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Mitsubishi 380LS New Car Test

It's OK - but to succeed, it needs to be stunning

by Julian Edgar, pics by Mitsubishi

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At a glance...

  • Roomy interior but small boot opening
  • Torquey, powerful engine
  • Excellent handling with sports suspension
  • Excellent brakes
  • Too expensive
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Let’s answer the burning question first: is the new 380 going to sell well enough to save Mitsubishi manufacturing in Australia from collapse? Having driven the car, we’d suggest the answer to that question is ‘no’. But what about an evaluation of the 380 simply as a car and not as Mitsubishi’s Great Hope? In that case it’s a competent machine, albeit overpriced.

The 380 has had an odd genesis. It’s based on the US model Galant but is equipped with a locally worked-over engine made in Japan, Australian brakes and Australian suspension tune. But finance – or a lack of it – appears to have dictated all the product planning decisions. The engine is basic in technical specification – there’s no variable inlet manifold, no variable cam timing, not even double overhead cams per cylinder bank. The equipment level has some glaring deficiencies – six airbags aren’t available on any model, stability control isn’t available, the rear seat doesn’t fold and cost-cutting is obvious inside the cabin. (How? Well try the fingernail breaking sunglasses holder, the lack of an on/off control on any of the vents and the crappy plastics.)

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But on the limited budget and with the available resources, the local engineers have done an exceptional job. The 175kW engine is superbly torquey throughout the rev range, the 5-speed auto trans mates seamlessly with the engine, and the handling – especially at high speed – is brilliant. The 380 LS we had on test was optioned with sports suspension - 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. With a claimed 0-100 km/h time of 7.7 seconds, brakes that will repeatedly pull the car back to zero from race track speeds, and steering feel we thought MMAL incapable of providing (what, after all the years of vaguely steering Magnas), the 380 at speed is stunningly good. Point-to-point over good or bad roads, the 380 clearly lifts the bar over all the cooking sedans from the local manufacturers, is surprisingly close to the handling provided by the now-departed all-wheel drive Magna Sports, and has the goods to scare the hell out of even HSV and FPV models.

But while all that is great, is ballistic high-speed handling of much interest to those considering the 380? Mitsubishi themselves suggest about half of all sales will be the base model (presumably going to fleets) and we can’t see fleet managers getting excited by handling at 150+ km/h. Families with children up to teenage years we’d see as another buyer target group, and with plenty of rear seat room, the back is a good place for gangly-legged kids. But will their parents want to buy the car? We put a family that meets these criteria in the 380 (and they are currently Magna Sport owners looking to update), and the mother detested the interior aesthetics, the father drove the car without getting excited by any aspect, and the kids – well, they’d be just as happy in a Falcon or a Commodore.

Which begs the question – who will buy this car?

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Even though it initially appears facetious, it’s a question that requires a long, hard look. Why would fleets - what with the awful resale values of Magna still ringing in their ears and with fuel consumption of the 380 that in our testing was no better than Falcon or Commodore (we saw as poor as 15.3 litres/100km in city conditions and averaged 11.8 litres/100 km over the complete distance, most of which was on 100 km/h limited highways). Why will families buy the 380, with little or no demonstrable advantage over the competitors – especially Falcon with its well developed engine and suspension and the availability of a 6-speed auto? To overcome the poor reputation of the Magna (the fact that the reputation was undeserved is beside the point), the 380 has to have a blistering consumer level advantage over the competition. And it simply hasn’t got that.

Mitsubishi make much of comparisons with Commodore and Falcon of price, fuel economy, performance, interior noise, interior space and so on. But there’s never more than a fraction in it, and with a pricing philosophy that matches the 380 head to head with its competition, the 380 is surely fighting a losing battle. It’s almost as if someone with no knowledge of the Australian car market, its history, buyer loyalties and presence of cars like the vastly cheaper and highly competent Hyundai Sonata V6, decided that purely on the basis of a paper comparison of features, the 380 should be priced right up there.

And maybe there was actually such a person, and they came straight from head office in Japan...

But let’s tear ourselves away from the industry perspective and look just at the car.

