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The Sporty Magnas

The evolution of one of Australia's most overlooked performance sedans - the Mitsubishi Magna Sports

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • Evolution of the Magna Sports
  • All the models spanning 140kW to 180kW
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Very few people seem know much about this most underrated of Australian built performance sedans, so let's take an in-depth look at the evolution of the go-fast Magna Sports...

TF Magna Sports

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In late 1997 Mitsubishi Australia released the TF Sports – the first performance version of the new shape Magna.

Based on the base-model Magna Executive V6, the Sports earns cred with its upgraded suspension, subtle body kit and the availability of a 4-speed Sports Mode sequential auto.

At the time of release, the TE/TF series Magna was widely praised for its handling surefootedness - though some testers complained of excess understeer. The Sports version reduces understeer and cornering weight transfer with the addition of an 18mm rear swaybar (a rear ‘bar isn’t fitted to the base Magna), 11 percent firmer rear springs plus firmer upper control arm and trailing arm bushes. Suspension height is lowered 10mm and ride quality remains very comfortable – not harsh at all.

Steering the front-drive Magna is a power-assisted rack and pinion arrangement that is generally okay except for slow response at the straight-ahead position. This isn’t a car that can be steered with your fingertips. The braking system comprises conventional Magna 276mm ventilated discs with single pot calipers at the front and 258mm solids with single pots at the rear. ABS is standard on the Sports.

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The TF Sports is visually separated from Magna Executive models thanks to a rear spoiler, colour-coded trim, red side stripes and polished 16 inch alloy wheels. Tyre size is stepped up from 205/65 15 to 215/60 16. Only four body colours are available – white, red, green and blue.

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Inside, the TF Sports is livened up with rainbow-colour material on the seats, two-tone dash and door trims, leather steering wheel and gearknob and a brushed aluminium instrument surround. A speed alert, upgraded remote locking and the rest of the Magna upgrades that occurred with the TF model are incorporated. A driver’s airbag is standard.

Interestingly, the TF Sports retains exactly the same 3-litre V6 engine that was offered as an option in base Magna models. The engine uses SOHC, 4-valve-per-cylinder heads and a 9:1 compression ratio to achieve 140kW at 5500 rpm and 255Nm at 4500 rpm (with 90 percent of peak torque from 2500 to 5500 rpm). These outputs are very similar to the 3-litre V6 used in the contemporary Toyota Camry - so it’s nothing special.

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In addition to the standard 5-speed manual version, the TF Sports was also sold with a 4-speed Sports Mode sequential auto (a first for Australian built cars). The sequential shift system is arranged so that pushing forward on the gear lever changes up and pulling back changes down. A LED gear position indicator is nestled into the instrument cluster.

Weighing around 1450kg, the 5-speed manual version of the TF Sports is credited as a decent all-round performer – it offers excellent throttle response and 0 – 100 km/h acceleration in around 8.5 seconds. Auto versions are approximately a second slower. But regardless of transmission, the Mitsu 3-litre V6 is an extremely smooth and sweet engine – even by today’s standards.

Still, the sweetness of the 3-litre didn’t stop Mitsubishi fans asking one all-important question. Why wasn’t the Sports fitted with the 500cc larger engine used in the Verada?

TH Magna Sports

The 1999 TH Magna Sports brought the 3.5 litre grunt that Mitsubishi fans were waiting for.

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With the big-cube V6 pumping under the bonnet, the TH Sports offers noticeably improved flexibility and torque compared to the 3-litre. The 3.5 pushes out 300Nm (18 percent more than the 3-litre!) at 4000 rpm for effortless hill climbing and traffic light sprinting.

But it’s not an engine that rips with top-end power.

With 147kW (just 7kW more than the 3-litre), the TH Magna Sport falls flat above about 5000 rpm. It seems that Mitsubishi was chasing similar low-end torque characteristics to those of the larger capacity Ford and Holden sixes. Interestingly, the 3.5 isn’t merely a stroke job - compared to the 3-litre, it has a larger stroke and a slightly larger bore. Some magazines suggest the 3.5 isn’t quite up to the smoothness of the 3-litre.

Again, the Magna Sports was sold with a 5-speed manual or 4-speed Sports Mode sequential auto. Interestingly, the TH Sports uses a stronger manual ‘box than in the TF – we believe that it’s the TF manual’s relative lack of gearbox strength that prevented initial use of the big 3.5.

The TH Sports also brings switchable TCL – Mitsubishi speak for traction and trace control.

