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Car reviews - Mitsubishi - Magna - AWD sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Traction, stability, safety, price premium
Room for improvement
Lack of differentiation, extra weight, interior

16 Jul 2003

NO question, Mitsubishi has done an outstanding job turning the Magna into an all-wheel drive.

By grabbing a bit of AWD Diamante, and a few parts from the turbocharged, all-wheel drive Lancer Evolution rally monster, then mixing in some local engineering know-how, the company has come up with a package that suggests the Magna was always meant to be four-wheel drive.

The system is so unobtrusive that, under normal circumstances, driver and passengers would be unaware of how significantly different this mild-looking Magna is under the skin.

But venture onto a rain-slicked, or gravel road surface, and the differences are instantly noticeable. So good is the system you are prompted to think all sedans should be like this - an observation with which car-makers like Subaru and Audi would be quick to agree.

It will be interesting, given the subtlety, to see whether Mitsubishi will be able to seek out sufficient numbers of well-informed buyers keen to exploit the AWD advantages.

The company says it will and, at the launch late in 2002, forecast total sales of 3600 Magna/Verada AWDs in the 12 months. Just 25 per cent will be base Magna AWDs, with Verada and Sport accounting for 35 and 40 per cent respectively.

A good early warning sign is that the first batch of AWDs was sold at the time the new models were announced.

Certainly the Magna AWD is able to make the regular front-drive or rear-drive competition look silly in situations where traction is lacking. (In fact, wouldn't it be great if some of the locally-bred V8 muscle cars were able to spread their power delivery over four wheels rather than just two? It's only a matter of time.)

In some ways the Magna's 3.5-litre V6 barely tests the abilities of AWD.

Driving around town, in benign conditions, there is absolutely nothing to separate two-wheel drive from all-wheel drive. The base Magna version we tested didn't suffer from any immediately noticeable power loss either, despite the extra drag of the constant four-wheel drive, or the added 150kg or so of all-up weight.

It does make a difference at the fuel pump though, consuming 12 litres/100km on the urban cycle and 8 litres/100km on the highway cycle - compared with 6.6 and 11 in comparable two-wheel drive models.

The business of bringing the AWD Magna/Verada together was quite an ambitious project, even if Mitsubishi Motors Australia had much of the technology available.

The driveline is pretty much straight out of the Lancer Evolution, while the floorpan, in order to provide clearance for the propeller shaft running to the rear wheels, is basically an adapted version of that used in the Japanese AWD Diamante.

What hadn't been tried before was mating the 3.5-litre V6 with the AWD system, or modifying the Magna's multi-link rear suspension to accept drive forces - not to mention a differential and drive shafts.

Mitsubishi's Australian engineers wielded their knowledge and expertise here, beginning serious development of the AWD system as recently as 2001.

In the end, they stayed with the Australian suspension components, but adapted the floorpan, firewall and "bladder" 70-litre fuel tank from the Diamante - the latter being necessary because the standard 72-litre fuel tank was right where the propeller shaft needed to go.

The local team put a lot of work into relocating the steering rack, and modifying the exhaust system as well as the anti-lock braking. One thing that was dropped from the AWD car was the traction control system that became irrelevant now that drive was being apportioned to all four wheels.

It was no real surprise during development that real-world testing showed significant traction advantages over the Holden Commodore and regular front-drive Magna used as dynamic benchmarks for the system.

Essentially, the AWD arrangement uses front, rear and centre differentials operating to spread power evenly between front and rear wheels in normal circumstances.

The centre differential incorporates a viscous coupling that allows torque to be directed to the wheels with most traction if the road gets slippery, while the rear unit uses a mechanical plate limited-slip design as seen in the motorsport version of the Evo VI RS.

The front differential is the same as the Evo VI RS and Evo VII.

This is a superior system to the on-demand AWD used in many cars (Audi A3, Honda CR-X) where the rear wheels are only actuated if the front wheels start to spin.

What it all means is a much more stable car on slippery surfaces, as well as the ability to put power down to the ground when accelerating away from a standing start on a wet road.

We've all seen, or experienced, the slithering antics most cars will engage in when the lights change to green on a newly-moistened road. And even the best traction control system, while it helps minimise the wasteful spinning of wheels, must by its nature inhibit forward progress as it can only rely on the actual road grip available.

The AWD Magna slingshots away as if the road surface was completely dry.

Although the base model all-paw Magna is visually almost indistinguishable from a normal front-drive version, there are a few other things going on under the skin.

The brakes, for example, are from the Ralliart version of the Magna and the wheels are 16 x 6.0-inch 10-spoke alloys with 215/60 R16 Bridgestone tyres. The AWD car also gets a rear stabiliser bar to give a slightly more responsive, firmer feel to the suspension.

The ABS system was reworked locally in consultation with Bosch and uses additional hardware and revised software. This, according to Mitsubishi, is required by the "cross-talk" that occurs between braking wheels in a full-time AWD system with limited-slip differentials.

And, even though it may not look a lot different from outside (there are identifying badges near the front wheel arches and on the boot), the base all-wheel drive Magna does pick up a few luxuries that place it somewhere between the Executive and the more upmarket Advance model.

Passenger airbag, power windows, front door courtesy lamps, chrome gearshift surround, leather covered steering wheel and gear shift lever, colour keyed external mirrors and side splash protectors all help lift it above base two-wheel drive Executive level.

But the interior still feels a little disappointing, considering you are closing rapidly on $40,000 for the AWD car.

But at least you still get all the facilities of the regular Magna, with good internal stretching room, no noticeable intrusion on boot space, and no extra levers to fiddle with in order to operate the AWD. The viscous coupled centre differential takes care of road-grip discrepancies.

Anyone with a slight interest in driving would consider the outlay for all-wheel drive worth the extra (it equates to $3700 over the front-drive auto transmission Executive, or Sport models).

And if on-road safety is an important criteria, it's our opinion that there's simply no other choice.

Just one comment: wouldn't it have been nice if Mitsubishi had developed its Magna station wagons to accept AWD as well?

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