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First drive: Magna takes ride on wild side

Seriously fun: Mitsubishi's VR-X combines sporty looks with all-road 4WD abilities.

Mitsubishi's rally VR-X previews the new Magna hero model

2 Jun 2004

MITSUBISHI’S Magna is heading for the end of its life, but it’s going to go down kicking and screaming courtesy of a new hero model, the VR-X all-wheel drive, which goes on sale in mid-June.

Now that Mitsubishi Australia’s future as a vehicle producer has been assured, we know there is going to be a Magna replacement in October 2005.

We also know when that car arrives the Magna name will depart and all-wheel drive will not be part of the new model’s line-up initially, and maybe not ever.

All of which adds up to mean the Magna VR-X all-wheel drive will go down in history as the ultimate mainstream Magna – remembering the Ralliart Magna was a limited edition run.

The car we are sampling here is not the production VR-X which will top out the Magna AWD range (currently comprising base model, VR and Verada), but one prepared by the Melbourne-based factory operation, Team Mitsubishi Ralliart, for the Australia Cup category of the Australian Rally Championship.

Driven by rally legend Ross Dunkerton, the competition version covered itself in glory first time out by winning the national category of the Rally of Canberra last month.

That’s great validation for Mitsubishi’s decision to add the VR-X program to its existing two-car Lancer Evo attack on the outright category of the ARC, a challenge headed up by the company’s rallying stalwart, Ed Ordynski.

It also serves to emphasise the fact that Mitsubishi plans to make rallying a key component of its plans to boost its image here after yet more damage caused by the latest speculation about its future and the closure of the Lonsdale engine plant.

And it also ties in with Mitsubishi Australia’s plans to develop the Ralliart brand further now that it controls the name in Australia.

Little of the $40,000 each car has cost to get to the start line has been devoted to performance improvement

The Dandenong team headquarters will also serve as a parts and retailing base and there is even the prospect for road car performance part development down the track.

Cash-strapped as Mitsubishi Australia is, it’s no surprise to find that the two Magna VR-X rally cars (the second car is piloted by motoring journalist Michael Taylor) are actually very close to production, modified to meet safety regulations and toughened up to cope with the rigours of rallying.

Very little of the $40,000 each car has cost to get to the start line has been devoted to performance improvement.

There’s a beefy and heavily triangulated chromoly roll-cage. All important in the event of an off or roll-over, it also provides some extra torsional rigidity because it adds bracing to the front and rear suspension towers.

The 3.5-litre V6 engine is standard inside, the only exterior change being a tubular exhaust manifold plucked from the Ralliart Magna, which replaces the standard cast item. This may improve on the standard AWD VR-X’s 154kW at 5000rpm and 310Nm at 4000rpm, but only slightly.

Incidentally, that figure is down on the two-wheel drive VR-X, which offers 163kW at 5250rpm and 317Nm at 4500rpm. This power loss is due to more circuitous exhaust routing prompted by the all-wheel drive system.

The INVECS II five-speed auto is the standard (and only) transmission choice in the production car and is retained by the rally car.

However, now changing down via the electronic sequential changer is a push forward rather than pull back.

21 center image The Quadtech all-wheel drive driveline remains unchanged from the production car and comprises transfer case, open front differential, viscous coupled centre differential and viscous-type rear limited slip differential.

The gear is sourced from the Japanese Diamante and the Evo Lancer series, with some locally-developed parts such as a new cast aluminium front crossmember added to the mix, and the development handled by the local Mitsubishi team, The fundamental suspension design of MacPherson struts up front and multi-link at the rear is unchanged in the rally car, but the springs and struts are supplied by Sydney-based rally suspension expert Jamie Drummond.

Some work has also been done on the brake package, which uses slotted and heated discs, and clamp-type twin-piston callipers from the Mitsubishi accessories list, combined with after-market Pagid brake pads.

Wheel size actually drops one inch from the production car to 15 inches because that’s the biggest size rally wheels and tyres that are available. In this case the team has plumped for 15x6-inch OZ wheels and rally specification Pirelli tyres.

If at this point you think you’ve spotted the obvious error – that the VR-X AWD road car will come with 17-inch wheels, think again. Although the concept presented at the Melbourne motor show was on 17s, cost constraints mean they won’t make it to the production car.

Strip out the interior and centre console, put in racing seats and that’s about it. The rally car uses standard instrumentation and starts off the normal ignition key, rather than the starter button many race cars use.

"The whole idea of the exercise was to line a standard Magna up out there and see how durable it was and what problems we would get from the bits we had on it," said team manager Alan Heaphy.

"Canberra was the learning event, this was the first one … but afterwards we came back scratching our heads about what could go wrong with the thing." Indeed, despite Mr Dunkerton topping 190km/h several times and clearing crests by two metres as he fought for the lead on the final morning of the event, only some after-market suspension bushes proved unreliable. The team has gone back to standard bushes and had no further problems.

"She’s the luxury saloon," laughs Mr Dunkerton, a five-times Australian rally champion.

"All I’m doing now is looking for the CD player and the air!" For Magna VR-X drive impressions, go to www.goauto.com.au from this afternoon


AS intimidating as driving a competition rally car might be in theory, the reality when it comes to the Magna VR-X AWD is very different.

Just like the production version, this is very much an ally on loose surfaces rather than a handicap.

Aided by its excellent competition suspension and the wonderful grip of those heavily grooved Pirelli tyres, it was easy to pilot the VR-X with confidence.

The main shock was the noise, with the revised exhaust giving the car a gruffer persona and a constant shower of stones and gravel rattling around under the guards. The occasional creak and groan from the driveline and body added to the metallic din as well.

Physically fitting in the car was an initial challenge. There are so many tubes around head level that it was easy to bang your (helmeted) head on the roll-cage under acceleration and deceleration.

But funnily enough, as the pace picked up such annoyances were forgotten or simply disappeared.

The figure eight course offered plenty of variety, from hairpins to rev-out third gear straights to establish the car’s strengths and weaknesses.

VR-X could be confidently pitched across ruts and holes entering and departing corners with little upset

No surprise with so much weight hanging out over the front wheels that there was some push entering corners, which swung lazily into a very controllable drift as power went back down.

For me, the key was to use the strong and progressive brakes early, set the car up and give it full power through the corner, rather than just ploughing on in generating understeer.

Such is the quality of the suspension tune that the VR-X could be confidently pitched across ruts and holes entering and departing corners with little upset. The ride quality would truly do many world class Limos proud.

With this engine a torquer rather than screamer in motorsport terms, there wasn’t any worry about using anything other than second and third gear around the course, while the sequential shift proved itself faultless.

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that more power and torque would not go astray. This car weighs in around 1560kg, about 120kg heavier than a Lancer Evo, giving up about four seconds per kilometre in speed potential (a lot in rally terms).

"The weight factor is against it," says Mr Dunkerton. "It’s a matter of driving it accordingly, so that you don’t waste too much time washing off the speed. You have to keep the momentum through all the corners and the crests." Really appreciating the car’s ability has to be done from the navigator’s seat with Mr Dunkerton at the wheel. All of a sudden the speed is more pronounced, the track looks narrower, feels rougher and the push in the front-end more noticeable.

"The feel of it is big, smooth and comfortable," he says. "A lot of the newer cars like the Evos and (Subaru) WRXs, the boys have got to really drive them because they are going so hard and they are so light, whereas this is very comfortable, like sitting in an armchair." There’s no doubt how much fun this is, and Mr Dunkerton communicates it well, both with his driving and his enthusiasm.

Let’s hope the production car is just as entertaining.

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