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Mitsubishi Diamante VRX


There was a time when you would never have considered Mitsubishi's big V6-powered front-wheel drive sedans as driver's cars.

The V3000 variant of the front-drive Sigma with the V6 in the engine bay may have had more tow than an Aussie tank - to quote from a contemporary television commercial - but the 3.0-litre V6 over the front wheels made for nose-heavy handling.

Nor was its suspension set-up oriented towards performance driving.

Traffic cop cars had a suspension package to improve matters a bit - and you could order much the same as a dealer-fitted package at the local Mitsubishi shop - but even the enhanced-chassis V3000 was no sports car.

It had plenty of power, lots of torque and the Mitsubishi V6 was beautifully smooth.

Added to that it was easy to drive and covered long distances well.

But driver's car? Forget it. The Magna four-cylinder version of the Sigma and its descendants was a much better proposition for press-on driving on demanding roads.

Matters picked up in recent times with the Diamante Sport which had some input from Australian rally ace Ed Ordynski. It hunkered low, was quick and handled well.

And now comes the VR-X, part of the facelifted Diamante (as the Sigma/V3000 is labelled these days) range which debuted late last year.

The V6 lives on in 3.5-litre form and for once in a car company's description of one of its wares we can't quibble with the phrase "silky-smooth."

At 150kW the standard Diamante 3.5 is no slouch, its output just 3kW shy of Holden's 3.8-litre V6.

But for the VR-X Mitsubishi has added a new freeflow exhaust system which helps boost power output to 163kW, a figure that till recently would have fallen just a couple of kilowatts short of an Australian 5.0-litre V8.

That puts it ahead of the Commodore V6 and within a whisker of the supercharged Holden six. Despite the increased power, Mitsubishi's Australian engineers have also re-mapped the engine management computer to deliver improved fuel economy. Mitsubishi says its five percent better in the standard Australian highway and city cycles.

The car comes with a five-speed version of the Mitsubishi INVECS II automatic gearbox which offers a Sport mode and sequential manual shifting. Other Diamantes still have the four-speed version.

Front and rear suspension has been uprated and the VR-X gets an 18mm anti-roll bar at the rear.

The Diamante is an imposing rather than an out-and-out good-looking car.

There's something a little awkward about the C-pillar where the door-line looks a little too high in comparison with the roof.

The new model gets revised front and rear treatments.

The revised frontal styling, featuring a central element which rises in an widening Vee-shaped bulge from the bumper to the windscreen, adds a strong focus and an individual character to the front end of the car.

On the VRX it's flanked by black egg-crate inserts in the radiator intake openings and draws attention to the complex multi-ducted and multiple-element chin spoiler which also houses driving lights.

Add the VR-X's rather chunky bootlid spoiler, sculpted sideskirts, rear apron, and six-spoked, 16-inch diameter alloy wheels and the test car's striking black paintwork and you have a car that grabs attention.

I haven't driven a car in ages that attracted so much favourable comment - from people of all ages and both sexes.

And that admiration carried over to the experience of riding in the car.

It's by far the most popular car with passengers that we've had in the past couple of years.

Their enthusiasm is understandable because the Diamante VRX's cabin is a very pleasant place to be, either during the tedium of commuting, on a leisurely Sunday drive or reeling in the kilometres on a brisk cross-country trip.

The seats are comfortable and offer good support: the only complaints came from the regular front seat passenger that she could have done with some more lateral support during a rapid run along our handling-assessment route.

But that was probably more a result of the prodigious grip of the Bridgestone Turanzas. The high cornering forces the Bridgestones and the VR-X's chassis are capable of generating require much more of a Recaro-style seat for complete comfort during press-on motoring.

We were happy enough with the bold upholstery, complete with embroidered VR-X logos, as we were with the currently fashionable white-faced instrument dials. The only jarring note was the red instrument illumination at night. It took some getting used to initially but ultimately after several days we were no longer conscious of it.

The VR-X looks every inch an executive sports saloon, but is it merely a dressed-up marketing exercise on the staid and tuned-for-comfort Diamante chassis?

