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Car reviews - Mitsubishi - 380 - LX sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Zesty performance, classy ride/handling, interior space, interior quality, style, five-year warranty
Room for improvement
Stability control unavailable, side curtain airbags unavailable, no steering wheel reach adjustment, no split-folding rear seat

Mitsubishi logo4 Nov 2005

By TIM BRITTEN

HOW often are Australian buyers faced with an all-new, locally-built full-size mainstream car?

Not that often, if our recollections are correct. Holden hasn’t produced anything that properly qualifies for more than two decades, and Ford has been on essentially the same track for 45 years.

Only the Japanese – if you think Camry/Avalon, and the previous Magna/Verada qualify – have fielded all-new offerings, but never anything that has seriously become a part of the Australian large-car psyche.

So the Mitsubishi 380, for reasons other than its vital role in securing the Adelaide-based company’s manufacturing future, is a significant new arrival on the automotive landscape.

The car has been calculated to provide what Australian large car buyers want, without having to rely too much on what went before. It’s about as close to being a clean-sheet car as we’re likely to get for some time.

Mitsubishi says the only connection with the Magna/Verada is the V6 engine, and even this is tenuous because when you look closely there’s not a lot of the old 3.5-litre to be seen. Even the cast-iron block is new.

The 380 comes with a promise by Mitsubishi that it’s the highest-quality local car on the market, with new manufacturing systems put in place at the Tonsley Park plant in Adelaide that ensure a consistent, high-quality build process.

Mitsubishi also wheels out figures saying the 380 is the best-packaged locally-made car in terms of passenger space, and also tells us it’s faster on the road and more economical than its major competitors.

It also claims European levels of road behaviour, and a more rewarding drive experience than we normally expect from a Japan-sourced design.

Then the company wheels out more figures, showing how price-competitive the 380 is and backing it up with a dizzying five-year, 130,000km warranty plus five years of roadside assist. Talk about putting you money where your mouth is.

The Mitsubishi 380 is a car most Australians want to like. Even the other locals will benefit from its success, if only because of its contribution to the survival of the Australian supplier industry.

It is against this background that our first proper acquaintance with 380 indicates the company has delivered on its promises.

Importantly, it looks the part. A major rework of the US-market Galant it is based on has resulted in a design that is clean and balanced, yet interesting enough that it will stand out from its main competitors.

The new Mitsubishi looks lithe and stylish on the road, with none of the challenging stylistic effects that isolated the last Magna/Verada series from many potential customers.

Close to the current Holden Commodore in all body dimensions except wheelbase, where it still falls short by 39mm (Falcon by 79mm), and slightly bigger than the Toyota Camry, the 380 uses its front-drive configuration to squeeze in a very accommodating passenger compartment that truly challenges the notoriously spacious Holden and Falcon.

The luxury-spec LX test car was as impressive for its rear seat space as it was for its generous shoulder room - which comes from the fact the 380 is only 2mm shy of the Commodore and 30mm short of the Falcon in overall body width. It’s comfortably wider than both the Magna/Verada it succeeds, and the current Camry.

In the 380 LX, this translates to a wide-open, airy feel, accentuated by the use of light beige leather on the seats that is matched by the light tones on the door trims and roof liner.

Slide into a 380 and you won’t be disappointed by any feeling of gloominess, or by any of the dowdiness that afflicted the outgoing Camry or Verada.

Here is where you will get the tangible feeling that Mitsubishi’s mainstream car has lifted itself by the bootstraps to raise quality to impressively high levels. There’s slush-mould, soft-touch vinyl aplenty, from the top of the dash to the upper door trims, as well as a neatness of fit and careful attention to detail that should please the pickiest customer.

The seats feel large and comfortable, in the LX complimented by full power adjustment for the driver, as well as three-position memory and power lumbar support.

The main instruments are viewed through a three spoke steering wheel with hidden buttons for controlling the audio, and there’s a cruise-control wand on the right side that moves with the wheel so the driver can always see and locate it easily.

There’s also a 10-function trip computer, set into the dash and controlled by an on-dash button, and a colour centre display that updates driver and front passenger on functions such as the climate-control, audio, time and date, and warns if a door, or the boot, has been left open.

The LX shares with the slightly downmarket LS (below that again is the base 380 model) an eight-speaker sound system with six-disc, in-dash CD player, electrochromatic auto-dipping rear-view mirror, speed-sensitive wipers, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob, but adds leather trim and a six-way power-adjusted passenger’s seat.

The climate-control system is standard across the 380 range and vents air to rear seat passengers via an outlet at the back of the centre console.

Mitsubishi presents the LX as a Calais/Fairmont Ghia challenger and cites the standard sunroof – as well as, among other things, a substantially lower price – as a compelling reason to buy.

And here is where you begin to see one or two things that indicate things that were forced onto the car either because of its US origins, or by cost-control considerations.

For instance, the flashy fake wood that adorns the dash and front doors fails to continue into the back seat, the steering wheel is adjustable for height only, and the two rear-only grab handles snap, un-damped, back into place when released.

