52 TH Magna 3.5
Our Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing choices are limited to Aussie-built cars that go faster than their looks suggest. Which makes this Adelaide-built swift six a perfect choice as our 1990s example. Open-minded readers only. Theme song: anything from the Wolf Creek soundtrack.
The 1999 TH series Mitsubishi Magna range, imaginatively tagged ‘The Next Generation’, provided Australian drivers with nothing short of sparkling performance.
With the 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine dropped from the line-up, it was V6 motivation across the board for this third iteration of the third generation Magna. In a clever marketing ploy, the larger and more powerful 3.5-litre engine as previously available in the premium Verada range was now included in all variants of the Magna. All but the entry-level Executive model came standard with the 3.5 litre V6, while it was available as an optional extra on the base car which was allotted the 3.0-litre version.
In addition, this was the first occasion where a manual transmission was offered with the larger engine in the passenger car lines. Almost by
chance, Mitsubishi had created an unexpected flier across the whole Magna range when fitted with the 3.5-litre V6 and 5-speed manual transmission. As far as the Executive and next-level Advance were concerned, this was a car truly worthy of the ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ moniker.
The hero car in the line-up was the Magna Sports. As Motor discovered in its April 1999 issue, this was a real surprise packet.
“At 15.76 [seconds], the Sports equals the new HSV XU-8’s 400-metre sprint time,” the magazine noted. “In the real world the new engine feels even more superior to the old 3.0. You can leave the car in fifth for virtually any highway manoeuvre: it is as tractable as many V8s.”
In the acceleration stakes, the two cars were neck and neck right up to and beyond 150km/h!
When put up against the supercharged HSV XU-6 and the Falcon XR6 VCT it was a case of showing both cars a clean pair of heels. This in a bloody Magna!
The 3.5-litre’s performance came as a complete shock to many – especially those blown off in the traffic light derbies. The Magna Sports also looked the part with big 16” 5-spoke alloy wheels, driving lights in the front air dam and a rear bootlidmounted spoiler.
If that’s hard for HSV XU-6 owners to swallow, imagine the effect of all the performance from the Sports model in a car that was the entry level in the Magna range. A car with conservatively-styled plastic wheel covers on regular 15” steel rims and no real ‘look at me’ features. A car that was also lighter than the Sports…
Nobody would even think to check for the small 3.5 badge on the fender. When so equipped,
a manual Executive was a real weapon in plain-Jane wrapping. In terms of homegrown performance, this was pretty serious stuff.
There wasn’t even a clue to this ‘sleeper’ in any sales literature or promotional material. The specifications blurb didn’t reveal the blistering performance available from the 3.5-litre V6 engine due to a very cunning method of advertising the engine output. The official line was that the 3.5-litre V6 24-valve MPI (multipoint injection) engine produced 147kW @5000 rpm and 300Nm@4000 rpm. The savvy driver would however notice that the red line on this Magna’s tachometer was on the high side of 6000rpm. Interesting!
There were two methods of rating and advertising power outputs in force at the time. Mitsubishi chose to use the lower of these for various reasons. On paper, the 3.5-litre was only 7kW more than the base 3.0-litre V6. Huh?
There was method in their madness however. Mitsubishi was serious about positioning the Magna as a big, fair dinkum, six-cylinder Aussie sedan. The South Australian-based manufacturer set its sights on poaching Holden Commodore buyers to lift sales by a wishful 30 percent, to, coincidently, around 3500 per month.
In order to achieve this, the 3.5-litre engine and its specifications were a big part in getting the message across that the TH Magna was a serious alternative.
The Commodore (Australia’s biggest seller) had a 3.8-litre V6 rated at 147kW, but was bigger and heavier. Mitsubishi was always the conservative car company sitting in third position on the local ‘big three’ totem-pole, behind Ford Australia. The Mitsubishi engine was the most advanced of the local manufacturers and also the most refined. The Commodore got by with a pushrod V6 featuring two valves per cylinder. The Magna engine was high-tech by comparison, featuring overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. But for most buyers, all that really mattered at the end of the day was that on paper the power ratings were the same – 147kW.
