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First drive: Magna faces up to change

Fast starter: The Magna VR-X is a star ar in the TL/KL range.

New TL Magna is a life or death car, says Mitsubishi boss

25 Jun 2003

ASK Mitsubishi Australia boss Tom Phillips the importance of the new TL Magna and his reply is stark and straight to the point.

"I would have to probably say it is a matter of life or death," he says.

"This car is going to carry us over the next couple of years to our big project in 2005."The "big project" is the all-new Magna replacement to be built here from '05, followed in 2006 by a long wheelbase spin-off that the Australians will exclusively build and export to the Mitsubishi world.

TL, which goes on sale in early July, gets the job of warming us up for the new generation, re-generating sales and adding some premium to the Magna name buffeted by a stormy run of local closure rumours and continued discounting.

To do that, the TL and the KL Verada luxury range gain a dramatically different nose-job, but also a substantial equipment level update and a minor steering and suspension tweak.

There are model designation changes as well and an ambitious sales target of 2500 per month combined, around 700 per month up on the run-out TJ/KJ family.

If that sales rate is achieved it would deliver about 25,000 sales for the year, the best result since 2000, but still a far cry from the halcyon days of 1997 when more than 40,000 Magnas and Veradas found local homes.

But while Aussie sales have proved harder to come by recently, export has been an increasingly significant component in MMAL's survival kit. This car will head to North America as the Diamante in September-October and eventually to the Middle East. Japan and Eastern Europe are other prospective markets.

But the message is clear from Mr Phillips. Stuff it up and the whole game plan falls apart.

He has done all he can to kick TL/KL off in the right fashion. There was a price rise coming across the range, but last minute negotiations with headquarters in Japan kept prices pegged or increased by no more than one per cent.

It's a big win, particularly considering the $70 million-plus spend on the TL/KL facelift, including $2 million alone for the distinctive new triangulated headlights.

That might not sound like a lot of dollars compared to Holden's $250 million on VY Commodore and Ford's $400 million on BA Falcon, but Mitsubishi is the pauper among the local manufacturers with barely a spare shekel to rub together.

"I haven't been game to add up the costs at this stage," said Mr Phillips. "But I think it has turned into something that we couldn't envisage ... back then."Back then was early 2001 when Mitsubishi faced the task of yet another mild refresh of the Magna in what were decidedly uncertain and morale-sapping times.

There were massive local losses, an unsupportive administration in Japan bedevilled by a shaming recall crisis, rumours of closure, then a DaimlerChrysler buy-in and yet more speculation over the future of MMAL's two Adelaide plants.

With strict instructions not to mess with TJ's hard points, MMAL's resident stylists Dennis Nicolle and Richard Holden came up with two new faces - one that evoked the Nissan Primera and the other reminiscent of the Mitsubishi Outlander compact off-roader launched here earlier this year.

Both were junked along with the hard points rule when Mitsubishi's newly appointed styling chief Olivier Boulay arrived in Adelaide on a reconnaissance tour in June, 2001, and saw the proposals.

Mr Boulay literally commandeered the program. Mr Nicolle and Mr Holden were shipped to Japan along with a clay design proposal, which promptly had its nose bow-sawed off.

The end result you see here is a car that is true to Mitsubishi's new international face. That means a level of change to sheetmetal and the body structure that would have been impossible without Mr Boulay's deep, direct involvement.

New headlights, grille, bumpers, fenders, bonnet, side sills and decklid are the visible evidence, while underneath the battery housing, washer bottle area, front radiator support members and even the doors are modified.

There are two levels to the redo - one for volume selling models and one for the sporty or luxurious models - but they are only discernible in the details.

"I think we are going to have a car now which people are going to be able to drive and park in their driveway and make the statement that they actually have a new Magna, a new Mitsubishi," said Mr Phillips.

"We have been looking for something like this for some time and we now have the opportunity. This has got to bridge us through the next two years and I am very confident it will."


NOT only will the Magna have a new look, but much of the range also gets new names.

ES replaces Executive as the entry level model, LS replaces Advance, VR replaces Sports and the Verada GTV becomes GTVi and a full-time member of the range.

Only the top-spec VR-X sports sedan and the Verada Ei and Xi go on unchanged.

Inside, there's a new look audio head unit and air-conditioning controls, as well as rear air-conditioning outlets, while the Magna (but not Verada) power window switches have been relocated to the lower centre console.

Criticism of Magna's lack of rear legroom compared to Commodore, Falcon and Toyota Camry has been addressed by reshaping the rear of the front seats, the rear seat back and cushion, as well as re-arrangement of the rear seat hip points and squabs.

There's also new fabrics and trim colours, a facelift for the instrument binnacle, a new steering wheel boss and a centre console box that has numerous functions including - in the style of the BA Falcon - a tissue box holder.

All cars in the range now come with driver and passenger front and side airbags, climate control air-conditioning, power windows front and rear and power driver's seat with a minimum six-way operation, while only the ES misses out on alloy wheels and most get a new design. Audio systems are upgraded across the range with VR-X and Veradas getting a 10-speaker, six-CD premium system.

A motorised seven-inch satellite navigation system is offered as an option across the range.


MOST emphasis in terms of TL/KL engineering changes have been placed on the chassis.

