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Mitsubishi 380 ES

New pricing reinvents the base 380

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • New pricing makes it excellent value for money
  • Brilliant auto trans logic
  • Very quick point to point
  • Roomy cabin
  • Comfortable
  • Steering kickback on bumpy corners
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Well, here it is: the car that Mitsubishi should have released about six months ago. (In fact, it’s really the car Mitsubishi should have had on sale 2 years ago - then we think it would have been a stunning success.) But back to the present: how does this 380 differ from the ones we saw late last year when the 380 was first put on sale? This one has the same engine, the same suspension, the same body, the same interior – in fact it’s the same car.

Just a helluva lot cheaper.

In fact, you can now step into a Mitsubishi 380 from just $27,990, and even with the auto trans that’s considered near obligatory in this class of car, you can do it for a whisker under thirty grand – plus on road costs of course. That change of pricing of the base model (the other models also dropped in price but to a much lesser degree) makes a complete re-evaluation of the big Mitsubishi vital. After all, the 380 is now being pitched straight at what’s been one of the best bargains around – the V6 Hyundai Sonata. So when assessed as a $30,000 car, how does the 380 stack up?

In short, very well.

That’s not to say of course that all is wonderful. Yet again the test car provided by Mitsubishi had foam rubber filler strips crudely peering out from each end of the dash and a price drop doesn’t make any difference to the lack of a folding rear seat or marginal rear headroom. But without being saddled with an excessive price, the strengths of the design really shine through.

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The 175kW 3.8 litre engine is a strong and effective performer. It’s not as smooth and quiet as some of the opposition (although it’s clearly better in this regard than the V6 Commodore) and fuel consumption in urban point-and-squirt conditions can be as high as the Commodore and Falcon sixes. However, with this test completed over a long distance and including a substantial amount of freeway driving, we saw an overall average of 10.4 litres/100km – based on previous experience, better than either the Holden or Ford would have achieved in the same conditions.

The 5-speed auto trans has excellent shift logic - it never hunts for the right gear when climbing varying grades and yet still gives punchy down-changes when they’re needed. Mitsubishi has geared the car extremely high (in top gear no less than 30 per cent higher than the 5-speed manual!) and has programmed the gearbox to select fifth gear as early as possible. The result is that often the engine is turning only very slowly (which is of course good for fuel economy) although it can be a little disconcerting when the gearbox stays in fifth down to 40 km/h... However, despite peak torque of 343Nm being developed at 4000 rpm, the engine has sufficient torque to pull the tall gearing so it’s no problem.

While the engine is basic in technical specification – there’s no variable inlet manifold, no variable cam timing, not even double overhead cams per cylinder bank – and is based around an old design, that’s really not discernible without opening the bonnet and looking. It’s not as good an engine as the V6 found in the Sonata (or even the hugely improved Falcon 4-litre six) but it’s also not that far behind.

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And where the 380 clearly leads the Hyundai – and is extremely competitive with cars costing up to twice the price – is in its ride and handling. Unlike the last 380 we drove (see Mitsubishi 380LS New Car Test) this car did not have the optional sports suspension. With the standard suspension, the ride was clearly better but then again, the grip provided by the noisy 215/60 16 inch Goodyear Ducaro GA tyres was also noticeably reduced.

But what hadn’t changed is the car’s prowess on a twisty road: the steering is excellent and the car telegraphs its behaviour very well indeed. As you’d expect, power understeer is present but this is easily balanced by modulating the throttle. In standard suspension guise the 380 is a car that can be driven along a windy road very fast indeed, helped by its powerful brakes which use ventilated discs front and back.

The 380’s handling proficiency is greater than the sum of its parts: viewed individually, the engine, brakes, suspension and steering are nothing earth-shattering. I mean, this base model doesn’t even have traction control! But put the controls together and their even weighting, sensitivity and responsiveness make for a wonderfully cohesive handler.

However, at 8/10ths on bumpy roads the steering can kick-back violently; Mitsubishi engineering staff state it the result of a trade-off involving steering feel and ride comfort.

Interior space is excellent, with a heap of rear legroom (although, as stated, headroom can be tight – especially when placing a child in a baby seat) and the seats are comfortable and supportive, the driver’s having four way power settings but manual slide, recline and lumbar support. But because the windscreen slopes at a very shallow angle and the steering wheel and pedals are not adjustable for reach, most comfortably-seated drivers found the top of the A-pillar and sunvisors overly close to their heads.

But how bare-bones does this base model look and feel inside? Zero, that’s how much! Rather ironically, we like the base model cabin more than the upmarket models...

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The colour LCD (which looks cheaply small on the luxo models) is gone and sound system and HVAC controls (featuring a manual climate control system - you set the temp on the dial and it maintains it) simply presented and clear. You get only a single CD player but it does MP3s and sounds excellent in this class – a far cry from the Magna systems of old. You also still get the rear-of-steering-wheel remote controls for the sound system (after a few hours’ familiarity they work well) and we actually prefer the clearer instrument treatment of the base spec car. The ‘metallic finish trim accents’ were also light-years ahead of the awful fake woodgrain of the last 380 we tested. Even on this base model you get four airbags, cruise control (which works well with the electronic throttle system), time delay power windows and a ten-function trip computer (which has oddly unlabelled controls).

The 380 ES is a damn good car. It’s comfortable, quick, well equipped for the price and can be quite economical. It has a 5 year warranty (10 years on the powertrain) and 5 year 24/7 roadside assistance. It undercuts its Australian built opposition in price and offers side airbags as standard. Retained value is likely to be poor but if that doesn’t worry you and you want a capacious cabin and a car that can be very rewarding when pedalled hard, take one for a drive.

The 380 GT

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So if we liked the $30,000 ES auto model, what did we think of the $44,900 top of the line GT? Well basically, we think you’d be bloody crazy to buy one.

The ES represents real value for money; the 50 per cent more expensive GT is just madness. What do you get for the massive price hike? The answer is very little of any substance. You get the same engine, the same brakes, a sports version of the same suspension, one inch bigger alloy wheels with better Dunlop SP Sport 230 tyres, some minor styling changes (that include different rear lights and bumpers), a 6-disc in-dash sound system with more speakers, the same number of airbags, a leather interior and power front seats.

But we found the seats hard and uncomfortable (especially when matched with the sports suspension) and the tail-light design beggars belief – the indicator is so tiny it’s dangerous. Build quality of the test car was also questionable: the lens of one of the tail-lights was going milky on its top surface, the power seat trim wasn’t fixed properly to the side of the seat, rubber foam strips projected from each end of the dash, shiny gold screws stared back at you if you parked with some steering lock on, and the instruction book for the rear park assist comprised just a few photocopies. Significantly, we also heard the engine detonate when trying to lug up a hill while the auto trans obstinately held onto fifth.

Never has the price difference between base and top model looked so bizarre. To represent a worthwhile upgrade, the GT needs a more powerful engine, stability control and perhaps a navigation system. And even then, we’d look rather more fondly at the base ES. After all, buying the GT is rather like paying 50 per cent more for a house that comes with differently shaped gutters and a few leather recliners...

Both cars were provided for this story by Mitsubishi Australia

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