There is a hint of déjà vu here. Before Mitsubishi Motors took over Chrysler Australia in 1980, the iconic Valiant range comprised some real wolves in sheep’s clothing. Those sleepers from the late 1960s and the early 1970s were not V8-powered, but the venerable slant-six and later the phenomenal Hemi 6-cylinder engines. The Valiant was a force to be reckoned with and always ahead of the opposition at the family car level – even putting the 289/302ci V8 Falcons and 253ci V8 Holdens to shame. Fast forward to 1999 and it was a case of here we go again with the TH Magna…
The Magna was by far the smoothest and quietest of the locals. It was also significantly different in that it was front-wheel-drive. Power losses through the driveline were therefore less. Of course, a nasty FWD trait known as torquesteer made its presence felt if the right foot applied too much pressure, too quickly, on the loud pedal. Nonetheless, the end result was a surprisingly rapid car.
The 3.5-litre Magna was much quicker than a Commodore and Falcon with standard engines; quicker too than a supercharged Commodore or a Falcon with the VCT engine. In fact, it took the Holden V8 in HSV tune to match the manual 3.5 Magna. From the Blue Oval, a Tickford-tickled XR8 was needed to pip the Magna! Anything below this was simply not good enough.
The astonishing thing is the fact that all this
went largely unnoticed. Even today most people would look at you strangely if you mention Magna and HSV or Tickford in the same sentence when talking performance figures. The 3.5-litre manual Magnas from late last century are classic cases of cars that slipped under the radar.
Does all this make the Magna a candidate for ‘classic car’ status sometime in the future? That’s doubtful, as surprising pace alone does not a classic make. We’ll settle for quiet respect from open-minded AMC readers.
What brings a smile to our dials is that plenty of non-motoring enthusiasts bought and drove a car that was a genuine wolf in wool. Many of these folk probably never really knew what they had under the right foot...
Now imagine someone taking off from the traffic lights in the Mitsubishi and glancing sideways at a HSV XU-8 unable to pull away. Two very different cars with identical real-world performance.
Because it never really received the accolades from the performance fraternity it has become the ultimate recluse today. AMC knows this as we had a hell of a time trying to find one to photograph.
Our usual ‘go to’ guys in club land couldn’t help us on this occasion, so we posted requests via social media and on the Australian Magna Club website’s forum.
No owners of suitable unenhanced sedans came forward, although helpful member ‘380Mitsu’ spotted a dealer advertisement for the car you see on these pages. So thanks to him and to Harry Karagiolis from Karalie Cars in the Adelaide suburb of Reynella, who kindly allowed us to photograph the 1999 Magna Advance before it was delivered to its new owner. Before you ask, we can report that Harry advertised the car for $2999, excluding on road costs. A bargain surely.
Whether the aforementioned Magna versus XU-8 traffic lights scenario ever played out is, of course, unknown. However, allow us to relay an experience that did take place.
This writer was fortunate to have a 3.5-litre Magna from new in early 2000. In basic white, my TH Executive was a ‘knee-jerk’ selection as I was bored with automatic Magna Altera LSs and couldn’t get the Sports. It was every bit the rocket the Motor testers had discovered. I even took it to Willowbank drag strip out of curiosity, where a first-up run off the street resulted in a 15.2 seconds @ 151km/h pass. A guy in a Porsche who couldn’t drive to save his life was in the other lane and got hosed.
Okay, so the Magna would have been no match for the Porsche in Jim Richards’ hands at Targa Tasmania, but that’s not the point.
The poor bastard at Willowbank was done by a bloody stock-standard Magna in a straight line – how completely humiliating! Left: Performance identical to a HSV XU-8? Yep, who would have thunk it? Below: TH Magnas, with a driver line-up including Mitsubishi development engineers, raced in the GT Production category. This at Oran Park, 2000.