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Mitsubishi 380 Series III VRX

Falling further behind

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • Too much torque for the front tyres
  • Lacks stability control, an essential with the power, size and FWD
  • Variable build quality
  • Highly refined and tractable engine
  • With 5-speed manual gearbox has brilliant throttle response
  • Impressive when driven conservatively
  • A niche vehicle for a non-existent niche?
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The Series III Mitsubishi 380 has now been released, with the on-test VRX model receiving the greatest make-over. However, the criticisms made at the time of the car’s launch – some 2 years ago – have not been addressed. There is still no 380 available with curtain airbags and you can’t buy one with electronic stability control. In fact the changes for the Series III are basically only cosmetic. That said, the VRX - with its new front and rear bumper inserts and striking alloy wheels - now looks lots better than previously.

Priced at $36,990 in 5-speed manual transmission form, the VRX we drove had dealer-fitted satellite navigation (about $3000) and the VRX Luxury Pack ($2500) that comprises leather seats and a glass sunroof. At these dollars you’re well into Falcon XR6 Turbo territory – and the Falcon’s a car that lacks some of the luxury equipment but has a 6-speed manual gearbox and stability control and a lot more performance....

And that’s one of the difficulties we had with the VRX: what exactly is its marketing niche?

Drive the VRX conservatively and it’s a genuinely impressive car. The 3.8 litre engine, developing 175kW at a rather breathless 5250 rpm and with meaty torque right through the bottom half of the rev range (listed peak is 343Nm at a high 4000 rpm but it never feels like that), has excellent throttle response and the gearbox and clutch are light and positive.

In these conditions the car is punchy, refined and impressive. Its ability to climb steep country hills effortlessly in fifth gear, and to always have immediate response whatever the gear and speed, makes for relaxing, user-friendly progress.

But start driving it hard and the package falls into a heap.

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When being driven as a sporting sedan, wheelspin is ever-present – the traction control system flashing when you boot it off the line, flashing on the change to second gear, and even flashing at speeds of up to 80 km/h when cornered hard. In performance car terms, the VRX can be quite slow getting away from traffic lights, such is the lack of traction and the consequent shutting-down of power. The 215/55 Dunlops on 17 inch rims don’t develop anywhere near the required grip – this is a car that feels dramatically under-tyred. Switch off the traction control and the steering starts to kick-back in corners.

Four-up and being driven hard on a tight downhill road, we also faded the brakes.

To an extent the powerful manual trans (and non four wheel drive) Magnas also had problems with front traction, but back then the Magna had a clear fuel economy and - in some forms - price advantage over its opposition. Now it has neither and so questions start to arise.

When all drive is through the front wheels; the engine is designed to have massive bottom-end torque; the throttle response is razor sharp; the car is large and electronic stability control is not fitted - then the handling when driven hard is simply not going to be very good... especially in the context of rear wheel drive opposition that now have excellent chassis designs. The world has changed, but Mitsubishi has not lifted their game to keep pace.

OK, so as a hard-charging driver’s car, forget it. Well, unless you really like the challenge, we guess.

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But what about as a sporty luxury cruiser, the family car for those that like image and response? There the VRX is much more successful. Apart from a wind whistle from the B-pillar near the driver’s head, the test car was quiet and refined. The ride is compliant but firm, the steering excellent and the feel on the road one of a bodily stiff, well-suspended sporting car. The standard instruments and controls (the exception being the unlabelled trip computer buttons) are clear and work well, but the same cannot be said for the test car’s dealer-fit double-DIN navigation/DVD/sound system. While using a good screen, the design approach of a myriad of small buttons is a long way from being intuitive, something achieved for example in the VW/Audi double DIN nav systems.

Build quality of this 380 was still variable. Thankfully gone were the foam filler strips poking up at each end of the dash but instead we found poor paint quality inside the (uncovered) inner boot lid. There it looked as if the paint had been applied straight over dirt and splash marks of oil or water. The holes drilled to allow the new shape rear spoiler to be bolted in place were ill-made and touched up with paint, rather than the panel being painted after the holes were cut. However, the doors shut beautifully and the paint away from the inner boot lid was of good quality.

The interior cabin space is fine for all but the tallest; then rear headroom can be marginal. The rear seat doesn’t fold down – instead a small ski-port is provided – but the boot is large and well shaped, albeit with a small opening. A full-sized steel spare wheel is fitted. The driver’s seat is electric but the passenger makes do with manual functions; however, both seats are supportive and comfortable. The leather steering wheel is adjustable for height only.

Some aspects of the cabin equipment are idiosyncratic – Mitsubishi persist with the electric boot release being literally hidden inside the glovebox (it’s not even obvious where it is with the lid open) and the instrument panel is far easier to read at night than during the day – the night-time illumination gets rid of the doubtful design colours. The headlights’ high beam is excellent.

Click for larger image

As we’ve found with previous 380s, fuel economy is not particularly good. The official government fuel economy figures tell the story – for the manual transmission, six cylinder cars, the figures are: BF Series II Falcon XR6 – 11.0 litres/100; VE Commodore SV6 – 11.0 litres/100km; Mitsubishi Series III 380 VRX – 11.4 litres/100km. In our test, which was conducted with quite a lot of gently driven country road touring in the mix, we achieved mid twelves.

Overall the VRX is a clear example of why the 380 has not proved successful in the marketplace. Its whole approach is to try to match the sporting sedan opposition, something very difficult to do with a powerful front-wheel drive car taking on market leaders that are primarily rear-wheel drive. (The FWD Toyota Aurion is not available with a manual transmission.) In taking the “me-too” approach, the company has foregone the advantages that they actually had with the Magna, especially the all-wheel drive VRX that we remember so fondly. (The harder you drove that car, the better it handled: a stark contrast to the 380 VRX.)

A 380 VRX with a smaller, high technology petrol engine wouldn’t so tax the front tyres and would deliver a demonstrable fuel economy benefit over its opposition. A 380 VRX with a common rail diesel engine would make for a compelling case indeed: Australian-developed ride quality, steering precision and – probably – good handling at a price that would way undercut large vehicle diesel opposition.

But those 380 models don’t exist.

What we have instead is a car that simply can’t do what it attempts to, a car that fundamentally doesn’t make a lot of sense. And clearly the market agrees with us....

What the...?

Back in Mitsubishi 380LS New Car Test we wrote lines like “the handling – especially at high speed – is brilliant”, “this is one large front-wheel drive that when shown a twisting, bumpy and difficult stretch of country bitumen will devour it with relaxed ease” and that the 380 has “brakes that will repeatedly pull the car back to zero from race track speeds”. So why such a different story this time?

Two reasons.

The first is that the VRX tested in this story had a manual transmission. The manual is far more grunty and responsive than the auto trans models, so emphasising any traction problems of the front wheels.

The second is that the world has moved along – in a car of this class you now expect better handling, either through a sweeter matching of engine torque characteristics and grip, or through electronic intervention that doesn’t just cut power but also has the ability to yaw the car (that is – electronic stability control).

And the brakes? Simply, this time we had the opportunity to drive the car hard when it was full of people, something that didn’t occur when we previously drove the 380.

The 380 VRX was supplied for this story by Mitsubishi Australia.

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