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New Car Test - Magna Sport AWD

Just when you thought you had the Magna pigeonholed...

by Julian Edgar

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The man glanced in his mirror at the line of following cars and then looked forward, firstly at the VS Commodore ute just in front and then at the three cars even further ahead. There was plenty of time for the Magna driver to look around: the procession just snailed its way up the steep, winding single-lane country road, the narrow bitumen hugging the side of the mountain as it curved upwards.

The Magna driver waited patiently for the short, steep section of double lane road and when it arrived - now! - he whipped the gearlever over to the left and pulled back until the green LED in the dash was alongside '2'. Then, foot hovering over the throttle, he waited for the ute to pull to one side - but it didn't. Instead it agonised its way past the slower traffic then obstinately held onto the fast lane. The man's eyes narrowed as he turned on the headlights and let the Magna draw closer... the passing lane ended only a few hundred metres away. But the ute stayed hugging the centre line, and with only 100 metres of double lane left, the driver of the Magna bit back a curse, indicated left and at full throttle passed the Holden in the last stretch possible.

In the ute and young man and woman smiled - reflected in the mirror, the Magna driver could see the gleam of the teeth illuminated by the setting sun into which they were all driving. He knew the reason for the smirk: just past the top of the hill the road darted hard left, the sudden turn concealed behind the rise. Very few cars could take this bumpy difficult corner at speed, and the man and the woman knew that the Magna would never be able to slow down enough... The impatient dickhead in the Magna was about to receive his just deserts... and they'd be weeping no tears as they scraped him up.

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During his overtaking manoeuvre the man in the Magna had slotted up one ratio; he was now in third with the revs around four thousand. Nostrils flared, eyes dilated, his concentration was intense - no time now to look in the mirror to see if the ute had tried to stick with the Magna, each available millisecond had to be devoted to negotiating the Magna around the corner. The alternative was to spear straight ahead onto the greasy, gently sloped strip of grass that was a deceptive prelude to a rocky valley. There was no guard rail, no escape clause, no easy exit.

The Magna driver turned in for an early apex, feeling for the front understeer that has always been a factory fitment in Magnas - even ones like the man's Sport. And as expected, the steering momentarily and subtly lightened as the tyres started to lose grip. But then the Magna driver got back onto the throttle - suicidally nailing it to the firewall. The skinny tyres protested - the car starting a bucking, four-wheel skip as it drifted towards the white line. The man kept his foot flat and steered with tiny, quick corrections as the Magna rocketed out of the corner, poised, stable, competent - and bloody fast.

And then the bend was gone, the Commodore ute still to appear in the mirror. The Magna abruptly slowed - in front was another car, and it was just dawdling along on this country road. So it was only a few moments before the ute caught up and the man in the Magna could again clearly see the occupants' faces. This times their lips weren't smirking, instead heads were literally craning forward as they strained for the inconspicuous badge on the back of the Magna.

"A - W - D" their lips spelled out.

"What's that mean?" asked the woman.

"It's got four wheel drive!" mouthed the man.

Magnas will simply never be the same again...

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The Ralliart was a cul de sac: this is the true successor to the great Magna Sport/VRX. Forget the (manual) Ralliart's undignified torque steer, its boy-racer body kit and its near fifty grand price tag. It might've had a superb engine but the rest of the package - especially in 5-speed manual form - just wasn't worth $12,000 more than the Sports.

But this car has real merit with that sort of premium... and the beauty is that you'll pay only $4300 over the front-wheel drive car. The All-Wheel Drive Magna Sports isn't refined and sweet and smooth - not with the resonating exhaust and the newly-found engine throb between 3000-5000 rpm, not with the tyre noise and the vibrations back through the steering wheel. But instead it's got a raunchy launching 159kW V6, a tiptronic-style 5-speed auto shift that is slick, fast and predictable, and traction and chassis balance that is a quantum leap over anything ever before badged Magna.

Just ask the couple in the Holden ute...