Step around to the boot and you’ll be pleased to note the tucked-away hinges and reasonably wide opening, but you might also note there’s no split-fold rear seat like the Falcon and that the actual capacity, at 437 litres, is down on the 470-litre Magna.

It’s still quite a good boot though, with plenty of width in the most immediately accessible area, and a reasonably good shape for squeezing in tricky items.

But what about the important, hidden stuff?

Well, the suspension keeps its front MacPherson strut, rear multi-link design, but aims for a more European, tightly-controlled, driver-oriented approach, while the body is said by Mitsubishi to be twice as strong torsionally, and in bending stiffness, as Magna/Verada.

The cast-iron 3.8-litre V6 is based on the US Galant engine and sticks with single camshafts on each cylinder bank, as well as four-valve alloy cylinder heads. It adds separate ignition coils for each cylinder, drive-by-wire throttle control, a new cylinder-selective knock control system and an improved injection system with 12-hole injectors.

The output is nothing spectacular for the capacity – 175kW at 5250rpm and 343Nm at 4000rpm – but Mitsubishi says the new engine is Euro 3 emissions compliant and returns better acceleration and fuel economy figures than its indigenous Australian rivals. Using high-octane fuel, 100km/h comes up in a pretty decent 7.6 seconds.

Standard transmission in LX is Mitsubishi’s five-speed Invecs II ‘Smart Logic’ sequential auto with sports mode – a departure from the American Galant, which gets only a four-speed auto. Engine-modulated traction control, at this level, is also standard.

The effect of this driveline in the 380 is to give it an easy, responsive gait, underlaid by a deep, satisfying V6 exhaust note exiting through a tailpipe big enough to do justice to a hooned-up Subaru WRX.

On the road, the 380 indicates how far front-drive engineering has come, with little or no intrusion from torque steer in most circumstances, and a well-modulated traction control that allows some slip and doesn’t kick in aggressively to virtually shut the engine down at the slightest provocation. Some of today’s systems still do that.

The brakes, with four-channel ABS and EBD, plus decent-size ventilated discs (using two-pot calipers up front) on all four wheels, feel strong and reassuring too.

The five-speed auto transmission is about as sweet-changing and efficient as you’re likely to find, up-shifting with a smooth crispness that indicates minimum power loss and offering a sequential function that uses the conventional forward-upshift, backward-downshift pattern.

The auto 380, at 10.8L/100km, is quoted as being more economical than the five-speed manual that is available on base and VRX models. We averaged just over 11L/100km on test.

No question, the 380 is well endowed with both torque and kiloWatts and is as handy around town as it is cruising comfortably on the open road with a full load on board.

Noise levels are satisfyingly low, with no particular intrusion from driveline, road or wind noise – Mitsubishi tells us the 380 is designed for minimised aerodynamic drag, without quoting an actual figure.

The steering goes from lock to lock in a relatively tight 2.8 turns and feels slightly over-assisted, yet is satisfyingly sharp in terms of wheel response. A disappointing recollection of the Magna though is that the turning circle remains relatively wide at 11.2 metres - and somehow feels like even more.

It engenders, through the LX’s more tied-down suspension, feelings of confidence that lean, just like Mitsubishi claims, towards a more Euro-style experience.

The LX follows the Holden philosophy of pandering slightly to the driver through the adoption of the tighter suspension, as well as a strut brace connecting the two front suspension towers, and 17-inch alloy wheels with 215/55 R17 tyres.

The result is a ride leaning towards firm, and a general feeling of being planted on the road that is not so obvious in the rear-drive locals.

Like all 380s, the LX gets a full-size spare – a 16-inch steel wheel with a 215/60 R16 tyre, sitting in the specially redesigned boot.

From a safety viewpoint the 380 is okay, but nothing spectacular. That is to say it has twin front and front side airbags at every level, but lacks curtain airbags anywhere in the range.

And, while it has substantial and capable ventilated disc brakes with four-channel ABS and EBD (no brake assist), electronic stability control has yet to find its way into the specifications.

So, how does Mitsubishi’s vital new large car rate?

How pleasing – almost a relief - it is to say that the 380 scores better than might reasonably have been expected. The new Mitsubishi is a fine car that has been given the space to develop into an even finer one.

It brings nothing new to market in terms of general concept, but it is certainly the most refined mainstream front-drive package by a decent margin.

It is clearly well built (the five-year, 130,000km warranty is backed up by a 12-year corrosion guarantee), highly accommodating, fast and refined to drive, and appears to have raised the bar on local build quality.

And the pricing, particularly at the upper levels, is highly competitive.

Small disappointments include things like the one-way steering column adjustment, the lack of a split-fold rear seat and, in the LX, a slight luxury downgrading for rear-seat passengers.

But the biggest letdown was the lack of stability control and side curtain airbags. In a brand-new car, you’d expect both to be a given, particularly at the top end of the range.

The 380 comes at a difficult time, but it could be it has the potential to help correct the recent tendency of fuel cost-sensitive Australian customers to steer away from the large car market.

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