If you want to know why Mitsubishi remains a major player in Australia despite being an also-ran in other markets, it helps to look at the company’s history here. There are arguably four car lines that have buttressed the brand in Australia: the Triton pickup, Pajero (Montero) SUV, the Lancer and the Magna. While the Magna is long gone, for almost 20 years it was an integral part of the lineup and was one of the biggest threats to the Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore. The first Magna showed Mitsubishi had its finger on the pulse of what Australian car buyers wanted and was one of the few times Mitsubishi has ever outmanoeuvred Toyota.
In one fell swoop, Mitsubishi created a new segment and made the stodgy, rear-wheel-drive Toyota Corona and Nissan Bluebird look like the relics they were. While in the European and North American markets the Japanese automakers had embraced front-wheel-drive, in Australia the traditional, conservative Corona and Bluebird ruled. The Camry launched in 1983 but only as a highly-specified, imported liftback; the new FWD Stanza and Bluebird sold elsewhere was a no-show. Mitsubishi could have continued plodding along with the thematically similar Sigma – and it did sell a reduced model range until 1987, mostly to fleets – but the company took a risk and developed the Magna exclusively for the Australian market.
The design brief was to build a spacious sedan and wagon wide enough to seat three adults comfortably in the back seat. The new car had to have improved performance and fuel economy and thus couldn’t be heavier than the Sigma. It had to be more comfortable yet reliable and easy to service and offer at least comparable towing ability.
A stretched Sigma was proposed but Mitsubishi engineers found the RWD layout compromised interior room and curb weight would have increased too much, hindering fuel efficiency. To further complicate matters, the cost of re-engineering the ageing platform was so expensive as to make Mitsubishi realize, “Hey, why don’t we just build a new car?”
The 1985 Magna was not entirely clean-sheet but instead was an extensive re-engineering of the 1983 FWD Galant, Mitsubishi engineers having decided in 1982 to work with the new Galant as a base for the Magna. Total development cost was $AUD 139 million. However, the new Galant’s width – like most Japanese cars – was limited by Japanese tax constraints to under 67 inches. The aforementioned requirement of being able to seat three abreast was what ultimately led to engineers stretching the body to create an additional 2.6 inches in width. Almost every panel was changed and the interior redesigned, although the Magna still clearly resembled the Galant. Plans for a 2.0 four-cylinder base engine were shelved, and instead engineers worked hard to ensure the Sigma’s carryover Astron 2.6 four-cylinder performed smoothly, fitting it with hydraulic mounts and balance shafts.
Toyota and Nissan were no doubt floored when the Magna launched and immediately won accolades including the prestigious Wheels Car of the Year trophy in 1986. While they were developing FWD replacements to their stodgy mid-size models, they weren’t as spacious as the wide-bodied Magna. It took until 1992 for Toyota to offer a wider family sedan/wagon and beleaguered Nissan never bothered.
Initially, the Magna was offered only as a sedan in well-equipped GLX, better-equipped SE and truly plush Elite trim levels. Several months after the TM Magna’s launch, the range was expanded with this handsome, Audi-esque wagon and a fleet-oriented Executive trim. Regardless of trim, all Magnas came with four-wheel disc brakes. Transmissions were a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic with electronic control and overdrive, and the 2.6 Astron four produced 114 hp and 146 ft-lbs.
The wagon was commendably practical, offering more cargo capacity and a larger payload than even the Commodore while matching the larger Falcon in unbraked trailer towing capacity. Rear suspension design was different to the sedan with a tubular beam and multi-link control arms and no anti-roll bar. However, the wagon offered upgraded rear disc brakes and other mechanical tweaks. Total cost of developing the wagon came to $AUD 38 million.
To drive, the Magna could hardly be called exciting. It didn’t matter. Handling was competent, the ride was compliant, the engine was sufficiently powerful. In some dimensions, the Magna was actually more spacious than the Commodore and the cabin was certainly a more comfortable place to sit than the Japanese rivals. For fleet and private buyers fine with a four-cylinder, the spacious Magna hit the market sweet spot.
Pricing undercut the big Aussie sixes by around $500, while costing only a grand more than the entry-level models of the hoary old Corona and Bluebird. Of the FWD Japanese cars, the Ford Telstar (a rebadged Mazda 626) started a few hundred dollars less but offered less room, an older design and no wagon; the imported Camry was a whopping $6,000 more.
Although handicapped by being four-cylinder only, however acceptable the Astron 2.6’s performance was, the Magna was a great sales success. While it didn’t best the Falcon and Commodore, it regularly outsold the new 1987 Camry. Nissan had attempted to simultaneously hit the four-cylinder Japanese sedans/wagons and big Aussie sixes head on with its narrower, RWD Pintara and Skyline. However, even combined their sales couldn’t beat the four-cylinder Magna. Toyota eventually introduced a V6 Camry in 1988. The take rate of the V6 wasn’t large as it was offered only in an imported, highly-specified sedan variant. However, it showed Toyota was getting serious about making the Camry a player and the V6 was much smoother and yet simultaneously more efficient than the Mitsubishi four.
Toyota’s V6 Camry was that range’s most prestigious model, and the fanciest Magna Mitsubishi had to offer was the Elite. This trim level offered distinctive alloy wheels, two-tone paint and plush velour trim, as well as (then novel) steering-wheel mounted audio controls and digital instrumentation. Power windows and central locking were also included.
There were initial teething problems with the TM and TN Magnas, chiefly reliability issues with the automatic transmission and fragile engine heads. The TN saw the introduction of fuel injection to the Astron four in some trim levels – boosting power and torque by 13 hp and 7 ft-lbs — and the introduction of the featured Elite wagon, as well as some minor visual tweaks like redesigned taillights for the sedan. The transmission issues were resolved with the 1989 TP revision which again had some other minor visual and specification tweaks.
Photo courtesy of John W. Jamieson
Across the Pacific Ocean in New Zealand, Mitsubishi was offering the Australian-built Magna wagon and a New Zealand-assembled version of the Japanese market Galant Duke V3000 known as the V3000. This was a rather curious arrangement as if you wanted more power you had to deal with a smaller interior, however the V3000 was popular especially with police departments. Alas, the Australian market did without a V6 sedan until the next-generation Magna.
Although the Magna was ageing by the turn of the decade, it still sold exceptionally well and had no rivals comparable in dimensions. But although the Camry was smaller, it was more modern both visually and mechanically: the Toyota had independent suspension all-round, while the Magna used a torsion beam axle rear with trailing arms. To keep the Magna fresh, Mitsubishi offered more distinctive trim levels such as the sporty Elante sedan and Grand Tourer wagon, both of which featured a firmer suspension tune and some visual tweaks.
For 1991, Mitsubishi cleverly repurposed the near-luxury Sigma/Diamante sedan as a Magna replacement. Badged as Magna and Verada, the new TR-series was sized comparably to the similarly upsized 1992 Camry. The range opened with an Astron-powered, fleet special GLX, rising through four-cylinder and V6 models up to the range-topping Verada Xi. Again, Mitsubishi Motors Australia engineered a wagon variant that was actually exported to North America and Europe among other markets, and this launched in 1992 with the TP wagon being sold aside the new TR sedan for a year.
The first-generation Magna was a thoughtful development from Mitsubishi, with the company investing a significant amount of money in engineering a new model sold only in two relatively small markets. Although spending this money was a gamble, it paid off for Mitsubishi as the Magna became one of Australia’s best-selling cars and a critical success. Although the Magna was axed in 2004 and Mitsubishi Australia no longer sells a passenger car larger than the Lancer, the Magna helped establish Mitsubishi as a bonafide player in the Australian market.