitsubishi Starion was a car that stopped the local car industry in its tracks. The Mitsubishi Starion (the first JA model) demonstrated the awesome progress of Japanese car manufacturers; the Starion was, as quoted by one motoring magazine, "the biggest motoring surprise for years." Mitsubishi claimed it was intended to steal sales from the Datsun/Nissan 280Z, Mazda RX-7 and Alfa Romeo but, in reality, it also hooked buyers of the Porsche 924 turbo exoticar....

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Powering the Starion was a longitudinally mounted 4G63B 2.0-litre, OHC, 8-valve Sirius engine (note that the 4G63B is quite different to the Sigma's 2.0-litre 4G52 turbo motor). The Starion's under-bonnet technology was class leading in its time - it boasted electronic throttle-body fuel injection (ECI), a vortex airflow meter, electronic ignition with knock sensor feedback and, in the first JA and JB models, a large TC06 turbocharger. Note that the Starion's fuel injection system essentially only a carburettor with electronic fuel control - it had only two large injectors firing fuel into a mixer chamber before travelling into the combustion chamber. Fuel was not injected directly into each cylinder like in a multi-point injected engine.

Listed with 125kW and 245Nm outputs (at 5500 and 3500 rpm respectively), the Starion made the Alfa 2.0-litre DOHC engine's 90kW and the Mazda RX-7 rotary's 84kW seem like a joke. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the Porsche 924 Turbo had the same 125kW output as the Mitsubishi; except the Porsche cost nearly $40,000...

Note that the 1985 update of the Starion - the JB model - was improved with a revised intake manifold and a water-cooled turbo bearing but it's power and torque remained the same as the JA's.

The Japanese Spec Starion...

Japanese market versions of the Starion were even more potent. These beasts came fitted with a 4G63B 'Dash' turbo engine with 3-valves per cylinder and was listed at 150kW at 6000 rpm and 275Nm at 3600 rpm - a 25kW and 30Nm upper hand over the Australian versions!

It is also said that a limited number of 250kW all-wheel-drive Starions were built to allow Mitsubishi's new performance flagship to make the biggest possible splash in the motorsport arena.

But the Starion was much more than a gigantic effort under the bonnet.

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Poised on a sophisticated IRS rear-wheel-drive chassis with MacPherson struts at each end, the Starion was a very serious performance package - one that was born to race. Handling was widely praised and, of course, the RWD chassis layout kept the traditionalists happy in a time when FWD was booming. The brakes, too, showed true performance intent - 256mm ventilated discs at the front and 225mm ventilated discs at the rear. Surprisingly, just 14-inch wheels were fitted to the early model.

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The moment people laid eyes on the Starion it was plain that it was a cutting-edge vehicle. It's futuristic 'wedge' coupe styling, complete with pop-up headlights, gutter-less doors, a wrap-around glass hatch and front and rear spoilers caused some potential buyers to baulk; the styling seemed dated only a week after its release... Still, its 0.35 aerodynamic co-efficient of drag was quite decent for the time.

The only external changes during its model life were the fitment of better looking 15-inch wheels, deletion of the JA bonnet scoop and installtion of a new spoiler package on the JD model - the car's final unleaded configuration.

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The Starion also proved that performance and luxury could be successfully mixed. Surprisingly, the Starion came kitted with standard leather trim in addition to multi-adjustable seats, air conditioning, power windows and steering and comprehensive instrumentation. One of the most curious design aspects of the car was its front seatbelt were built into the doors - this served to reduce the stretch back to grab the seatbelt.

Weighing a significant 1265 kilograms, the Starion could accelerate almost as swiftly as the mega-buck Porsche 924 Turbo. Standing starts to 100 km/h took around 8.9-seconds, the quarter mile was a 16.2-second journey (though one test recorded a stand-out 15.9) and top speed was on the sunny side of 200 km/h. Road testers told that there was a little bit of lag and torque wasn't strong below 2000 rpm, but you soon forgot about that when once on boost!

What's in a name?

To this day, the Starion name must be something of an embarrassment for Mitsubishi. Rumour has it the car inadvertently got the name Starion due to Japanese mispronunciation of what was supposed to be the Mitsubishi Stallion...

Note that, as far as we can determine, the Starion was sold in America as the Dodge Conquest. In the US market, the car went on to sell very well - aided by Jacky Chan's appearance at the wheel of a Starion in the popular film Cannonball Run II.

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The Starion's impact on the local market was immediate. And not only did it cause some tension on the street, it also shook up the Group A category of the Australian Touring Car Championship - the Starion (tuned to generate over 350kW on ultra high octane fuel) set a number of lap records and enjoyed quite a few wins. Overseas, it also enjoyed great success on tarmac circuits as well as in the rough-and-tough world of rally.

The only place the Starion failed to perform (in Australia, at least) was in the showroom. The early JA Starions sold reasonably well during its first couple of years, but - although cheaper than anything directly comparable - its $20,900 ask was still considerable. Sales then took a nosedive when even more affordable turbocars became available in late 1983 - the most potent of which was another vehicle from the Mitsubishi stable.

