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First drive: Magna AWD breaks cover

All hands on deck: Magna AWD is Australia's first all-wheel drive passenger car.

Mitsubishi is first to market with an all-wheel drive sedan, the Magna AWD

4 Dec 2002

MITSUBISHI Motors Australia has pulled a rabbit out of its corporate hat by bringing to market Australia's first all-wheel drive sedan, the Magna AWD.

Providing Magna with a clear point of difference over its large car rivals from both Holden and Ford - which will release all-wheel drive recreational vehicles of their own in 2003 and 2004 respectively - AWD is the culmination of Japanese technology and Aussie engineering know-how.

With total 2002 Magna AWD production of just 350 cars already spoken for - and component supply problems conspiring with a production line already bursting at the seams to meet export demand - ready supply of the initial three-model Magna AWD range won't be available until January.

Accordingly, full official details were to have been kept under wraps until then, but the early release of embargoed information by some media outlets has forced MMAL to lift the lid on the Magna AWD story earlier than expected.

And after sampling the all-paw Magna in wet conditions over almost 400km of Australia's Snowy Mountains high country, it appears the story is well worth telling.

To be available in base, sports and luxury guises - each at a $4000-$5000 premium over its donor car - the three auto-only, 3.5-litre V6 Magna AWD variants will be joined by sportier VR-X and Ralliart versions shortly after the facelifted, XR-codenamed Magna surfaces around July 2003.

It is believed new suspension knuckles need to be developed to accommodate those cars' 17-inch wheel/tyre package before the hottest Magna AWDs can be launched.

For now, though, Magna AWD ($37,490) will be available alongside Magna Sport AWD ($43,290) and Verada AWD (46,460), with the basic Magna AWD price positioned $4500 higher than the Magna Executive auto sedan, the Magna Sports AWD priced $4300 above the Magna Sports auto sedan and the Verada AWD commanding a $4920 surcharge over the Verada Ei sedan.

An $1850 sunroof remains the only option on Magna and Sport AWD models, while Verada AWD's options list includes leather trim and sunroof ($4080) and $475 for the Nardi wood gearshifter and steering wheel package.

Although official volume projections are 300 Magna AWD sales per month for a total of 3600 units in 2003, senior MMAL executives admit that is a conservative figure and expect more like 500 sales per month (6000 in 2003).

MMAL estimates the entry vehicle will account for 25 per cent of Magna AWD sales, with the Verada AWD comprising 35 per cent and Sport AWD making up the lion's share of 40 per cent of all Magna AWD sales.

So what's in a Magna AWD? Plenty, as it happens. After experimenting with MMAL-built Magna engines in the Japanese market's Magna-based AWD Diamante, the decision was made to adapt the all-wheel drive system from that car to the Australian-made Magna, then strengthen it for local conditions and the 3.5-litre V6's higher torque output.

MMAL product engineering boss Lee Kernich explains the QuadTec drivetrain: "This is the vehicle a lot of us have always wanted to build because we knew the basic ingredients were available within the corporation but the circumstances couldn't arise before this to bring it all together.

"This is the type of enthusiast vehicle we've been able to develop in Adelaide since we had a big change in management and philosophy a couple of years ago - such things as the VR-X, the Sports wagon, the Ralliart and now the AWD."MMAL used as many existing components as possible, including Lancer Evo parts in place of original Diamante parts where necessary. For example, the Japanese car has multi-link front suspension, so a new front cross member - the largest single engineering and development job - was needed to mate the system with Magna's MacPherson strut front suspension.

The new cast aluminium cross member is humped in the middle to provide clearance for the strut front-end and the new transfer case including viscous coupling, which is common with the Lancer Evo VI. Meantime, a raised steering rack was necessitated by the new cross member, which in turn necessitated new front knuckles.

Mitsubishi engineers also used the opportunity to modify the Magna AWD suspension's bump characteristics, while recalibration of the Bosch 5.3 anti-lock braking system was another major development project, which now includes ag-sensor and was completed in record time at a cost of $700,000.

Brakes were also upgraded substantially to Ralliart Magna specification, meaning 294mm vented discs with twin callipers up front and 284mm vented discs and single-piston callipers at the rear, plus electronic brake-force distribution.

All Magna AWDs ride on unique 16 x 6.0-inch alloys and 215/60-section tyres, with Magna/Verada employing Bridgestone Turanzas and the Sport wearing Grid IIs.

Finally, the Japanese Diamante's floorpan, firewall and fuel tank (now 70 litres) were adapted and tooled for Magna to accommodate the AWD system, which comprises a three-piece prop shaft, while a more circuitous exhaust system was also required.

For this reason, claimed Magna AWD engine performance is down a few kilowatts, with Magna and Verada AWD producing 154kW at 5000rpm (down from 155kW) and the Sport AWD's lower back pressure system making 159kW at 5500rpm (down from 163kW). Torque is also reduced by a similar amount.

Magna AWD employs a viscous limited-slip rear differential, Evo VI transfer case, open front differential common with Evo VI RS and Evo VII, and a centre differential with viscous coupling from Evo VI. Like most viscous coupled all-wheel drivetrains, Magna AWD delivers a 50/50 front/rear torque split in normal conditions.

