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Steering the Mitsubishi 380

A brilliant handler until...

by Julian Edgar

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In 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...

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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 bitumen.

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.

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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.

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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.

The Emails

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?

Julian Edgar

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 [on-centre feel] & 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.

Lee Kernich

The New Steering

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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 steering pump?

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.

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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 magnitude.

And steering feel? Yes, it’s a little reduced at speed but the steering precision is such that it’s a quite an acceptable trade-off.

So if you buy a 380 and suffer steering kickback, complain long and loud to Mitsubishi – then you’ll get the upgrade pump without charge.

The Car

We’ve 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).

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But 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.

As 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.

Can 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.

The Mitsubishi VRX was provided for this extended test by Mitsubishi Motors Australia.

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