The TCL (fitted to auto versions only) is a relatively basic form of stability control, which takes inputs from steering wheel angle, throttle position and wheel speed. The system looks at these inputs to decide when you’re driving too fast and will automatically close the throttle and/or cut fuel. But without a G-sensor in the system, it’s quite crude in operation – it often unnecessarily cuts power.

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With considerably greater torque but only a modest power gain, the TH Sport isn’t much quicker than the TF in terms of 0 – 100 km/h times – the 3.5 knocks around half a second off the times of both the manual and auto versions. The biggest difference is driving feel – the 3.5 punches harder out of corners and is quicker to fill gaps in traffic. It’s just a shame that it falls flat when you try to wind it out.

The suspension, brakes and steering remain the same as previously.

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Visually, the TH Sports model is identified by a new grille, front bumper and taillights, more attractive 16 inch alloys and a wider selection of colours. Inside, the fabric trim was changed and a white-face instrument cluster, multi-function trip computer were standard fitment, and a driver’s airbag was optional.

See New Car Test - Mitsubishi Magna Sport 3.5 Sports Mode for our TH Sports test.

TJ Magna Sports/VR-X

In August 2000, the TJ series Magna Sports arrived – and it fully lived up to expectations.

Curiously, much of the improvement can be attributed to nothing more than a rear muffler change. Yep, that’s right – Mitsubishi changed the rear ‘can’...

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Fitment of the high-flow rear muffler – together with minor ECU mapping and cam tweaks (as applied to the rest of the TJ series) – give the 3.5 much better top-end breathing. At last, the Magna Sports had real pull to more than 5500 rpm. Peak power shot up to 163kW at 5250 rpm and torque swelled to 317Nm at 4000 rpm. The only downside was a newly-introduced exhaust drone at around 2400 rpm.

Tied to a standard 5-speed manual gearbox, the TJ Sports can blast to 100 km/h in the low 7s. Fast? You bet! At the time, the TJ Sports manual was quicker than a Ford XR6, XR8 and supercharged Holden Commodore V6 – even the HSV XU6 version! Throttle response in the manual gearbox 163kW Sports is also nothing short of astounding - it's the sharpest we’ve experienced in a production car.

The automatic version of the TJ Sports was improved with the introduction of an extra ratio – Mitsubishi could now claim to have a 5-speed sequential auto, when many of its rivals were still running single-plane 4-speeders. That extra ratio brings the performance of the automatic Sports much closer to the manual – there’s around half a second difference in 0 – 100 km/h (high 7s versus low 7s).

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The TJ Magna Sports chassis remains the same as released back in the 1997, but with the extra torque on tap (now 24 percent more than originally) there are traction problems when accelerating hard at low speed. In manual versions (without TCL) you can easily spin the front tyres in second gear – or third gear when the road is wet...

The TJ Sports incorporated the styling changes of the new Magna series and carries a larger rear spoiler together with new 16 inch alloy wheels. A dress-up version of the Magna Sports – the VR-X – was also released. The VR-X wears a 30kg body kit, different badges and higher grip tyres. Interestingly, Mitsubishi marketed the VR-X as the ultimate high-performance Magna – but most enthusiasts pointed to its extra weight (and cost) and opted for the Magna Sports...

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Inside, the TJ had yet another trim material change, a new CD player (which sounds as poor as the one it replaced) and dual airbags. The cabin remained comfortable and functional in typical Magna style.

See New Car Test - Mitsubishi Magna VR-X for our full test on the VR-X.

In mid 2002, with the release of the slightly updated TJ Series II, Mitsubishi released a wagon version of the Magna Sports. Yep, a fast Magna wagon...

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The Sports wagon was equipped with the same TJ-series 163kW/317Nm engine, firmer suspension, body kit, sports interior trim and a 5-speed Sports Mode auto (a manual ‘box was not offered). Weighing 1566kg and with a beam axle rear, the Magna Sports wagon isn’t quite as quick as its sedan sibling but if you’re after a load carrier with some sparkle, it should catch your eye.

See New Car Test - Mitsubishi Magna Sports Wagon for our Magna Sports wagon test.

The most complete Magna Sports package (though not the quickest in a straight line) is the AWD version. Arriving in December ’02, the TJ Series II Sports AWD employs Mitsubishi’s locally developed QuadTec all-paw drive system. QuadTec uses a Lancer Evo VI transfer case with a viscous centre coupling, open centre front diff (as used in the Evo VII GSR) and a mechanical rear LSD (as used in the Evo VII RS). The AWD Magna comes fitted with a 5-speed Sports-Mode auto only – the same unit used in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII GT-A.

