I used to own a TN Magna Elite Sedan. I was very confused about it’s bad name because mine never gave me any trouble. In fact, along with the 380 which I purchased years later, they were two of the best cars I had ever owned, which is why we own a current model ASX. Shout out to Dave Morley as I used to go to the same school as him. His dad and my Uncle were good mates too.David Ashton
MITSUBISHI MAGNA WAGONS
By: Dave Morley, Photography by: Shaun Tanner
Mitsubishi’s Magna took the fight up to the big players in the local family truckster game
On the other hand, perhaps you could be doing better. As in, a better car for less money. Okay, okay, calm down. It’s just that back in the day when both those Aussie family staples were brand-spankers, there was another contender that was arguably a superior car. And yes, it was Aussie-made. And yes, you can still find them. Oh, and the car in question was smoother than an XF Falcon, better to ride in than a VL, handled better than either of them (particularly in the wet) and was quieter inside by a fair margin. Difference is, you’ll pay chump-change for one these days, and I’m not really sure why that should be.
The base model GLX wide-body wagon Mitsi didn’t come along until 1987
I refer, of course, to the Adelaide-made Mitsubishi Magna. More specifically, I reckon the Magna station-wagon is the real hero here. Not only was it at least as big inside as the Commodore (it was, believe it or not, about an inch-and-a-half wider than a VL) it was also at least as useable as the XF wagon’s interior. Now imagine the Magna wagon parked next to a VL and XF wagon, and tell me the Mitsubishi is not the looker of the bunch. There’s a bit of Audi 100 Avant from around the same era in there, as well as a heap of 80s wedge-cool that blends beautifully with the two-box concept.
The wagon version of the wide-body Mitsi didn’t come along until the TN model of 1987 (a couple of years after the sedan) but when it did, it suddenly made a lot of the established two-box players look a bit antiquated. Available in base-model GLX (often without air-con or power steering and usually with the carburettor-fed version of the 2.6-litre Astron) the range then moved to the Executive (basically power-mirrors) SE and finally the range-topping Elite spec level. The latter got you all sorts of velour seats and electronic dashboards as well as the extra 10kW of the fuel-injected Astron and a four-speed automatic.
| 2021 Market Review: Mitsubishi 1980-2006
The Elite spec sported luxury appointments, including two-tone paint, and hood ornament
And if you’re thinking you haven’t seen a first-gen Magna wagon for a while, that’s because you probably haven’t. Not sure where they all went, but even the sedan version is pretty hard to spot these days.
One bloke who understands the importance of these cars is Melbourne muso Andrew Wrigglesworth who can trace his admiration of these jiggers right back to the days when he was still riding around in the family Magna wagon, back when it was still a new car.
Both wagons share a roomy interior and modern features
“In fact,” he recalls, “I learned to drive in the family TP Wagon. In the GLX (the yellow car, a TP wagon, with manual transmission) I feel like I’m 18 again.”
Andrew got serious about chasing his Magna Carter dream relatively recently when he started looking for an example from both ends of the specification spectrum.
“Everyone presumed I’d want an Elite – which I did – but I was also chasing the exact same car as my parents had. And that’s the yellow one.”
The hard-to-find in a base model injected engine is smooth to drive and quite perky
The results of that chase are here before you; the two-tone grey 1989 Elite with auto gearbox and 426,000km on board (one new head, one new transmission) that Andrew bought from Queensland from the original owner. It’s been on the road about six months.
The 1989 yellow car is, Andrews thinks, a three-owner deal, but it’s done only about half the kays (220,000) and Andrew picked it up for the princely sum of $600. About a grand later and it was back on the road and looking great.
A superb view all round and plush upholstery help make the GLX a nice ride
And because he’s a ripper bloke, he offered me a drive of both cars. Having tested these things for magazines back when they were brand-new (and with 30-plus years in between) I was behind the wheel of the Elite before his question-mark had dropped.
While it’s not in the first flush of youth, there’s no doubt that the grey wagon is a lot tighter and better to drive than a lot of other cars with the same distance under their wheels. In fact, it’s quiet and smooth and while the four-speed auto wouldn’t be my choice, it’s very representative of what people were buying back then.
And beyond all that, once you get rolling, you realise what a lovely ride these things had as well as a solid, planted feel that was a function of that locally-widened platform that gave much more front and rear track. Compared with the cupboard-on-casters that a VL Commodore on its standard 175/14s was, the Magna is a bloody revelation.
The view out is superb, too (modern car designers could do with a ride in a Magna) and the power-steering is direct and more accurate than I actually remember. Maybe tyres are better now. I reckon the goofy electronic dash with its orange digits and bar-graphs is more gimmick than actual luxury, and the indicator stalk is a weirdo flappy thing that I remember from back in the day too.
My big treat, though, was a drive in the yellow manual. To find a base-model wagon with the injected engine is pretty rare, but that’s what this car is. It’s smoother to drive than the auto and while it revs better and feels sharper, it also feels like it has a fair bit more grunt. Fact is, it’s actually quite perky.
It also steers with a good serve of accuracy and intent, and I challenge some modern cars with their electrically-assisted power steering to feel as good as this one does. I liked the conventional instruments in the GLX a whole lot more, too. Okay, the clutch is worn and needs to be right on the floor for clean shifts, the timing chain rattles on start-up (yes, they all did that even new) and there was (I think) a dead or dying rear shock absorber that was offering a bit of a clunk now and then, but I’d be more than happy to drive the yellow car as my daily. Hell, even the air-con works. Best of all, though, it transported me back to the 1980s and all the good things that came with that time in my life. Which, I guess, is the point of old cars, right?
So what went wrong for the Magna?
Actually, there are a couple of major reasons why the Magna is not as collectible as a Holden or Ford family car of the same point in time. The first of those is that the car had more than its share of problems when it was brand-new. We’re talking major stuff like a bad batch of con-rod bolts that had the Astron hurling its pistons out of the cot, and a rash of crankcase failures at ridiculously low kilometres. Then there was the four-speed automatic that could fail pretty spectacularly… it all added up to a bad rap at the time. To be fair, though, the vast majority of these failures were early in the car’s life; mostly the original TM model.
But the reputational damage was done.
“People put them in the same category as a Holden Camira, which is sad,” Andrew reckons.
“Mitsubishi built about 210,000 first-gen Magnas between 1985 and 1991, but they’re basically all gone. They just got thrown out.”
The other reason the car is overlooked is simply that, despite being made here, the Magna was not seen as completely Australian as its peers. Like the locally-made Sigma before it, and a host of other local cars that were designed overseas but built here, the Magna was – incorrectly – seen as a Japanese car. It’s even more incorrect when you consider the local engineering work involved in widening the Japanese version of the car to suit Aussie tastes.
Ironically, even a lot of the people who could see the merits in the car were blinded by the same error. Of course, if that means there are now some bargains to be had for a weekend cruiser with a roomy body and lovely on-road manners, then maybe we shouldn’t be complaining.
Get one while you still can. Or before Andrew gets them all.
From Unique Cars #467, Jun/Jul 2022Follow me at: