Curbside Capsule: 1996-2002 Mitsubishi Legnum VR-4 – Mom, Japan Isn’t Sharing!

The 1990s were the glory days of Mitsubishi product, with the popular Eclipse and the technologically advanced 3000GT. Even Mitsubishi’s mainstream sedans were quite desirable, such as the handsome eighth-generation Galant. Of course, the Japanese domestic market gets all the good stuff. This is the station wagon version of that Galant, called the Legnum. Like the JDM Galant, it was available in VR-4 guise, complete with a 2.5 twin turbo V6 engine and all-wheel-drive. See, what did I tell you?

With 276 hp at 5500 rpm, that was a huge, 83 horsepower jump over the biggest engine (a naturally-aspirated 3.0 V6) in the North American-market Galant. Coincidentally, the VR-4’s horsepower figure landed right on the Japanese voluntary horsepower limit. Also coincidentally, a number of Japanese performance vehicles such as Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution and the twin-turbo Nissan 300ZX were also officially recorded as having 276 horsepower. What another funny, funny coincidence. Honda was the first company to officially break this gentleman’s agreement with the 2005 Honda Legend (Acura RL).

This almost definitely underrated powerhouse of an engine propelled the approximately 3500 pound Legnum to 0-60 in 5.4 or 5.7 seconds, depending on the transmission. Torque was a stout 271 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm.

The VR-4 wasn’t just good for stonking straight-line performance. It also came standard with Mitsubishi’s active yaw control, a torque-vectoring active differential at the rear with an electronically controlled clutch that adjusted the yaw force based on road conditions and driving style. This technology was straight out of the Lancer Evolution IV.

The standard transmission was a five-speed manual but there was an optional five-speed INVECS-II automatic that adapted its shift patterns based on the driving style, a feature typically found only on luxury cars of that era (e.g. the Cadillac Seville).

Of course, Mitsubishi didn’t just sell the Legnum VR-4. There was a whole range of Legnums with much less powerful 1.8, 2.0 and 2.4 four-cylinder and 2.5 V6 engines. With fluid, capable handling, thanks to a well-designed multi-link suspension set-up front and rear, the Legnum and its Galant sedan stablemate were fun-to-drive even without a twin-turbo V6 up front.

The Legnum was Japanese Car of the Year in 1997 and the British automotive press also lauded the Galant sedan and the Legnum (Galant Estate in the UK), recognizing it as a credible and cheaper alternative to entry-level German sport sedans. The Galant, like the Nissan Primera before it, showed the Japanese could engineer a mid-size, front-wheel-drive sedan that could be as dynamically satisfying as a Ford Mondeo or Volkswagen Passat. Mitsubishi had nailed this generation of Galant, at least the global model.

Then, nothing. The Legnum was never replaced. Mitsubishi withdrew from the D-segment in Europe and the Galant swelled to American proportions. In Mitsubishi’s defence, this was to better compete in the North American market which demanded larger cabins and engines.

The ’99 Galant had arrived in North America two years after the JDM model, used a 3.0 V6 for its top engine, and had struts up front instead of a multi-link set-up. The Legnum wagon variant was never offered. Although the NA Galant sold better than its predecessor, it was still outsold by the Accord 4-to-1. Its larger replacement sold considerably worse as Mitsubishi’s fortunes flagged.

With the ’99 Galant and especially with the ’04, Mitsubishi was trying to match the specifications of the hot-selling Accord and Camry. But as is often the case, it was an uphill climb for a brand less established in the market. Far too often, smaller Japanese brands have continued to struggle even as they’ve slavishly emulated Toyota. They either have to play the long game and hope they eventually achieve the same level of market share, or they have to play a different game. Mitsubishi had developed a reputation for exciting turbocharged performance models during the 1990s and the Legnum VR-4 – or, more realistically for wagon-averse American consumers, the Galant VR-4 – could have further cemented that.

But that would have been too fair, wouldn’t it? After all, the Japanese automakers have to tease and tantalize buyers overseas with unobtainable JDM models with all-wheel-drive and twin turbochargers and peculiar names. Well, if it’s any consolation, those of us in Canada, Australia and various other markets can legally import Legnum VR-4s and enjoy all that turbocharged, grocery-carrying goodness.

Sorry, Americans.

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