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New Car Test - Ralliart Magna

We've never met a kilowatt we didn't like. Until now!

By Julian Edgar, Pics by Michael Knowling and Julian Edgar

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The Magna Ralliart was one car that this year we were really looking forward to. Why? Well, we've always vastly appreciated the V6 Magna blend of refinement, performance, size and handling. And when the first 3-litre Sport - and then the stunning 163kW VR-X - came our way, we delighted in the cars. Especially that smooth but oh-so-swift VR-X. In fact, we watched in amusement as other motoring media struggled to overcome their reluctance to embrace a powerful front-wheel drive - it took some magazines months and months to realise just how good the sporting Magna really is.

And so when we discovered that the Ralliart was going to be sold with no less than 180kW from its (still only mildy tweaked!) 3.5 litre V6, and that bigger brakes and a sophisticated torque-sensing LSD were also going to find their way into the package, well, we were pretty excited.

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But now we've driven the car, and that excitement has to a large degree been replaced with disappointment. Why? Well, fundamentally, the manual Ralliart's chassis simply can't handle the power and torque. Gone is the sweet and nimble around-town VR-X, where too much throttle simply spun up one wheel while the car otherwise stayed unfussed. In its place is a darty, wheel-wrenching car which - especially in first and second gears - can get away from you in the blink of an eye. Have one wheel on a damp patch of road, the other on dry bitumen and apply even half-throttle and unless you're holding the wheel firmly, the car will dash off sideways. Even in second gear you need to keep a good hold on proceedings...

Let's put the Ralliart in context. Both Dep Ed Michael Knowling and I have previously owned a Mazda MX6 Turbo, a car regarded by many as possessing the worst torque steer of any car ever sold in Australia. Well, we can say categorically that the Ralliart Magna has far greater torque steer than the old Mazda. In fact we can go further: the 180kW Magna has the worse front-wheel drive behaviour of any standard car we've ever driven.

Look, if you're used to powerful front-wheel drives, it's unlikely that the Ralliart will unduly worry you. We had a 3-litre Magna Sport driver pedal the Ralliart and since he was used to carefully unwinding the steering wheel as he exited corners under power, and holding the wheel firmly during acceleration, he didn't have any problems. (Which of course suggests that the Ralliart simply emphasises traits probably already there in the other models.) But there is simply no way that you could give the Ralliart to a novice driver, or even a driver uninterested in cars, and expect them not to have problems.

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And in just the same way as we criticised the 5.6-litre Tickford TE50 for its lack of user-friendliness (a massive 500Nm of torque, two-wheel drive and no traction control), we've gotta say that the way in which the Ralliart puts its power down is simply unacceptable. When even $21,190 Barina SRi manual front-wheel drives come with electronic throttle and a very effective traction control system, to sell a high performance car at well over double that price without (in manual models) traction control just can't be justified.

For this is one helluva powerful car. In HSV "Commodore kilowatts" it would be rated at well over 200kW; its 180kW factory figure feels well understated. Mitsubishi claim a 0-100 time of 6.7 seconds, and we achieved easy high sixes. In fact, even with the gentlest of launches and with two people in the car, the time to 100 was still in the low-mid Sevens - faster than a 225kW v8 Holden launched in the same way. Another example: at the same time as we had the Ralliart we also had an STi Subaru WRX on test. In all normal conditions of driving, the Ralliart was at least as quick. Many times, like through city traffic, it was much quicker...

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In the real world - as opposed to magazine style performance testing - the Ralliart is an astonishingly fast car.

In fact, the engine is nothing short of magnificent. To develop its 180kW at 5500 rpm and 333Nm at 4000 rpm (over the 163kW engine, the torque is improved right through the rev range!), local Mitsubishi engineers have lifted the compression by 0.4 of a ratio to 9.4:1, modified the combustion chambers to reduce valve shrouding, and fitted cams with an additional 10 per cent lift. Inside the engine new nitrided valve springs are used, and the pistons have anodised crowns and top lands. Stainless steel extractors are fitted, and while the exhaust is largely the same as fitted to the 163kW cars, a large central muffler has been added to reduce the low-rpm resonance. ECU changes include the lifting of the speed limiter from 210 to 240 km/h, revisions to the ignition timing advance tables, and altering the airflow meter output software ceiling.

Apart from an only just discernible coarser idle, the engine has the same exemplary drivability as the cooking models. The torque through the rev range is immense, and the throttle response is - like the VR-X - amongst the best of any car that we've ever driven. With the gearbox and final drive ratios unaltered, it's a natural to change first-third-fifth around town - going through all of the gears in sequence is pointless. Second gear at a walking pace is not even noticed: the engine has so much torque that driving off from even a standstill in the second ratio causes no angst at all.

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And in fact, if in the rain you want to be even slightly quicker than the rest of the traffic, starting in second gear is the only way to get going. In first gear on a wet road the Ralliart wheelspins, axle tramps, leaps from side to side - and goes no where. While the VR-X axle tramped when provoked in wet conditions, it's more usual behaviour was single wheelspin - the car remaining settled while this occurred. But the Ralliart is anything but settled - the front end of the car smashes up and down so hard that you fear a broken driveshaft.

But it's a measure of the engine's greatness that even when driving off in second gear, it does 0-100 in 7.8 seconds... staying in that one gear all of the way...

The manual gearbox is unchanged over the previous models, so retains a light clutch. The notchiness that we complained of in our VR-X test wasn't present in this car's gearbox, however the long throws are noticeable. Really quick changes can also cause crunches - the clutch needs to be fully home if this is to be avoided.

