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First drive: AWD Magna ready to go - again

Mild but wild: The Magna AWD looks like its two-wheel drive relation but drives very differently.

Mitsubishi has given its all-paw Magna a new look just months into its life

15 Aug 2003

ONLY months after it first went on-sale, Mitsubishi is set to launch an updated Magna all-wheel drive family.

Revealed to the press this week but not due in showrooms until late September, the company’s second take on AWD inherits the wide-eyed looks and equipment upgrades the two-wheel drive Magna/Verada family showed off in July.

Under the skin there’s little change with the three-model range and the fundamentals of the drivetrain remaining virtually unaltered.

The powerplant is the familiar 3.5-litre SOHC V6 mated solely to the excellent five-speed INVECS II tiptronic auto. The all-wheel drive system 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 Evolution series of rally-inspired Lancers, 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, which has christened it QuadTec.

There has been some refinements made in other areas. While the MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension remains from the old AWD, the springs are now slightly stiffer, the rebound dampening is firmer and the high-speed compression damping softer. The VR continues to be set up more sportingly than the other two cars.

"We have been able to maintain the same ride quality we had before but improve the road holding capabilities of the car," explained Mitsubishi Motors Australia (MMAL) engineering boss Lee Kernich.

Mitsubishi is claiming improved fuel consumption for the AWD because of optimisation of the engine and transmission control system necessary to meet the Euro II emissions standard that becomes mandatory in Australia from January.

Like the 2WD, the body structure and panels of the AWD have been strengthened and noise deadening increased, but because of the differences in the two cars under the skin these changes have not been achieved identically.

That strengthening has added around 40kg to the AWD's weight over the old model, while it continues to be around 120kg more than the 2WD.

Mitsubishi is bringing its second iteration of AWD Magna to the market before Holden (with Adventra) and Ford (with Territory) get their first all-paw vehicles out into the world.

Both companies would bristle at the comparison considering the Magna program was $7 million spin-off of an existing passenger car, while Adventra and particularly Territory are far more expensive and pitched at the emerging cross-over market.

As with the original, Mitsubishi is making no visual differentiation from standard Magna to AWD version apart from some exterior and interior badging. That’s fundamentally a cost issue. A set of new bumpers alone costs $2 million to develop, and that’s big bucks for cash-strapped MMAL.

"It’s not just purely cost but cost was a factor," admitted MMAL sales and marketing chief Bill Pike. "The research we have got is the people who are driving the car are happy to have that security and safety of AWD without necessarily wanting to have a car that is dramatically different physically to the two-wheel drive."But the good news is that the pricing of two out of the three AWD models have actually dropped in the change from the TK/KJ to TL/KL.

While the base model AWD climbs by $500 from its launch pricing, the VR (renamed from Sports like the 2WD version) drops $1300 and the Verada plummets a substantial $2030.

While that means the base models is still more than $4000 than a base ES Magna auto, the VR and the Verada’s premium over their front-wheel drive equivalents has been slashed to just $2000. That’s a cut of nearly $3000 in the case of the Verada, and a still meaty $2300 for the VR.

Why? The sales results gives some pretty reasonable clues. At launch, MMAL hoped for 300 Magna AWD sales per month, but that’s translated out to about 150 in the real world. The forecast is again 300 per month, with the VR and base model the dominant players.

"If we had our way again we probably would not have launched the car when we launched it," added Mr Pike. "But there were a number of imperatives we had to launch the car in the old bodyshape because the development had been done for a whole range of reasons it didn’t get to market when we wanted it to be in the market launching it just after Christmas was a non-ideal time.

"The real benefit of this car is it is coming at peak launch time, the real benefit of this car is the longevity and the life of the vehicle. It’s more stylish, it handles better."Mr Pike also said there had been some hold-off from fleet buyers who wanted to wait for the facelifted version to arrive.

If you are familiar with the changes made to the 2WD range then you are fundamentally familiar with the three AWD cars as well. There’s the front and rear styling changes directed by world design boss Olivier Boulay, some steering modifications, updated centre console, rear air-conditioning outlets and more rear-seat legroom.

That means the standard equipment list now includes power windows, cruise control, automatic climate control air-conditioning, four airbags and six-way power driver’s seat and alloy wheels.

The VR matches up to its 2WD equivalent in equipment terms, while the Verada is specced equivalently to the Verada Ei, which means more luxury features including a 10-speaker, six-CD premium audio system.

Mechanically, all three cars get larger Ralliart brakes than the 2WD cars. The AWD and Verada share the 154kW/310Nm engine, while the VR has a 159kW/318Nm version, a free-flowing exhaust. Those power and torque ouputs are down slightly on the 2WDs by the way.

All three cars get 16-inch alloy wheels but the VR’s are 16x7s while the others make do with 16x6s. The sports model also gets grippier 215/60R16 Bridgetsone Grid II tyres while the other two get Turanzas. There is still no sign of Mitsubishi releasing an AWD car with 17-inch wheels, which also means there is no sign of a VR-X at this stage.

Pricing:Magna AWD (a) $37,990
Magna VR AWD (a) $41,990
Verada AWD (a) $44,490


"All-wheel drive makes people better drivers," argued Mr Kernich at the launch of Magna AWD.

But to put it another way, it is also unarguable that AWD has made the Magna a better car to drive.

A two-wheel drive Magna is a safe, conservative front-wheel driver with an emphasis on ride comfort and safe handling (read understeer) rather than sports edginess. That’s allied to a world class engine and automatic transmission combination that still cannot be matched by any other local manufacturer.

What you end up with is reliable, affordable, comfortable and quiet transportation. The sporting models raise the bar a bit, but only a bit.

Substitute the all-wheel drive and it’s time for a significant attitude adjustment.

The AWD Magna takes the positives of the 2WD car and adds a much higher level of sporting ability. There’s grip where there used to be slip, drive where there used to wheelspin and accurate turn-in where steering-wheel jerking torque steer was the familiar order of the day.

And that’s in the base model. Shift over to the VR and you get a slightly more feral exhaust growl, a slighly more tied down feel and a little more power and torque to play with.

Not that the AWDs feel particularly strong in the under-bonnet department. The extra weight does hurt when you’re looking for that whip-cracking pass. You can either bail out or find yourself perched on the wrong side of the line for an uncomfortably long time.

A manual gearbox might release a little more flexibility and spring, but there’s no doubt the tiptronic auto is a beauty with slick, quick changes in the twisting stuff and an adaptive brain that takes over when you drop back into "D" at a more relaxed gait.

Our first drive took place in the mountains north-east of Melbourne and it was a superb venue to test the AWD system to the hilt. Rain, mud, slush and even snow were on a menu that the AWD system simply gobbled up.

But it wasn’t only the grip and surety that impressed it was also the refinement. No clanking, banging and whirring here. The presence of the AWD was given away by the car’s behaviour and little else.

Visually that’s a pity. The Magna AWD deserves to be as separated more from its 2WD bretheren inside and out as it is in performance. Perhaps that will happen when Mr Kernich and his team figure out how to get big wheels under the guards and roll out a sports flagship.

For the moment, Magna AWD is an understated but convincing addition to not only Mitsubishi’s lineup, but the portfolio of locally manufactured cars in total. If you can afford the premium over the standard car then go for a test drive.

Preferably in the rain.

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