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It's not generally realised but the Mitsubishi Motors Australia engineering department is tiny; literally a handful of people do the nuts and bolts engineering. Along with a budgetary allowance that might design a door handle at Ford or Holden, this helps explain why just one type of LSD was tried in the Ralliart, why the body kit additions at Mitsubishi Australia don't go through local wind tunnels - and why this car could do with a few million spent on NVH suppression.

But the Australian Mitsubishi engineers are a passionate lot: they were deeply hurt by accusations that they spent their time Australianising designs for cardigan wearers when in fact they'd all rather be drawing sports sedans. Perhaps the push became a shove with the Ralliart Magna: the engine guys - who really do seem to be able to produce miracles from a SOHC per bank V6 of quite pedestrian on-paper specification - had the goods, but the chassis guys didn't have the budget, time or resources. Well, this time the blokes working on the chassis have extracted from the raw material something of which they can be proud. (Yes, pity that - at this stage - the 180kW and AWD chassis don't come together in the one product!)

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But with this much grip and this much throttle control even 'just' 159kW will keep nearly every other performance sedan in this price range honest: some it will annihilate.

The AWD Magna uses the floor pan, fire-wall and fuel tank from the Japanese AWD Diamante but the engine and most of the suspension comes from the local Magna. So what are the new driveline bits? Specifically, the transfer case is common with the Evo VI Lancer, while the front differential is an open unit, the same as for Evo VI RS and Evo VII. The centre differential, which gives the full-time all wheel drive, uses a viscous coupling unit which is shared with the Evo VI. The rear LSD is a mechanical plate type, the same as the Evo VI RS (motorsport version). A new steering rack and steering knuckles were required (and what a pity the engineers didn't improve the steering ratio around centre while they had this chance!) and the exhaust system and ABS calibration were both revised.

In addition to the tested Sports, AWD is also available in Verada and base Magna models. All are 5-speed autos.

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The Magna is almost unique in this marketplace - its viscous-coupled constant four-wheel drive system working with an eager naturally aspirated V6. The Audi A4 V6 quattro (all $84,000 of it) is on paper a competitor - although of course the price, equipment and safety levels of the German car are both in another league. The Subaru Liberty RX is quite a lot cheaper than the AWD Magna - but it has a heap less power and torque, too. The Subaru twin turbo B4 automatic? It might cost a substantially greater amount ($55,000) but it's got only 11 per cent more power and actually has 3 per cent less peak torque. (At 190kW the manual trans B4 has much more power - that car is a distinct step upwards over the Magna.)

Hmm - perhaps in fact the Magna has no direct competitors?

That current four-wheel drive advantage (both Ford and Holden have local all-wheel drive cars in the pipeline, but the Magna is the first) will result in many who would have previously never considered a Magna being forced to re-evaluate their buying decisions. Said one enthusiast, "I've always thought that Magnas look really good - and they've got even better-looking in the later model iterations. Just throw on some eighteens, lower the suspension a little and fit twin exhausts to make the most of the V6 note. And now that they don't have that front-wheel drive disadvantage, well..." If an AWD wagon version was available, he'd probably buy one.

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So what will those rear-wheel diehards think when they come to pedal the car hard? For many, the constant four-wheel drive understeer that is nearly always associated with a viscous-coupled system will be off-putting. But that reaction would be wrong: unlike any Magna before it, this is a car where dial-it-up understeer and oversteer are both available. Go into a hairpin, reef on steering lock and tromp the throttle and there'll be plenty of understeer.

But do it differently - swing in hard and fast on a trailing throttle, for example, and the tail will come out. Get back onto the power and that tail motion will be converted into a four wheel drift. For less exuberance, turn in gently and then almost immediately you can use full throttle, the Magna clawing at the ground on its skinny, high-profile tyres as the driveline tries its damnest to make the most of the available newton-metres. It's a car that has 'drive' grip long after you'd be expecting it to have given up - get through the initial turn-in understeer, settle it, then get back on the power and look down in disbelief at the exit speed. This is a car where 'WRX' and 'Magna' can be mentioned in the same breath.