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So around town - even in dry conditions - the Ralliart is disappointingly aberrant in its point and squirt behaviour. But what about on the open road? Here the car is a little more successful. The Ralliart uses much the same suspension as the VR-X (and of course current model Sport), with the major change being the adoption of Koni dampers. A 22mm front sway bar is also used, along with an 18mm rear bar.

Open-road ride and handling are very good, but in these areas the as-tested $50,840 car has some very stiff competition. We think that the (yes, a little more expensive) Commodore Clubsport and Tickford TE50 (why compare this car with other six cylinders? - it goes like a good V8!) ride far better, and both of those cars also handle with more sophistication.

But surely the Ralliart is better than the VR-X and Sport Magnas in these ride/handling areas? Yes it definitely is, with the amount of power understeer much reduced. However, whatever you do with the throttle and steering, the tail stays nailed to the road, and so - unlike say a FWD Peugeot - driver input to mid-corner attitude is quite limited. The 225/50 Pirelli P6000 tyres also tramline at open-road speeds, especially in wet conditions.

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Another surprising cruising speed negative is the dull roar that we noticed over about 110 km/h. It sounded like it may have been tyres (but the noise didn't change on different surfaces), or even a wheel bearing (but it didn't alter proportionally with speed) and so we ended up wondered if it was an aerodynamic thrumming from the rear wing. Whatever, it is very annoying!

The exhaust however, is now well sorted. The resonance of the 163kW models is gone, and while the exhaust can be just a touch boomy around 2000 rpm in high gears, the overall note is sporting and exciting. The headlights are also very good, with excellent range and spread allowing night cruising at the car's potential.

Despite the steering having been "tuned to provide stronger steering feel and feedback", the steering is still far too slow around the straight-ahead position. New drivers will universally take two bites to turn into any corner, and when travelling at high speeds, the delayed reaction to swinging on some lock can be disconcerting. And, despite the fuel tank being newly baffled, on one occasion when attacking a roundabout we still had the engine stutter with what felt like fuel starvation.

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Brakes on the Ralliart have been upgraded, with twin-pot front calipers working on 294mm front rotors (up by 18mm) and rear discs increased in size by 26mm to 284mm. Front pad area is increased by 26 per cent and rear by 32 per cent. In use they felt fine, with good pedal feedback and retardation, even when cold. However, it's an important marketing point that visually they look nothing special - there's no 'Brembo' or similar name splashed on plated calipers glaring at you through the wheels. And talking of the wheels, despite using 17 x 7 Enkei alloys, Mitsubishi has maintained its reputation for fitting the ugliest alloys it can find.

The body kit is also one where people were divided in their aesthetic appreciation. The score ended up about evenly split, with those who liked the huge Evo-esque rear wing and ultra low front spoiler claiming it added presence and aggression, and the others pointing to the complete impracticability of the front spoiler (despite our taking great care, it became quite damaged in the week we had the car - we bet you won't ever see an unscraped one except in the showroom!) and the overall 'boy-racer' appearance. Although apparently never entering a wind tunnel, the body kit appears to work: even at an indicated 230 km/h the car feels rock steady, and at 110 km/h, strong gusty sidewinds are unnoticeable. In fact, high speed performance is very impressive; at the top-end this is a very quick car.

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The interior upgrade includes the use of an Eclipse (nee Fujitsu-Ten) in-dash CD stacker, separate single CD radio, and eight speakers. Unusually for a factory system, it's also easily expanded - there are line-outs, a sub control and an input for MP3 or mini-disc. The system sounds quite competent - and is certainly vastly better than any other Magna sound system. Unfortunately, at night glaring white lights shine distractingly from each end of the head unit - they are so bright that a book can be read by their illumination.... and they can't be turned off.

The test Ralliart was fitted with the $1850 optional sunroof - which had the effect of very pleasantly opening up the cabin of what is a car with quite a high waistline - while included as standard there's an easy to use digital climate control, effective trip computer, twin airbags and electric mirrors and windows. A Momo leather-bound wheel is also fitted, however the rim is incredibly thick, especially at the '10 to 2' position. That didn't concern most of our drivers, but one female driver with small hands found it very disconcerting that she couldn't wrap her fingers fully around the wheel.

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So what to make of this car?

When the Ralliart Magna is examined dispassionately, you have one quite fantastic engine resident in a car with far less to recommend it.

In fact, we simply marvelled at that V6 - it's relatively simple with only a SOHC per bank, no variable cam timing, no variable inlet manifold - yet on normal unleaded fuel it pumps out immensely driveable power. And despite our best attempts at driving hard, the Ralliart also turned in great economy figures, varying from 9 - 12 litres/100 km.

But the car's low speed handling is characterised by torque steer, the high speed handling is much better (but with that tramlining it never feels entirely settled), the equipment level is adequate, the brakes likewise.... But really, apart from the engine, there's no other single standout area of excellence.

Sorry folks, but even with the genuine excitement of the Magna Ralliart's great 180kW V6, we think that the far cheaper 163kW Sports is not only much better value, it's also a better all-round package.

Mitsubishi Ralliart Magna (Manual Gearbox) Fast Facts...
  • Very bad torque steer at low speeds
  • Traction poor
  • Fantastic engine response, power and economy
  • Ride and handling good
  • Depreciation likely to be high, especially after release of proposed 4WD version
  • Equipment level good, except for absence of traction control

The Magna Ralliart was provided to AutoSpeed for this test by Mitsubishi Motors Australia.

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