Ford Fairlane, Mitsubishi Magna, Honda Accord Luxury

Posted on July 31st, 2005 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Every now and again we get to drive cars where for a variety of reasons, it’s not worth writing a full test. Over the last few months three such cars have been sampled.

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The first was a Ford Fairlane – not the just-introduced trim update model, but the one prior to that. Coming standard with 4-litre in-line six cylinder and four speed auto, the big Ford may have been in sales free-fall over the last few years but in reality, it’s a bit of a hidden wonder. The DOHC, variable cam timing mill first introduced in the BA series Falcon is light-years ahead of previous local Ford sixes – a dead-smooth idle, punchy and reasonably economical. The four-speed auto is a thinking design, and coupled with the abundant torque and easy sequential driver control of the trans, the lack of a fifth ratio is not a glaring shortcoming. But the trans/engine combination is not really up to the standards of much of the rest of the car – especially the ride and handling.

For decades compliments of the handling of the big Australian rear-wheel drive cars were always qualified with comments about how good they were – considering they had live rear axles. Or trailing arm rear-ends. Or… But the Fords now have a really good rear suspension – period – and with the excellent calibration of spring/damper rates that have long been a forte of the local engineers, the luxury Fairlane combines ride and handling with real brilliance.

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Other pluses? The Fairlane is hugely roomy, at about $60,000 pretty cheap for what you get, very comfortable and fairly safe. Unusually for a local long wheelbase luxury car, it’s also largely anonymous – chrome hasn’t been splashed around dementedly and the inside styling isn’t garishly over the top. Downers? Well, the dashboard looks a bit cheap in places, and build quality is waaaay below even a $40,000 Japanese car.

But perhaps the Fairlane’s biggest negative is that it hasn’t got any single standout feature – one that’s going to make a potential buyer feel an urgent need to reach for their chequebook. Though Ford has within its power the ability to easily change that – just fit the XR6’s turbo engine…

We’ve been fans of Mitsubishi Magnas since the current shape was introduced way back – well, quite some time ago. The excellent 3-litre and then 3.5 litre V6s, the low NVH, the good ride and front-wheel drive handling. The all-wheel drive model? One of our favourite high performance cars, ever. (In fact, the all-wheel drive holds the record for speed through a long, bumpy corner that dives down over a bridge on my country test road. The highways department has now fixed the bumps that used to be so treacherous at throwing cars off-line; the all-wheel drive Magna went faster through that corner than any other car I have driven….)

Over the years we’ve encouraged two friends to buy Magnas – one bought the first model Sport and has been happy with it ever since, and the other bought a recent 3.5 that regularly sprints the Alice Springs to Adelaide haul, getting economy in the Tens even though it’s sitting on 140 km/h for much of the way.

But of course with the slanty-eyed facelift that was foisted on the company by a (now departed!) chief stylist, Magna sales have dropped away to nearly nothing. Magnas are now the subject of open derision, mostly from people who have never driven them and often from people who seem to have some kind of hang-up about front-wheel drive cars. The styling and the laughter has meant that Magna resale values – never very strong anyway – have now plummeted. That makes for some amazing bargains in the used car market – but be careful. A Magna with 40,000 kays on the clock might drive as-new…. Or might drive like a bucket.

Recently, we had one of the latter examples.

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Putting our money where our mouths are, when we are interstate and need a hire car, more often than not we plump for a Magna. But this time the results weren’t quite as desired. A TJ model, it looked OK in the metal but the many faults soon became obvious. The suspension clunked, the steering was loose, the passenger side seat was broken, the remote locking didn’t work (even when the doors were manually unlocked), the idle was poor and the gearbox was at times coarse. Truly, this car felt like it had 140,000 kays on it – even maybe 240,000!

I know what you’re thinking – being a hire car, maybe the 40,000km odometer reading was no longer indicative of anything much. But when I took the car back I made a point of asking the owner of the rental company about the car’s history – and the kays were correct. It had been bought by the company, new. This car showed clearly that when driven unsympathetically and perhaps without much maintenance, even a relatively low-kilometre Magna could drive quite poorly.

But you want to know something? The engine was a bloody stormer! Even with the auto trans, it just steamed off the line and pulled hard to the redline, smoothly and untemperamentally. I ran some 0-100 km/h times and it was as quick as 8.6 seconds – with massive wheelspin. Put on some sticky front rubber and it would have been doing low 8s – all in standard form and with the auto!

Start with one of the manual 5-speed 3.5-litre models and you have an excellent, cheap platform for modifications. But drive a number of examples before you buy…

We’ve previously tested two Honda Accord Euros and liked them both – although the manual base model at $34,000 struck us as a far better driving package than the $43,000 Luxury model with its 5-speed auto. But the recently introduced Luxury update model – which adds 17 inch wheels, 45-series tyres and some suspension modifications – that we sampled in 6-speed manual trans form is definitely A Good Thing.

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Costing $40,500, it combines brilliantly sure-footed handling with a torquey and willing 2.4-litre four cylinder engine. In our very low kilometres test car, the engine didn’t feel as strong as when it has loosened-up, but its tractability and good manners were still impressive. There’s very little to criticise about this car. It is well appointed (lotsa airbags, dual climate control, sunroof, leather, stability control, abs, 6-stack CD – although no trip computer), has decent space utilisation, a good dashboard and drives very well. What you see on the showroom floor is pretty well what you get on the road – there are no unpleasant surprises.

If you want to be very critical, you can call the tyre noise on coarse chip surfaces, the climate control that – typically Honda – is far too sensitive to changes in sun intensities, and the seats which lack a little lower back support (again, something we’ve found in other Hondas).

But we think that long-term the Euro will stand out as one of the classic medium sized sporting family cars on the market. After all, this exact package sold with Audi badges on the front and rear would sticker at $60,000….and even then, the reviews would call it a good car.

The Ford Fairlane and the Mitsubishi Magna were hired, the Honda Accord was provided by Honda Australia.

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