And rough roads don't upset the chassis poise either: through our enormously challenging Queensland country road test corner (it peels left through a dipping valley, bumps and camber conspiring evilly to throw the car off the road) the AWD Magna was quite exceptionally brilliant. At a massive 115 km/h it was unflustered - working hard sure, but still with some grip left. As a guide, through the same corner at 110 km/h a Holden Monaro - yep even with its huge, sticky standard tyres and specific sports suspension tune - is smashing down on its bump stops, pitching and sliding and giving major and dramatic indications of its imminent road-leaving demise.

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Driven like a lunatic, the AWD Sports is one of the most forgiving, responsive and outright exciting cars that you can buy for the money. With decent soft low-profile rubber it would be right up there with cars costing two and three times as much: as it is, in all but the tightest of corners it simply shines. Is the four wheel drive option worth it? Bloody hell, is it ever...

(Incidentally, if you take note of this effusive praise and then race out for a test drive only to find that the handling isn't at all as we're saying, check the tyre pressures. Because of the pedestrian wheel/tyre package and the simple viscous coupling design, this is a car where there's a HUGE difference in moving from low pressures to the highest recommended.)

It's a touch disappointing that the manual trans isn't available with all-wheel drive - but it must be said that the auto box is a sweet and effective unit. The 5-speed tiptronic-style shift works very well, and while a pronounced momentary engine power drop can be felt on each up-change (presumably as the timing is retarded), progress is strong and sure. But together with the extra mass (the Sports is now 1624kg), the increased frictional drag and the slightly lower engine power spec (the exhaust curves its way more restrictively around the new rear driveline bits) the AWD Sports is much slower than the manual FWD model. We recorded a 0-100 run in the mid-eights, about half a second slower than the auto FWD Sports, and 1.5 seconds slower than the very swift manual FWD Sports. But without having to slow for corners, actual on-road progress doesn't really reflect this performance drop...

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The AWD also gets the Ralliart brakes package - a substantial improvement over the normal Magna brakes. The front ventilated discs are 294mm in diameter (up 18mm) with two-pot calipers, while the rear brakes have been upgraded from 258mm solid discs to 284mm ventilated discs with single calipers. With the handling this good we must confess that we worked the brakes much harder than in our Ralliart model tests and enjoyed the excellent feel and strong retardation. But the front discs were starting to blue by the time our week with the car was over ... The ABS calibration has been revised to suit the four-wheel drive system and works as well as it does in all Magna models - which is excellently.

The steering? Well, despite our lending an Alfa to Mitsubishi Australia engineers a few years ago - and telling them that this is what steering should be like - they continue to be in love with a Godawful sneeze factor characterised by a very slow ratio around centre. You get used to it - and that's the best that you can say.

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The AWD Sports is a rough-and-tumble, get-down-and-dirty fighter. The exhaust drones, the steering shakes (both with engine vibration and when going ballistic over bumpy roads), while tyre and road noise are no longer even remotely near the top of the class. But if you just love a car that has the ability to tear down roads and around corners with élan and composure and flair and forgiveness and sheer outright speed, rewarding the good driver and flattering the bad, put the Magna Sports AWD in your must-drive book.

The harder that you drive it and the more you exploit its strengths, the more you fall in love. The Commodore ute occupants weren't alone in their incredulity - there were plenty of other road users gaping and squinting as the silver blur time-warped around corners into the distance...

Choices, choices...

Mitsubishi won't see it that way but for our money the major alternatives to the Sport AWD are the Falcon XR6 Turbo and the Commodore SV8. Both of those cars substantially out-grunt the AWD Sports, but if you're a real fan of constant all-wheel drive, the Magna has at this stage a very real and significant selling point.

And, for the first time ever, we can say that all three are genuinely excellent sports sedans: the low forty grand choice for local full-size family sporting cars has never been better. After all, you can have a traditional-but-modern V8 muscle car, an enormously powerful hi-tech turbo straight six, or a screaming V6 all-wheel drive...

All are great cars.

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