Steering gear input characteristics have been changed to improve on-centre feeling and balance between steering responsiveness and effort.

There have also been spring and damper rate changes made to the MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension systems, designed to provide more sporty ride and handling.

Rear stabilisers are now fitted to all sedan models as well.

The drivetrains remain unchanged, with the base 155kW/316Nm version of the SOHC 24-valve, 3.5-litre V6 standard on Magna ES and LS and Verada Ei and Xi models.

Magna VR, VR-X and Verada GTVi get the higher output 163kW/317Nm version, while the dedicated LPG ES and LS (the latter new for TL) versions produce 143Nm and 296Nm.

The engine emission control system has been upgraded using a new, larger catalyst and revised ECU.

The gearbox choice continues to be five-speed manual (ES, VR and VR-X) or four-speed INVECS II auto with sports mode sequential shifting (ES and LS) or five-speed INVECS II (VR, VR-X and all Veradas).

In safety terms, frontal and side impact protection has been addressed by a series of body and panel strengthening measures while electric pretensioners are now fitted standard to all models.


THE dramatic styling update to TL authorised by Olivier Boulay helped MMAL push other changes and improvements through.

But the whole program was a close-run thing. The styling, including variants, was not signed off until late in 2001 and the suspension re-tune was still being finalised against VY Commodore, BA Falcon and 380N Camry late last year.

In fact, so close-run was TL Magna that Mitsubishi Oz didn't have time to wind tunnel test it, hence the lack of a claimed aerodynamic drag figure for the revised shape in sales literature. In the end the car's launch came about two months later than first envisaged.

TL/KL ended up being a case of firing all your best shots at once, according to MMAL product planning manager Tim McCranor.

"You can't afford to launch a car now in bits and pieces and this is probably the most significant thing we have done to this car for a long, long time," he said.

"On a project this size we really needed to put everything into it."But there are still loose ends to tie up.

The all-wheel drive range is still two months from launch and the next Ralliart Magna is further away again.

While MMAL showed off a brand new television ad featuring Fat Boy Slim's song Praise at the media launch, it could not play the Magna-specific ad because it had not been finished yet.


TL Magna sedan
Magna ES 3.5L V6 $31,890
Magna ES 3.5L V6 auto $33,790
Magna LS 3.5L V6 auto $37,400
Magna VR 3.5L V6 $37,990
Magna VR 3.5L V6 auto $39,990
Magna VR-X 3.5L V6 man $40,990
Magna VR-X 3.5L V6 Auto $42,990TL Magna wagon
Magna ES 3.5L V6 auto $35,200
Magna LS 3.5L V6 wagon auto $39,110
Magna VR 3.5L V6 wagon auto $41,690
TL Magna sedan dedicated LPG
Magna ES LPG 3.5L V6 sedan auto $34,590
Magna LS LPG 3.5L V6 sedan auto $38,200KL Verada sedan
Verada Ei 3.5L V6 auto $42,490
Verada GTVi 3.5L V6 auto $46,130
Verada Xi 3.5L V6 auto $51,620KL Verada wagon
Verada Ei 3.5L V6 auto $45,130


ONCE you have overcome the shock of the new exterior and then climbed inside and made the necessary adjustments, you are fundamentally on familiar ground with the TL/KL series.

The technical changes are few and therefore the drive experience is nothing very different.

Which isn't bad news.

Magna is a fundamentally good execution of a large capacity, front-wheel drive family car, which is a blessing for MMAL considering the financial constraints it has had to cope with in the years since this generation was launched.

The 3.5-litre V6 engine delivers strong low and mid-range grunt and decent top-end, combining with a light and easy manual shift or the excellent INVECS II auto, to deliver seemly and abundant progress.

That smooth and quiet drivetrain is allied to a reliable fuss-free chassis that is trustworthy in the true front-wheel drive sense.

There's plenty of grip, progressing resolutely to understeer. It's as safe as houses on tar and the most predictable of the Aussie-built cars on gravel, breaking the tail loose only under provocation.

In the sports versions it all firms up that bit more, the 17-inch wheeled VR-X the tautest and sharpest car sampled during the launch. Despite the suspension adjustments it's a familiar feeling.

More good news is that the ride remains controlled and supple across the range as well. Although body control isn't quite up to that of the latest 380N Camry.

The steering, again despite the changes, remains a little vague and loose and devoid of real feel. It's a little heavier and more precise than its predecessor, but we are talking minor degrees of adjustment here.

Inside, the changes are definitely an improvement. The Magna now feels less dark and deep with a more modern look and feel to the a-c and audio controls. There's more colour and more variety and a richer impression thanks to the boost to standard equipment levels across the range.

Which brings us back to the front, so to speak.

For all the other changes and improvements, the gut-busting race against the clock that delivered this car and the significance it has for Mitsubishi's future in Australia, it is the new front-end which dominates TL/KL.

Despite the enthusiastic support of MMAL from Tom Phillips down and Olivier Boulay's passion, the fact is Magna?s new face is controversial, and certainly the most radical presented on an Australian large car since the AU Falcon.

The nervous question awaiting this car is whether it will suffer the same ill fate as AU or be the start of a new beginning for Mitsubishi in Australia.

The verdict begins to reveal itself next month.

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