Mitsubishi gets it as wrong as Ford has got it right

Posted on January 15th, 2006 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Over the years I have made it abundantly clear I am not a fan of SUVs. Call them what you will – ‘four-wheel drive’ is clearly now a misnomer – but a truck-like vehicle with a high centre of gravity, greater aggressiveness in typical road crash impacts, high profile tyres with poor grip that provide vague steering around centre, lousy aerodynamics, crap interior packaging and the apparently unbreakable habit of being thirsty do not, methinks, make for a good passenger car. As a heavy duty towing machine, sure. As a genuine Outback tourer through the dirt and the dust, fine. But not a vehicle appropriate for dropping kids off at school and doing the weekly, urban shopping run.

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Conversely, and this is perhaps as unfashionable a sentiment, I’ve thought over the last half-dozen years the locally-built Mitsubishi Magna has been a fine car. The sweet 3 litre and then torquey 3.5 litre V6s, the early availability of the 5-speed auto with tiptronic-style function, the aero slipperiness that gave excellent highway fuel economy (even when travelling quickly), the competent handling (and far more than just ‘competent’ in the case of the short-lived but phenomenal all-wheel drive Magna models) – these were good cars unrewarded by low resale and, towards the end, subject to outright denigration by the public. (Of course, that low retained value also means that an AWD Magna or late model VRX/Sports represent amongst the very best of secondhand buys.)

But how things change.

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I’ve just stepped out of five days in a Mitsubishi 380 LS (the 380 is the Magna replacement)….

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…followed immediately by another five days in a TX Ford Territory. (The Territory was the now superseded 4-speed auto model without independent variable cam timing of both cams.)

The Territory, equipped with the 4-litre six developing 182kW, has all the appearance of an SUV: high profile tyres, a tall ride height and a reputation for being thirsty. And, in the RWD-only form of the test car, not even the ability to convincingly rough it. I mean, whydya bother?

Well, I’ll tell you why you’d bother: it makes for a damn good family car. Car, not truck. No, the steering at straight-ahead isn’t as good as a typical sedan, and yes, the Territory does have more initial body lean when cornering. But get past those aspects and find a car that handles really quite well, and with the standard traction control, is safe and progressive. But it’s inside where the real story is. Despite a build quality that is so-so, the Territory reeks of innovative design. Perhaps nothing is a genuine breakthrough, but all in the one car at this price, the package is superb. This sorta stuff always reads really boringly but when the rearmost seat row folds absolutely flat, there’s no trade-off in heaving an occasional seating facility for seven. When the second row of seats also folds flat in a jiffy, and when erected can be slid back and forth on tracks, suddenly this is starting to be a damn useful car. Then when the top-most section of the rear hatch lifts separately (no, not just the glass but the frame as well), well, practicality and real-world positives start to flow.

And, unlike plenty of high-floor SUVs, the Territory has a decent cargo volume available in the back. This has always been a sore point for me about SUVs – often they look huge but because of their high floor, or narrow distance between intrusive wheel arches, the actual load capacity can be less than a medium-sized hatchback. But the Territory really is big in the back.

The Territory has storage compartments and expanding cupholders everywhere. I don’t get hugely excited by cupholders but in the real world of families and long trips and kids, a car that caters for these needs scores highly. In fact, from the child restraint anchorages positioned close on the seatbacks to the red tags that clearly show when a seat is not locked into place, the Territory shows excellent, thoughtful industrial design. It’s a car that was specifically designed to appeal to Australian families leaning towards an SUV, reducing as far as possible the compromises inherent in the package size and shape and taking advantage of the opportunities offered.

And the Mitsubishi 380? Unlike the very first 2.6-litre Magna, which offered a contemporary breakthrough combination of space and fuel economy, or the later V6 Magnas which had more sophisticated suspension and far better NVH than other local offerings, the 380 has nothing new. Literally, the entire mechanical package – engine, body and suspension – could have been offered five years ago… (Unarguably, the only technological aspects of the car which are right up to the minute are the Bosch engine management system and Bosch ABS.)

The interior design? Well, that could have been offered not 5 years ago but instead 15 years ago. Oh sure, Mitsubishi wouldn’t have been serving up an in-dash MP3 stacker in 1991, but in instrumentation, space, style and comfort, the 380 breaks no new ground. In fact, in some specifics like steering that isn’t adjustable for reach, a rear seat that doesn’t fold, rear vents that can’t be switched off, and a tiny boot opening, a 10 year old Falcon is superior. The 380 has no huge breakthroughs – in performance, in NVH, in fuel economy, in anything.

In fact, as an alleged new-age family car, it has nothing much new to offer.

Yes, the 380 handles very well – or at least the LS we had with optional sports suspension does. But when can you exploit that? In the first day of driving the 380 around the city, I deemed the handling unremarkable. All right, it certainly wasn’t lousy, and the traction control worked very well in cornering hard in urban conditions, but so what? It was only on the darkest and dirtiest of back roads (in one case, literally darkest – the car has great headlights), being driven in a way that would immediately result in the driver losing his license if sighted by a policeman, that the 380 showed the depth of its chassis design and development. Fantastic brakes – 160 km/h to nought, time after time – and handling that is precise yet forgiving, the car feeling absolutely planted even in tricky conditions.

And the engine! Especially in the context of its near ancient mechanical specs (Mitsi like to call it all-new but in the basics it’s anything but), the engine performs very well. Even with the 5-speed auto of the test car, the 380 is a strong, willing and effective workhorse. But of course, with Falcon or Commodore performance and basically Commodore or Falcon weight, you get just what you’d expect – Falcon or Commodore fuel economy. (To do better you need an engine with real technology – the Honda Accord V6 is a great example. Similar performance but fuel economy – especially on a trip – which is far superior to the 380.)

The Ford Territory’s focus is abundantly clear: it’s designed for typical Australian families. From its versatile interior to its soccer-Mum looks, from its availability in RWD and AWD to its lack of a low-range mud-grubbing gear ratio, Ford knew where they were going and have achieved success doing it.

And the 380’s targeted buyer? Try to imagine this person:

Someone who loves driving very fast, in fact often at speeds illegal anywhere in Australia but the Northern Territory. Someone who doesn’t care if a car is front or rear-wheel drive. Someone who needs a largish car with lots of rear space. Someone who isn’t much concerned by fuel economy and wants strong performance. Someone without any existing tribal loyalty to Ford or Holden. Someone who is undaunted by the demonstrable appalling resale of the 380’s predecessor.

I guess that someone exists, but by golly, there can’t be many of them…

Personally, the Territory is not my idea of a family car. Even with its undoubted practicality and on-road poise, its city fuel economy deep into the Fifteens (in litres/100 km) and unwieldy size seem overkill. But I can sure see why others like it – and buy it. The 380? If it had stability control and six airbags (incredibly, both are not offered on any models), if it had the fuel economy advantage that would have potentially come from a variable valve MIVEC engine or the fuel economy benefit that would have definitely come from (gasp!) a diesel turbo engine, I’d consider it. (But I’d still hate the stupid boot design and the dash which looks stylistically forced.)

The Territory has plenty of development potential left – and that’s starting from a high base. A diesel turbo engine and an improvement in cabin and body build quality could help it find another whole market that would never have previously considered a locally-built Ford. The car is selling well and will continue to find plenty of satisfied buyers.

Mitsubishi see their 380 as a breakthrough car for family and fleet buyers in Australia, a car that will cement the currently precarious foundations underpinning the manufacturing plant in Adelaide.

I think they’re fooling themselves.

(The Mitsubishi 380 was supplied by the manufacturer and the Ford Territory was hired.)

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