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Car reviews - Mitsubishi - 380 - sedan range

Our Opinion

We like
Interior space, refinement, comfort, noise supression, build quality, performance, driveability, fuel consumption, transmissions, ride quality, steering, handling, body rigidity, equipment levels, safety features, differentiation between variants
Room for improvement
No split-folding rear seat, no reach-adjustable steering wheel, no traction control for base 380, stability control and curtain airbags unavailable, no centre rear head restraint, no boolid lining on base 380, smallish front door pockets, no front passenger grabrail, no closing air-vents, smallish boot

29 Sep 2005

TWO YEARS ago, with its parent company in financial chaos and its aged, volume selling Magna at its lowest sales ebb, it would have been easy for Mitsubishi Australia to close its factory doors and cease local vehicle production.

Instead - and rather than hatch a plan to build, say, a locally developed version of its popular Pajero SUV to rival Ford's all-conquering Territory - Mitsubishi chose to persevere with an all-new large sedan for Australia.

Having spent a relatively indulgent $600 million on research and development - almost half of which was swallowed by the largest investment the Adelaide Mitsubishi plant has received in its 40-year history - the result is the most researched (and most important) vehicle Mitsubishi Oz has ever produced.

Central to the company's future as a local manufacturer, the sedan-only 380 offers the twin mantras of being the best quality Australian-made vehicle, as well as being the best suited to Australian large car customers' needs.

While these are hardly revolutionary points of difference among a large car market that will gain redesigned Commodore, Camry (four-cylinder) and Avalon (V6) models next year and a new Falcon in 2007, first impressions are that 380 delivers on both promises.

Although the often wet and heavily trafficked Mornington Peninsula roads used for the national media launch didn't provide definitive answers to all of our questions, it's clear 380 represents a quantum leap over the nine-year-old Magna in terms of refinement, noise suppression, interior space and dynamics.

It's also clear that the lion's share of the 70 per cent of newness it comprises in relation to the US-market Galant sedan upon which it's based lies under the 380's skin.

Yes, there's a cohesiveness to the sleek new shape that no iterations of the long suffering Magna could never emulate. The coupe-like roofline, deep and muscular flanks, and clean and modern lines also offer a refreshing contrast to Toyota's slab-sided Camry and the somewhat similar BA Falcon and VZ Commodore.

And the VRX/GT sports/luxury variants' cleverly integrated bootlid spoiler, which extends into their striking, unique clear-lens tail-lights is a nice touch, and provides effective differentiation between variants.

But to say the 380's exterior design isn't derivative of the Galant's would be an obvious misnomer. Because the fact is that a new bonnet, bootlid, bumpers and quarter panels are not enough to shake off the American car's understated look, and leaves 380 with less road presence and European-ness than the stylish mid-sizers it also hopes to tempt buyers away from (read: Mazda6 and Accord Euro).

It's a similar story inside, where 380's clean-sheet cabin is well executed, highly ergonomic and totally modern without being cluttered.

All interior surfaces are textured and soft to touch, all controls are intuitive and super-light to operate, and the two-tone LS/LX interior delivers a real feeling of class.

Some will say the all-black base, GT and VRX interiors are too dark, but technical mesh and woodgrain console inserts of the sports and luxury variants respectively are surprisingly well executed.

In short, it's up there with anything offered by its three large local rivals, but lacks the beauty of its Japanese foes.

Still, Magna and Camry drivers (and those of Commodores and Falcons too) will be delighted by the size and airiness of the 380 cabin, which offers class leading overall legroom that's most noticeable from the expansive rear seat.

An impressive range of seat adjustment - both fore/aft and up/down - in all variants makes Magna and Falcon feel positively claustrophobic in comparison.

There's even plenty of head and stretching room for rear seat occupants, who now also benefit from air-conditioning outlets as in Falcon and Commodore.

But there are two glaring oversights. First, the convenience and flexibility of a split-folding rear seatback is absent due, according to Mitsubishi, to the extensive chassis reinforcing that makes 380 twice as rigid as Magna.

Mitsubishi says the 380's dynamic ability - wrought by a stronger body that's said to better cope with our rougher roads - is a key part of its "made for Australians" strategy, and that its inherent sportiness would not have been achieved without rear bulkhead strengthening.

We're prepared to accept that, even for a market in which only Commodore lacks a split-fold rear seat - which will change in about 10 months.

But the lack of telescopic (reach) adjustment for the steering wheel seems inexcusable when (a) Commodore and Falcon both offer one, as do many less expensive vehicles, and (b) it's absence is due solely to cost.