Cordia Turbo - turbo performance and practicality and an unheard of price...

The Mitsubishi Cordia GSR Turbo was the car that really made it possible for the average person to jump into their 10-litres per 100km everyday car and hose V8s at the traffic lights. Appearing on the market at just $13,500, the first AA model Cordia Turbo was cheaper than a base V8 Holden Commodore yet was f-a-r quicker. Contemporary motoring magazines went bonkers over the Cordia Turbo's bang for buck and from Day One sales were very strong.

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The Cordia was not built as a racecar like the Starion; it was much more humble in its design yet, somehow, it was never rated too far behind the Starion. The main reason for this was weight - at just 1030 kilograms the Cordia was nearly 20 percent lighter than the Starion. So, despite having a relatively modest 110kW from 1.8-litres, it was actually faster to 100 km/h and down the quarter mile - these sprints took just 8.7 and 16-seconds respectively. Top speed was in the 200 - 210 km/'h region, similar to the Starion.

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One of the biggest differences between the Starion and Cordia was driveline configuration. Built from the floorpan of a Mitsubishi Colt, the Cordia used a transversely mounted engine and front-wheel-drive transaxle. The G62B 1.8-litre, OHC, 8-valve engine used much of the same technology as the Starion engine - throttle body fuel injection, a knock sensor, electronic ignition and a Garrett TC06 turbocharger - and was rated at 110kW at 6000 rpm and 210Nm at 4000 rpm.

As mentioned, the Cordia was developed from nothing more exotic than a Colt, but it did receive a wider track to add stability. Again, MacPherson struts were used front and rear, but the rear axle is a fairly simple trailing arm beam job. Torque was channelled to the front wheels - which were 13-inch diameter alloys - via a standard 5-speed manual gearbox.

Brakes were nothing special - ventilated discs at the front and drums at the rear. As we said, if you wanted the whole performance package you went for the Starion. Note, though, AC Cordia models after 1986 were upgraded to 14-inch wheels and bigger front brakes (the same as found on TP Magnas).

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The amount of useable space onboard the Cordia was another reason it sold so well - compared to, say, a Mazda RX-7 is was almost as practical as a family sedan. Interior fabric changed during the model life and power windows were fitted to some examples.

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In all, the Cordia was a big sales success but it wasn't the track weapon its big brother was. Still, the Cordia was used for the Celebrity Challenge at an Adelaide Grand Prix and it also became a feared sight on Australia's open highways. Turbo Cordias were used as highway patrol cars in certain areas of Australia; some of these were reputedly Japanese-spec vehicles with the 3-valve per cylinder intercooled Dash engine, which was good for 150kW and mid-14-second quarter miles. There was no point trying to outrun the police once you'd been spotted!

The Big Shake-Up - Unleaded Fuel...

Nineteen eighty-six was not a good year for the Starion or Cordia (or most other cars for that matter). With all brand new cars from 1986 required to run on unleaded fuel, engines had to cope with a much lower fuel octane; detonation became a major issue for a number of performance vehicles (as well as some of the older tech 'chugger' engines).

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The 1986 JD Starion was equipped with a cat converter, front-mount air-to-air intercooler and a smaller TD05 turbocharger to deliver less boost pressure than previously; output took a dive from 125 to 110kW and the Starion's performance edge was largely lost. The fitment of a shorter 3.9:1 diff ratio did little to mask the loss of grunt.

Similarly, the 1986 AC Cordia suffered from the low octane of unleaded fuel. Again, a cat converter and smaller turbo was fitted (a TD05) and boost pressure was slightly reduced, bringing the power output down from 110 to 90kW. Sprints to 100 km/h and over the quarter mile lengthened to nearly 10 and 17-seconds respectively; the once formidable Cordia Turbo now struggled to pull away from a twin-cam Toyota Corolla...

But the introduction of unleaded fuel was not the only reason Mitsubishi lost its brief stranglehold on the affordable performance car market.

Reacting to the immense success of the Cordia, pretty well all of the major manufacturers jumped on the turbo bandwagon and competition got fiercer with every month. In the space of 4 years, the turbo market had been flooded with the Daihatsu Charade Turbo, Nissan ET/EXA and 300ZX Turbos, Mazda 626 and 929 Turbo, Ford TX5 and Laser Turbo, Subaru RX and Vortex Turbo and more. Almost overnight, Mitsubishi lost its profitable little niche and the Starion and Cordia were axed in 1987 and 1988.

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Since then, turbocars have progressed with DOHC, multi-valve technology and cars such as the VR4, Lancer GSR, Liberty RS and TX3 have enjoyed good sales thanks to the groundwork set by these early Mitsubishis. While, today, Mitsubishi Australia may have abandoned turbocharged performance cars - except for its $80,000 extravagance known as the Lancer Evolution 6 TME - it remains clear that its early efforts were milestones. These are the true Australian motoring classics.

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