In theory, it can transfer a maximum of 100 per cent drive to either end and can never be "beached' if one rear wheel has traction, but in practice the system resists any relative front/rear axle speed differential by heating and locking up.

Of course, the downside of Magna AWD's extra grip and more neutral handling characteristics is a substantial weight increase (a massive 137kg in base form), which effects performance and fuel economy.

While there is a slight but noticeable reduction in acceleration, fuel consumption has increased a big 10 per cent to 8.0 litres per 100km highway and 12L/100km city for all models.

Magna AWD: $37,490
(+$4500 on Magna Executive auto)Magna Sport AWD: $43,290
(+$4300 on Magna Sports auto)Verada AWD: $46,460
(+$4920 on Verada Ei sedan)OPTIONS PRICING:
Sunroof (Magna/Sport AWD): $1850
Leather trim and sunroof (Verada AWD): $4080
Nardi wood steering wheel/gearshift (Verada AWD): $475


MITSUBISHI Australia's homegrown Magna has long been considered one of the better balanced, most refined and best value locally manufactured large cars available.

But its Achilles heel has always been its front-wheel drive chassis that, when combined with Magna's torque-laden 3.5-litre V6, struggles for grip and can become unwieldy when driven enthusiastically, in wet conditions or without traction control.

In fact, there's long been a school of thought suggesting an all-wheel drivetrain will remove one of the single biggest reasons Magna has never really been viewed as a legitimate Commodore/Falcon rival by Aussie large car buyers.

That car is now a reality and although a definitive, comparititive assessment can only follow a comprehensive comparo, a 400km launch drive loop through slippery Snowy Mountains roads was enough to prove the all-paw layout has eliminated many of Magna's perceived weaknesses.

More neutral handling than its front-drive siblings and slightly firmer than, say, a Subaru Outback, Magna AWD feels instantly better balanced and more confidence-inspiring to drive at speed or in slippery conditions, with the overly large tiller returning far less of the kickback or torque steer so prevalent in mainstream Magnas.

Magna AWD delivers a higher level of cornering grip than garden variety Magnas, with rapid mid-corner throttle inputs resulting in crisp, clean and rapid corner exits and none of the wheel-spinning or steering wheel tugging of its donor car.

Magna AWD has better weighted steering, more neutral handling, less understeer at the limit and can accelerate harder while turning, deliver more cornering force and offer greater resistance to snap from oversteer to understeer and vice-versa.

All of which means it's easier to drive more quickly and has a wider safety envelope without the need for electronic driver aids.

But don't go thinking Magna AWD is now a power-oversteering beast, which is simply not the case because - despite a 50/50 front/rear torque split - it's virtually impossible to break the rear-end loose even on gravel surfaces. Traction efficiency is certainly the overriding theme here.

To quantify the improvement, MMAL engineering guru Lee Kernich revealed graphs showing limiting traction efficiency versus coefficient of friction for various vehicles. It showed that at a traction coefficient of more than 0.8, rear-drive cars have a superior traction efficiency, or can use more of their power to drive away.

But on anything less than a 0.8 dry road surface (such as a wet road or ice), front-drive cars have superior traction efficiency. However, according to MMAL, an all-wheel drive system with variable torque betters both layouts, with 100 per cent of its traction efficiency available over any range of surfaces.

In addition, Mr Kernich says that an average driver on a dry road usually generates around 0.3g of force upon takeoff. A rear-drive car can achieve this level of force on roads with a 0.6 coefficient of adhesion surface, while a front-drive car can achieve it on slightly slipperier roads (0.5).

Meantime, Magna AWD can achieve the same takeoff force on a coefficient of adhesion as low as 0.3.

Mitsubishi rally legend Ed Ordynski also pointed out the advantages of all-wheel drive when it comes to stability while traversing road puddles and during braking, both of which were evident during our drive loop.

But enough figures: the advantages of all-wheel drive are clear for both the enthusiast and safety conscious. Now for the negatives.

The first is weight. With an extra 137kg in base form, all-wheel drive represents a substantial weight gain, resulting in greater fuel consumption and reduced performance. Throw in the price increase over the respective donor car, and the costs of all-wheel drive begin to stack up.

At 1604kg, however, Magna AWD still undercuts the BA Falcon in terms of weight, and the responsive 3.5-litre V6 remains both fuel efficient and powerful enough relative to any large locally manufactured sedan.

What's more, there's no trade-off in driveability, with the silky-smooth sequential-shifting auto working in tandem with the AWD system to produce snatch-free shifting and strong low-rpm response.

Throw in a liberal dose of standard fare, in addition to Magna's standard equipment, such as unique 16-inch alloys, brilliant Ralliart brakes, twin front airbags, power windows, courtesy door lights, chrome gearshift surround, leather steering wheel and gear knob, AWD instrument and gearshift surround badging and colour coded mirrors, and Magna AWD begins to make sense.

A performance vehicle the Magna AWD is not - we'll have to wait for all-wheel drive versions of VR-X and the Ralliart Magna for that - but the improvements wrought by AWD in terms of handling balance and active safety appear to be well worth its extra cost.

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