manual transmission and sports suspension form the Mitsubishi 380 is an
exceptional car across a challenging stretch of black-top. Well, until the
dreaded steering kickback intrudes. We take it up with Mitsubishi and receive a
new power steering pump calibration to assess...
It’s a sequence of corners I have driven perhaps
1000 times. A series of three bends strung together on this Queensland country
road, all heading steeply upwards and each with its own evilness. The first long
left-hander, tightening and conspiring to throw the car off line for the next
corner that winds way around to the right. Then the final, a left-hander that
viciously tightens half-way around. And all, like many Australian country roads,
patterned with little dips and depressions and roughnesses embossed into the
The corners are marked with a recommended 50 km/h
but my old Saab 900 turbo used to rocket through, stable and composed with its
front mudflaps scraping and the speedo showing 80 km/h. In cars with long
suspension travel and good geometry – like my Lexus LS400 – it’s possible to up
the ante to 95 or even 100 km/h. Cars that add to that mix lots of sticky rubber
– like an HSV Commodore – can look at 105 or so, but that’s with the suspension,
traction control and driver working damn’ hard.
So what was I doing in the Mitsubishi 380 VRX,
entering at over 100 km/h and accelerating strongly? Well, this 380 has a manual
transmission and in the 380, the difference between the manual and auto versions
is like chalk and cheese. For starters, you have gearing that’s as much as 30
per cent lower than in the auto versions. And that puts you into the engine’s
sweet spot so much more often. Then you have throttle response that you have to
feel to believe – the local Mitsubishi engineers have always had amazing
throttle response in their manual V6 Magnas and this continues with the manual
380s. It’s throttle response that in the lower gears, literally snaps your head
back. And finally, without the fluffiness of an auto trans in the way, the
chassis balance and control achievable with the right foot is so much more
readily able to be exploited.
The turn-in was crisp and precise, the steering
superbly weighted, not nervous but without a slowness around centre. With the
engine on song, torque was able to be metered-out to the front wheels, the
increasing lightness in the steering showing how they were on the edge of
adhesion. Around the first long corner and then a quick change of direction for
the next bend, the body remaining poised with nary a sign of flip-flop weight
transfer. A hugely confidence inspiring car, one where you feel you’d really
have to make a major mistake to upset it. I aimed for the second apex and fed in
the power, revelling in the feel, the precision, the even weighting and feedback
of the controls. The wheels were headed for the little ridges in the bitumen
that trucks have built up on the inside cornering line but I knew they’d be no
problem, not with the inside wheels largely unloaded anyway.
Then, bang, bang, bang! The steering
wheel kicked and bucked dementedly in my hands, all feel, all poise, all
precision utterly lost. I clenched my fists on the wheel, desperately trying to
hold onto this corner and then aim for the next. I could see the kicking
destroying the cornering line: the front of the car was drifting towards the
centre white line. Then, just as quickly, the steering returned to normal and I
could enjoy the way in which the 380 contemptuously dismissed the tightening
line of that last corner.
Mitsubishi is aware of the steering kickback
problem the 380 experiences over inside corner bumps – it’s caused by the
behaviour of a suspension bush. But their engineering head Lee Kernich has for
the other 380 models justified it as an appropriate trade-off for ride comfort
(hardening the bush in the required plane would cause increased ride harshness)
and power steering feel (increasing the assistance could ameliorate the
kickback). He also told us that not one customer had yet complained. And maybe
that trade-off is acceptable in the cooking sedans – other front-wheel drives
can also experience kickback through these corners.
But, for me, the kickback totally destroyed the
380 VRX as a sporting performance car. To promise – and deliver – so much in
handling, throttle response, engine torque spread, steering feel, suspension
travel and body stiffness... and then to throw it all away with such an atrocious
degeneration is unforgivable.
Even though I’d already communicated with
Mitsubishi about the steering kickback on models not equipped with the sports
suspension, I sent another email to engineering chief Lee Kernich:
Now have 380 VRX 5-speed manual on test.
Love the throttle response and the shorter
gearing of the manual. Superb chassis control available with that throttle
response too. Engine also really shows its capabilities with manual trans.
(Shame about resulting fuel consumption tho!)
Because I can drive it harder than the other
380 models I have had, the steering kickback is literally so bad around some
corners that I can barely hold onto the steering wheel, and certainly can't
maintain a cornering line with precision. I am talking about the feel being
similar to literally driving over lots of bricks lying on the road. (Speed about
100-110, whatever gear would be near peak power at that speed, lots of
small inside bumps perhaps a few centimetres high in the bitumen.)
