Making the Mould - 1985 Mitsubishi Magna
Mitsubishi’s involvement in Australia started off quietly. In 1971 they bought a 10% stake in Chrysler Australia. A few years later production of the Chrysler Valiant Galant began. By 1979 Mitsubishi had bought all of Chrysler Australia and renamed the company Mitsubishi Motors Australia Limited.
Production of the Chrysler Valiant carried on under Mitsubishi ownership until 1980. By that stage, a once great large car had been well and truly left behind by the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon. Mitsubishi had nothing to replace it and spent the next few years relying on the mid-sized Sigma as it’s largest offering. The Sigma wasn’t really much more than a rebadged Galant, so it didn’t have much appeal in a market hungry for large cars again after recovering from the oil crisis. Tellingly, Australia’s best selling car was the XF Ford Falcon, the only genuinely large car available.
Mitsubishi, like all Japanese carmakers, didn’t have a car to directly rival the XF, so MMAL had to get creative. They couldn’t do a large car, but a wide mid size might just do the job, they thought. Work had actually started before the 1982 release of the Sigma, with the aim of creating a car with more interior space, in particular the ability to fit three adults across the back seat.
MMAL’s engineers, the same ones who had produced the Valiant a decade earlier, took the new, now front wheel drive Sigma and made it wider. The resulting car was the world’s first wide bodied mid-sized sedan. It was wider and taller than a Commodore with more space efficient front wheel drive packaging. Oddly it was heavier as a wagon than a Commodore.
The Mitsubishi Magna went on sale in 1985 to critical acclaim. Spacious, quiet and economical, the Magna was an ideal family car for people not that interested in driving.Comparisons were made to the vastly more expensive Audi 100. The Magna set a new benchmark for mid-sized fours. Not just head and shoulders above the Holden Camira, it was a legitimate family car alternative to the Falcon and Commodore. In 1985 it became Australia’s top selling mid-sized car. Although a lack of fleet sales meant it never came close to Ford and Holden overall, it did draw more than a few private buyers away from six cylinder cars.
The Magna was named Wheels magazine’s 1985 Car of the Year. It was the second straight win for Mitsubishi, the Nimbus people mover had won it the year before. Later on in 1986 Wheels ran a comparison between it and the Falcon and new Nissan RB30-powered VL Commodore. Naturally the four cylinder Magna couldn’t match the Commodore’s performance. To be fair the heavy Falcon couldn’t either, despite its much bigger 4.1 litre engine. It fell down on handling too, being the most prone to understeer. It was perfectly predictable but not an exciting car to drive quickly. The Magna made up ground by being the most fuel efficient and more spacious than the Commodore while offering almost as much room as the much larger Falcon and was named the overall winner.
Despite being considered the better car, Mitsubishi was never able to convert traditional six cylinder buyers over. The Magna continued to be outsold by the Commodore at over two to one and the Falcon nearly three to one. It sat fifth in the 1986 sales charts with the Ford Laser and Toyota Corolla in third and fourth. It was enough to propel Mitsubishi as a whole to fourth. When Ford and Holden released all new versions of their large sedans in 1988, the opportunity to overtake them was lost.
The Magna had a profound influence on the automotive industry. The XV10 Toyota Camry was the first imitator, intruding the wide body Japanese mid-size sedan to America. Sadly the Camry was as dull, if not duller than the Magna. The wide body Honda Accord came next in 1994. The Accord and Camry went on to become the top-selling cars in America
When the second generation Magna was released in 1991, it was virtually identical to the Japanese market Sigma. The Sigma was derived from the Diamante, both adopting the wide body pioneered by the Magna and aimed at Honda Legend.
Its legacy in Its home market is less than spectacular. It became a large car for its third generation and carried on steadily as the third most popular in Australia before an Olivier Boulay facelift brought it down. On top of that, the cars it influenced helped to bring down the more exciting RWD Falcon and Commodore.
The Magna was replaced by the all new 380 in 2005. It was an Australian made widebody Galant with a 3.8-litre V6 engine. The 380 was well received by media, rated better than the aging VZ Commodore and non-XR versions of the BF Falcon, but consumer confidence had been lost and it struggled to sell. A high Australian dollar killed off plans for a long wheelbase US export model and a four cylinder for Proton in Malaysia.
Ultimately the Magna achieved its aim, albeit by proxy. By breaking the mid-sized Japanese mould, the Mitsubishi Magna created a new Japanese mid-size mould. It wasn’t in any way exciting, but the Magna is arguably the most influential Australian car. Australia should be simultaneously proud and ashamed