The year was 1997, and my parents were looking for a new car. Into my possession came a glossy brochure for the recently released TE Magna/KE Verada handed to us by the local Mitsubishi dealer.
Showcasing a beautifully proportioned design made to cut through the air, I was captivated by its sharp lines, strong shoulders, sports car-style frameless side windows, and aerodynamic flag-style mirrors amongst many other design features.
Inside the cabin was nothing I had seen before in an Australian-built car: flowing modern lines, driver-centric, feature rich and luxurious in Verada grade. It was ahead of its time, or perhaps until that point Australian cars were behind the times. Having at that time also discovered Wheels and Motor, I continued to read with interest every article and comparison between the Aussie-built four, Commodore, Falcon, Camry and, of course, the Magna.
It was not until 2003, aged 22, that I was able to purchase a Magna. Seeking a large six-cylinder sedan built in Australia for motorway commuting, the only choice was the car that had left an impression on me several years earlier, and into my parents' driveway I proudly parked a Kashmir 2001 Magna TJ Executive sedan with only 28,000km on the odometer. Remanufactured under Mitsubishi’s Diamond Advantage program, it presented as new.
Exterior design and highlights
The third-generation Magna was well into its life cycle by that stage. It was revised for the TJ series with an aggressive eagle-like ‘bird of prey’ frontal treatment, moving down the side with the existing strong shoulder line connecting bonnet with decklid, frameless windows and invisible B-pillars, creating a seamless glasshouse effect and attractive silhouette. This was enhanced by the fitment of 17 inch wheels from the series-two VRX on my example.
Moving to the rear, and the crease along the boot lid disappeared in favour of cleaner design, improved on my example by the fitment of Verada tail-lights. An indication that this car was designed for Australian conditions is excellent dust sealing, with a plastic extension running along the bottom of the door skins.
One design feature to note that received comment/criticism at the time was its high beltline and shallow daylight openings that were said to contribute to a closed-in feeling. To me, however, it creates a sporty feeling as you feel seated lower in the car. And you will struggle to find a sedan today that does not have this design, although probably more so for side-impact protection safety reasons.
Although, what the Magna lacks in some of the fancier styling treatments of our modern-day cars, it introduced and popularised many design elements 22 years ago that are still being used today.
Interior design and comforts
Stepping inside we find a well designed, practical, and comfortable if somewhat basic cabin. Its lack of appointments would likely make a driver of a modern utility turn up their nose. However, the fundamentals that even today some manufacturers fail to get right are there: clear instrumentation, multi-function trip computer, well-laid-out buttons and dials, air-conditioning, four-speaker stereo, and ventilation and audio controls slightly inclined towards the driver, à la BMW.
Continuing that driver-focused theme, unfortunately, is only one airbag (non-Takata thankfully). Intelligent placement of the cupholders ahead of the gear shifter – so as not to interfere with operation of the gear shifter and handbrake lever – is a nice thought, and a wide and deep footwell provides a spacious feeling for the driver.
Despite the previously mentioned high beltline, an airy feel and excellent outward and side vision are afforded by the thin A- and B-pillars and large wing mirrors. Rearward vision is mostly okay, the C-pillar creating a blind spot when reverse parking that has been addressed by an aftermarket reversing camera. There's comfortable seating for four adults and plenty of head room all round. Apart from seatbelts, the only convenience rear passengers will find is a pair of cupholders in the fold-down centre armrest.
A lack of telescopic steering wheel adjustment (granted, a rarity at the time) and ratchet-style seat adjustment can prevent the perfect driving position from being obtained. And although there is a remote boot release on the key-fob, a button beside the driver’s door rather than in the glovebox would have been more convenient.
On to the boot, which is spacious, featuring a wide opening, flat floor and a full-size spare beneath, but compromised by gooseneck hinges and only a ski-port opening for long objects rather than 60/40 split fold seats.