In one quick movement the VRX goes from
possibly the best handling large front wheel drive I have ever driven to a
complete irrelevancy. From superb precision and feel to absolute chaos.
Are you quite, quite sure you guys drove
this car really hard around steeping rising, slightly bumpy corners?
A day or two passed and then back came the
response. It reflects the rueful humour of a man in charge of engineering a car
subjected to more negativity than almost any other built in Australia.
Just when I thought it was safe to come up from
the trenches... Yes!
I want to send some more info soon. How much
longer will you have the car?
I replied appropriately and then after a few more
days came this:
During the steering development, we placed a
strong emphasis on steering feel, especially on-centre, predictability &
traceability. Steering kickback, with 380's engine torque was a problem early
on, but we soon reached an acceptable level.
Towards the end of the
development, we achieved our targets with the base suspension, but we were
having to compromise with the steering of the sport package. We found that
it was the tyre that was preventing us from achieving the targets we had set,
& changing tyre patterns gave us the improvements in steering feel we were
looking for. Unfortunately, with the improvements in on centre feel, steering
precision etc., came increased steering kickback. At this point, without the
time to complete a new steering valve development program, the only option
available was to increase the pump flow rate, which would have reduced our
on-centre feel gains.
Based on the fact that OCF
steering precision are relevant to most drivers, most of the time, and steering
kickback is really only relevant to a few drivers on a few occasions, we made
the decision to proceed as is. To satisfy any customer who found the steering
kickback concerning, we made a field service kit available, which you are
welcome to evaluate. Nundah Mitsubishi will call you to arrange the
installation, and you can keep the car longer. As advised previously, there have
been no customer complaints. You are the first.
The New Steering
From the communications I’d had with Mitsubishi, I
expected the steering upgrade to comprise replacement bushes in the suspension
but in fact it proved to be a new power steering pump, one that didn’t reduce
assistance as engine rpm rose. (The 380 does not have steering assistance that
varies with road speed; instead it is the cruder system that varies assistance
with engine rpm.)
And how was the 380 VRX with its revised power
The good news is that the steering kickback is
vastly reduced. However, it still exists - and so the judgement becomes very
subjective; when is too much steering kickback excessive? Given that there are
plenty of cars that have zero steering kickback through these corners (the
aforementioned LS400 and Commodores, for two), you could argue that any
steering kickback is too much. But then again, there are also plenty of cars –
usually front-wheel drive – that do have some harsh tugs through the wheel on
this stretch of road. In fact, probably the majority of front-wheel drives.
With the 380’s revised steering you now have to be
driving very, very hard around exactly the wrong corner to get to the point
where the steering kickback really upsets the car and driver. With the revised
steering I’d now suggest that 99 per cent of drivers will never experience it,
and the 1 per cent of drivers that do will not be dumbfounded by its
And steering feel? Yes, it’s a little reduced at
speed but the steering precision is such that it’s a quite an acceptable
So if you buy a 380 and suffer steering kickback,
complain long and loud to Mitsubishi – then you’ll get the upgrade pump without
documented the deficiencies of the 380 in our road tests: a fundamentally old
engine design, a small boot opening, no fold-down rear seat, no stability
control available on any model, patchy build quality (at least on the press
cars), some obvious cost-cutting in the interior plastics. And we’ve also
highlighted the good points: excellent auto trans calibration, good steering,
good ride and handling, effective engine (despite the old technology).
in terms of ride and handling, it’s the 5-speed manual transmission models
equipped with sports suspension where it really all comes together. This car
handles miles better than something like a Peugeot 407, with cohesion between
steering, brakes, throttle and suspension dynamics that is brilliant. Partly
that’s the much better throttle control available with the manual transmission
but it’s also because of the much lower gearing that the manual cars employ. The
downside is that we recorded fuel consumption about 15 -20 per cent poorer than
the auto trans cars – although it must be said that this car was also driven
harder. Over 1400 kilometres the average consumption was 11.9 litres/100 km.
this was being written, it looks like the VRX model will soon be getting an
upgraded engine with more power – but even the standard car has plenty of urge.
we recommend the 380 in manual transmission and sports suspension form? Yes, if
you’re a hard-charging driver who loves a really sweet point-to-point car - and
don’t need great fuel economy – this is a car that can punch at vastly higher
levels than its cost suggests.
Mitsubishi VRX was provided for this extended test by Mitsubishi Motors