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As you might expect, the AWD system transforms the Magna’s handling. With torque fed to the front and back tyres, the car feels much more balanced and you can drive with an entirely different style - an insane one! Where a front-drive Magna typically requires the driver to ease off the throttle to tighten its line through a corner, the AWD version will accept extra throttle from the mid stage of the corner and hammer into the distance with total stability.

Impressive? Yep.

Unfortunately, engine power is reduced slightly to 159kW due to a necessary rework of the exhaust system. A weight increase to 1624kg further offsets any acceleration advantage that might be given by the AWD system. 0 – 100 km/h performance is in the mid 8s (which is back into the original Magna TF Sports’ territory).

One aspect of the AWD that’s frequently overlooked is the bigger brakes package. While the standard single pot brakes of the front-drive models near their effective limit with ever-increasing acceleration and performance, the AWD steps up to twin-pot front calipers and larger discs all round. The ventilated front discs are beefed up by 18mm (to 294mm) and the rears switch from 258mm solid discs to 284mm ventilated jobs.

See New Car Test - Magna Sport AWD for our Sports AWD review.

The popular Magna TJ series was axed in mid 2003 with the introduction of the dramatically restyled TL series (which is still current model at the time of writing).

Monster Magna!

It’s impossible to talk about quick Magnas without mentioning the quickest of them all – the TJ series Ralliart Magna.

The Ralliart Magna (in manual form) leaps from standstill to 100 km/h in just 6.7 seconds. That puts it in touch with SS Commodores, Subaru WRXs and a host of other much-fancied performers. This isn’t your average Magna...

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The secret to the Ralliart’s speed is nothing more than a handful of traditional tuning mods. The Ralliart engine uses modified cylinder heads (providing a 9.4:1 compression ratio), 10 percent higher lift camshafts, firmer valve springs, high-flow headers, a modified exhaust and recalibrated management. Outputs? Try 180kW and 333Nm on normal unleaded fuel!

The 5-speed manual version of the Ralliart Magna has a significant traction advantage thanks to its FTO-sourced front LSD. Unfortunately, this torque-sensing LSD causes major torque-steer (felt mainly at low speed) and makes the car feel nervous as it hunts side-to-side for grip. The Ralliart Magna auto is a much more liveable package. The auto version doesn’t come with an LSD but benefits from TCL traction and trace control. With a 0 – 100 km/h time in the low 7s, it’s around half a second slower than the manual.

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The Ralliart Magna also benefits from Koni dampers, 17 inch Enkei alloys (wearing 225/50 Pirellis), revised steering and bigger brakes (the same as in the AWD models). An outlandish body kit (with a ridiculously low front lip), upgrade sound system, climate control and improved seating and trim complete the picture.

In addition to the wrist-wrenching antics of the manual version, the Ralliart Magna was hamstrung by price. Retailing for AUD$48,990 when new, the hot Magna was only a few hundred dollars cheaper than a V8-powered Holden VY SS Commodore – it took a dedicated Mitsubishi fan to hand over nearly 50 grand for a six-cylinder Magna over a V8 Holden...

See New Car Test - Ralliart Magna for our Ralliart Magna manual test and New Car Test - Mitsubishi Magna Ralliart Automatic for our test of the auto version.

Second-Hand Prices

Interested in parking a Magna Sports in your home garage?

At the time of writing, the cheapest TF Magna Sports on the market is being advertised at AUD$9500. Some sellers are asking around 11 grand for low kilometre, immaculate examples. Personally, we’d avoid paying top-dollar for a TF in preference to a TH 3.5.

A 3.5 litre TH Sports makes a great platform for tuning - bung on a high-flow rear muffler and you’ll instantly have about 160kW. You’re currently looking at around AUD$11,000 to AUD$14,000 for a TH Sports.

In the early TJ series you’ll pay around 16 grand for a good Magna Sports or VR-X. Newer Series II versions are typically a couple of grand dearer and should have around half the kilometres. The relatively rare TJ Series II wagon variant hovers at around the same price as a contemporary sedan while the AWD Sports (sold only for a few months) can be bought in the low-to-mid 20 grand range. If you can find one.

And the rocketship Ralliart Magna? 

We’ve seen three examples currently for sale for between 25 and 29 grand – one hell of a quick car for the money!

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