Powering the Magna is a 3.5-litre SOHC 24-valve V6 producing 150kW and 300Nm, paired to an INVECS II four-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels. Suspended up front with MacPherson struts and at the rear by multi-links, riding on 235/45/17 Pirelli Cinturato P7 rubber, it weighs a relatively light by today’s standards 1467kg.
A highlight of the Magna, its motor is not the last word in refinement. Gentle but noticeable vibration at idle lets you know that this is no Toyota V6, but it delivers in terms of performance, aural character and fuel efficiency. Averaging 9–10 litres per 100km, it can dip into the low to mid sixes on the highway. The addition of a Lukey sports muffler has liberated a few extra kilowatts and produces a lovely deep burble at idle, switching into a menacing growl when the tacho needle is sent north.
An Aussie six-cylinder prerequisite is strong step-off, and the Magna does not disappoint, providing a convincing shove in the back and accelerating to 100km/h in about 7–8 seconds. Often leaving many six-cylinder, and even V8, drivers of that era scratching their head at the traffic lights.
On the road
For this review, we joined the M1 motorway at Wahroonga to head north, and the Magna’s stability, tracking and resistance to side-winds immediately inspires comfort and confidence, aided by its best in class on debut – and almost Lexus LS400 matching – low drag co-efficient. Speed-dependent steering loads up at speed and play just off-centre enables it to pass the sneeze test. Ride comfort is on the firm side, but well controlled and improves with speed.
The four-speed INVECS II automatic was one of the first, if not the first, to introduce adaptive shifting behaviour that learns your style and shifts accordingly. A co-operative transmission with smooth and logically timed shifts, it’s mostly compatible to the long-legged nature of the motor.
One exception to this, however, is that the long gearing necessitated by the lack of forward ratios, combined with a motor that can stretch its legs, creates a frustrating torque dead-spot between 40–70km/h in second gear. This can leave you hanging like a failed high-five during an overtaking manoeuvre.
However, take advantage of that long gearing and press the Magna into action at 100km/h in fourth gear, and it will happily grant you second with plenty of RPM left as the beak points to the sky, the engine takes a deep breath and the needles climb quickly. Shifting from second to third gear, the engine note produces an evocative change in octave as the Magna finds its comfort zone – rock solid and effortlessly accumulating speed.
Exiting the M1 after the Hawkesbury River bridge on to the old Pacific Highway, we can explore the Magna’s cornering capabilities. Front-wheel drive and a big-capacity V6 make the Magna a lead-tipped arrow, but unlike its successor, the 380, Mitsubishi didn’t quite manage to work around it and bestow it with handling finesse and dynamic ability.
That being said, its light kerb weight provides it with agility – with the shifter locked into second gear, the Magna will connect a set of corners together(with plenty of body roll) and leave you grinning, if not laughing, at its ability to hold a line. An obedient transmission that in manual mode will not shift up at redline and man-handling the oversized steering wheel, the Magna will dive into corners under rapidly fading brakes without a hint of understeer, and launch its way out the other side. The pace at times is alarming, sometimes scary; the ‘bird of prey’ appearance entirely appropriate here.
Driving with enthusiasm in these conditions, the Magna requires work and concentration, heavily relying on its tyres and a 'slow in, fast out' technique to make the most of it. Clearly, the brief was a car that excelled on the motorway (tick), but there is something organic and enjoyable about launching an old bouncy sedan at a set of corners without any electronic aids.
What’s it been like to live with? My example has been extremely dependable, defying the reliability question marks of earlier models, with no major work needed. Stories of transmission failures and the heater core issues have been conspicuous by their absence, and DIY servicing is simple and parts availability cheap and plentiful. The body has held up well, no squeaks or creaks. The paint is still in excellent condition; a product of care and garaging.
It’s still daily driven and has travelled 554,000km on its original motor and transmission (and most of its parts, I might add). At the time of purchase, the Magna was met with skepticism, but 15 years on it’s viewed with more appreciation and often generates positive conversations.
Not a perfect car, but a very good one, Mitsubishi Australia should be proud for producing a very well designed and engineered car that is simple and honest, a little characterful and interesting to own. An underdog, I’m grateful to see its true abilities.