For an all-new car that will rely heavily on sales to fleet companies (vastly differing sized employees of which often share the one car) it's an unfortunate oversight.

Similarly, 380's boot appears reasonably large, is well lit and offers cargo space that's not inhibited by Commodore-style bootlid hinges, even if it's accessible at the front only by a standard ski-port.

But the entry-level 380's trunk looks cheap without bootlid lining, the aperture is relatively small and has a high loading lip and it's actually about 20 litres smaller than nearest (rear-drive) rival.

This is disappointing for a front-drive car that offers space as a key catchcry, especially when the small Focus sedan offers a bigger boot than Falcon. As with its large-car rivals, there's no external boot release, and the interior boot opener is frustratingly located, like Commodore's, in the (lockable) glovebox.

Less annoying negatives are evident in the lack of a front passenger grabrail, the inability to close air-vents, the smallish front door pockets, the lack of rear ones and a visible fastening bolt in the rear armrest.

The lack of traction control in the base 380 - and the unavailability of stability control and side curtain airbags, period - is also surprising for a new model that will be the first of four in its class to market, but otherwise the 380's standard safety package is commendably highly specified.

In an Australian first, four airbags are standard across the range, and the standard safety kit also includes front seatbelt pretensioners and force-limiters, five three-point seatbelts, height-adjustable front seatbelts and head restraints, breakaway pedals and energy-absorbing headlining and pillar trim.

However, matching the other locals, there is no centre rear head restraint and the seatback-integrated outboard rear head restraints are fixed.

The 380's standard equipment list is also comprehensive, comprising a 10-function trip computer, climate control air-conditioning, remote audio controls, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3 player, cruise control, power windows/mirrors, four-way power adjustable driver's seat and remote central (two-stage) un/locking via a neat new integrated key/fob.

There's a big visual step-up to the colour 4.9-inch TFT screen in variants above the base 380, which also score an eight-speaker sound system with six-CD stacker, 10-way power seat adjustment, leather highlights and rear park assist.

But as good as the safety features and equipment list is, it's in the driving that the 380 really impresses.

Supremely quiet and with convincingly low levels of vibration and harshness, the 380 cabin also provides good vision in all directions as well as high levels of comfort and ergonomics.

Start up the 175kW/343Nm 3.8-litre V6 and, in the tradition of Magna, there's a silky smooth idle and a surprisingly rorty exhaust note.

Also like Magna, the improved five-speed auto is remarkably refined, offering seamless shifts and intuitive adaptive skills.

While the similarly updated five-speed manual, which will reside in a small number of base 380 and VRX variants, works well enough, we fouled the baulky second-to-third gear shift a number of times and 380 could use an almost-mandatory six-speed manual - if only for the sake of keeping up with the Jonses.

Because the fact is that, despite matching only Commodore's basis Alloytec V6 for power, the 380's locally developed V6 is a willing performer, offering smooth, responsive acceleration from idle to reline.

Plant the right foot and 380, which ranges in kerb weight from a reasonably bulky 1625 to 1700kg, is supremely flexible and accelerates with fuss-free effectiveness and builds speed in the upper gears with deceptive ease.

Despite this convincing performance, which makes 380 effortless to drive in all traffic situations as well as a straightline match for any of its rivals, we encountered only a whiff of torque steer - a common trait among front-driven cars whose front wheels are charged with turning as well as driving.

Even when provoked with a full throttle over bumpy, off-camber hairpins, the 380's steering remained composed, well weighted and communicative. And Magna's trademark steering rack rattle is a thing of the past.

Similarly, the 380's handling also achieves a successful balancing act by offering both responsive dynamics and commendably ride quality.

While the base models felt taut and cornered flatly over a variety of road surfaces, even the more firmly sprung VRX and GT variants delivered an impeccably compliant ride and a surprising lack of "head-shake".

It may not look European, but 380's solidity and handling prowess certainly feel more European than Japanese - let alone Australian.

Topping this off is a braking system that feels progressive, strong and confidence inspiring, and completes a genuinely accomplished dynamic package.

Whisper-quiet, spacious, comfortable, well equipped, safe, powerful, frugal and with a well sorted combination of Euro-style ride quality, chassis solidity and handling dynamics, 380 delivers a number of advances to the large car segment and is light years ahead of its predecessor.

It's a shame there are a number of omissions from the 380's standard equipment list, which will become more conspicuous by their absence as the big four local makers unveil new contenders over the coming two years.

Pricing will dictate much of the 380's success, but whether these niggling issues are enough to overshadow the popularity of what is a quality, well executed large sedan with a number of attractive attributes, only time will tell.

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