The answer is an emphatic "No!" This car goes pretty well the way it looks it'd go.

Initially we weren't so sure. In city traffic it felt little different from a standard Diamante - that is to say, comfortable, smooth, refined. And when a relation who rues the day he sold his old Diamante started waxing on about his car's handling abilities we responded that the VR-X was no better than a standard Diamante and we didn't rate the standard car's handling.

He thought we were wrong about the Diamante, but as Dirty Harry says everyone has a right to an opinion (something along those lines, anyway).

Whether we were wrong about the Diamante in general, we certainly were about the VR-X in particular.

Less than 24-hours later, enjoying a sit-down, small country town cafe-cooked burger meal half-way through our road test, I found myself singing the VR-X's praises.

It'd had a good workout on the opening stretch and come through very well.

Diamante performance is a given anyway, but the VR-X takes it to a new level.

The engine is free-revving, willing and delivered crisp throttle response and strong acceleration.

Diamante noise levels - including mechanical noise levels - are low, though the free-revving V6 develops a satisfying snarl when you floor the throttle and the rev counter needle spins towards the redline.

Evocative engine notes are not a Mitsubishi strong point, but the V6s produce a stirring snarl and an enjoyable cammy buzz at high revs that sets them apart from their four cylinder stablemates.

The VR-X has plenty of punch for open-road passing moves.

Roadholding is excellent, the Turanzas providing unshakeable grip on dry roads (rain was absent during our time with the car).

The car turns into corners crisply and there's little tendency to run wide on the exit from corners. In fact, understeer - the old V3000 V6-over-the-front-wheels bugbear - is well controlled.

Pushed hard, there's a degree of movement from the rear end as the weight transfers and you feel the rear tyres bite satisfyingly, tightening the car into the corner. Lift-off mid corner tightens the line as the tail shifts into a mild oversteering effect.

Steering feel and weight is good at open road speeds, and the car turns in precisely and cleanly.

It changes direction well in sequences of left/right corners, and you're never conscious of having to work hard.

Body roll is well-controlled and the Mitsubishi engineers have succeeded in producing crisp, entertaining handling without compromising ride comfort. The VR-X soaks up bumps well, thanks probably to the engineers retaining the standard car's ride height despite sharpening handling considerably.

Brakes are strong and remained fade-free even under hard use.

Road noise levels are low, only the coarsest of chip surfaces producing much in the way of tyre-roar.

The four-spoked steering wheel is typically Mitsubishi, with a good thick rim but a slightly too large diameter.

Finding a comfortable driving position was easy. The view forward is good, though the heavy C-pillars create quite large blind spots when reversing, especially in carpark buildings.

The boot is roomy and well-shaped, but don't go looking to carry ladders or a new front door in the VR-X. The rear seatback are fixed and the only concession to long loads is an opening to the boot that is big enough to accommodate skis or - in our case a roll of artists' grade canvas. In true Australian car fashion there's a remote control to open the boot.

The car has the usual list of standard equipment you'd expect in a $47,500 motor car - electrically-wound windows, electrically-adjustable exterior mirrors, Compact Disc player, air-conditioning (nicely unobtrusive and completely free of the refrigerator icebox quality of some Japanese units), leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear lever, trip computer, traction control, dual airbags, alarm and engine immobiliser, and remote-control central door-locking.

The VR-X is a fast, competent open-road tourer that is equally happy inching through Auckland's diabolical rush-hour traffic.

Its roomy and well-appointed cabin and general air of smoothness and refinement makes it popular with passengers.

It has a solid, high-quality feel and combines good comfort - the suspension, though firmish, is never jarring - with excellent roadholding, good road manners and handling that is sharp enough to cope with its strong performance.

We could find virtually nothing to fault it on - though the trip computer was rather fussy to operate and rear three-quarter vision could be better.

In short, it's a very good car, and by far the best of the Diamantes.

AutoPoint road test team.

Auto Trader New Zealand