The tested LS model fits into the line-up in a lower position. On the bottom of the ladder is the plain 380, followed by the LS, the LX, VRX and then GT. Mitsubishi sees the LS as appealing to private buyers and ‘business management’ (read upper level fleet). So what do you get for the $40,990 (plus $990 for the sports suspension and upsized alloys)?

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The equipment is a mix of good and bad – analog climate control that’s extremely effective, an equally good trip computer (although featuring oddly unlabelled buttons) and an in-dash AM/FM six stacker MP3 CD player that apart from needing better treble, sounds pretty good. The steering wheel controls for the sound system are hidden behind the spokes but with a little familiarity, work well. Also worthy of plaudits is the electro-chromatic central rear vision mirror that automatically darkens when subjected to following headlights. A colour LCD panel mounted high in the middle of the dash shows the status of the radio, climate control and other systems, but while it’s adequately wide it’s also very short, resulting in a rather small viewing area. Four airbags are provided and the driver’s seat is powered. The instrumentation is easy to read and the steering wheel stalks work well. The cabin lighting is excellent.

However, the interior lacks the innovation and interest expected in a new car: besides the minor pluses of sunvisors that extend and small loops that can be used to hold the rear seatbelt sashes away from occupants’ necks, there’s nothing representing any interior design advance in this class.

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Interior space is excellent, with a heap of rear legroom (headroom is a bit tighter but still adequate) and the seats are comfortable and supportive, the fronts featuring adjustable lumber support for both passenger and driver. But because the windscreen slopes at a very shallow angle and the steering wheel and pedals are not adjustable for reach, most comfortably-seated drivers found the top of the A-pillar and sunvisors overly close to their heads. But the biggest downers of the cabin are the huge expanses of tacky fake wood (it’s so bad that no aftermarket supplier of ‘wood’ interiors would let it out the factory) and the odd silver/black plastics used everywhere. The boot opening has a high loading lip and is very small (you won’t be able to fit even a small box through the aperture) but there’s plenty of space inside.

On this car at least we were surprised by the poor design/build quality: foam filler strips projected from each end of the dash; the wires going to the rear vision mirror are covered just by plastic sleeving (rather than the moulded-in panel used by most manufacturers); the fuse panel at the end of the dash is difficult to remove; a dashboard plastic piece was misaligned; the catch for the centre console bin lid is crude; and a trim price popped out of the door handle, never to be seen again. Hopefully most of these were characteristics of an early build car, but we can only comment on the car Mitsubishi made available... On the plus side, the doors shut absolutely superbly and the paint was excellent.

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The 3.8 litre engine looks, sounds and feels like an upgraded Magna 3.5 engine... which really it is. That’s no bad thing – the Magna engine was always much underrated – and in 380 form is a strong and effective performer. It’s not as smooth and quiet as some of the opposition (although it’s clearly better in this regard than the V6 Commodore) and as mentioned, we found the fuel consumption unexpectedly high. But teamed with the 5-speed auto, there’s never a moment when you feel a lack of performance or response. That’s particularly interesting because Mitsubishi has geared the car extremely high (in top gear no less than 30 per cent higher than the 5-speed manual!) and has programmed the gearbox to select fifth gear as early as possible. The result is that often the engine is turning at only 1100 rpm in normal urban use; however it rapidly down-changes if the driver needs to accelerate.

The ride of the optionally-sports-suspended car we had was firm: some of our drivers thought it too hard in urban conditions (it smooths out at speed) but others complimented the ride quality... clearly this is very much a personal choice. Tyres are 215/55 Japanese-made Dunlop SP Sports worn on 17 inch 6-spoke wheels – incidentally, all 380s with 17 inch wheels are fitted with the sports suspension pack. The tyres can be very noisy on coarse chip surfaces – the 380 does not represent the NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) leap forward that previous Magna models made.

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Viewed in isolation, there’s little wrong with the 380. There’s interior space, an effective engine, and excellent handling and brakes. But buyers do not view cars in isolation - they make comparisons. And it’s when thinking of its competitors that it becomes clear that the 380 needs to be $10,000 cheaper or have been introduced three years ago. Without the killer punch that could have been provided by all-wheel drive, an optional turbo diesel engine, class-leading safety, or a low price, the 380 will struggle to find buyers.

The 380 was provided for this test by Mitsubishi Motors Australia

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