Galant VR-4 is an expensive whiz from Mitsubishi

January 10, 1991|By Al Haas | Al Haas,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Among other things, Mitsubishi's Galant VR-4 demonstrates how it is possible to completely change the personality of an inexpensive family sedan and double its price in the process.

The most inexpensive Galant is a mild-mannered, technologically uninteresting compact four-door with a base price of $10,999. This machine is followed by four progressively more sophisticated and costly Galant models, culminating in the $21,000 VR-4.

New for 1991, the high-performance VR-4 sports sedan has about as much in common with the base Galant as Hulk Hogan has with Pee-Wee Herman. The base car is a steady, NTC even-tempered workhorse bred for family duty. The super-techy VR-4 is a high-strung Arabian that foams at the mouth.

Indeed, it could be argued that the limited-edition VR-4 isn't so much a car as a mobile showcase for Mitsubishi's growing technical facility. You name it, and Mitsubishi's engineers have bolted it on: a turbocharger, intercooler, independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes working in concert with an anti-lock braking system. If that standard gear doesn't stir your juices, how about an all-wheel-drive system and four-wheel steering?

Only 2,000 VR-4s will be sold in the United States in the 1991 model year. Just in case the salesman forgets to tell the customer that this is a limited edition, there is a little metal sign in the middle of the --board that says "Limited Edition." The sign also relates, in the manner of a numbered print, at what point in the 2,000-model run the particular car was built. The test vehicle, for example, was 1,969th of 2,000.

The small production run was decided on because the company didn't know how many of these relatively expensive compact sedans it could sell. If there is higher demand, the company will happily abandon the exclusivity of the limited-edition label and build more. If there isn't, it still has the VR-4's image-enhancing technology to crow about.

The new VR-4 rendition of the carryover Galant looks much like its less exciting sisters. It doesn't act much like them, however.

With the exception of the GSX, the other Galant models do not have the enhanced handling and traction afforded by the VR-4's independent suspension and full-time all-wheel-drive system. And none of the others has four-wheel steer (4ws) or keeps such an exotic critter under its hood.

The VR-4's 4ws system turns the rear wheels in the direction of the turn. The faster you go, the more the rear wheels turn, up to a maximum of 1.5 degrees. As a consequence, I didn't feel the effect of the system much at normal driving speeds, but did sense it helping me through the corners at higher velocities.

The effects created by the VR-4's engine are a lot more obvious than its 4ws. The cheaper Galants get their motivation from two-liter engines developing 103 or 140 horsepower. The VR-4 uses a two-liter turbocharged terror that pumps out 195 horsepower.

This engine, the same one used in the turbocharged Mitsubishi Eclipse, is a freely revving little athlete that does extraordinarily well in the relatively light Eclipse. It isn't quite as potent in the much heavier VR-4 (a surprisingly portly 3,252 pounds), but it still moves things along quite briskly. A zero-to-60 time of little more than seven seconds is a second slower than the Eclipse, but still very quick.

With its multivalve design, its turbocharger and the car's weight, the VR-4's engine has to be revved high to realize its power. Conversely, it is something of a wet noodle at low rpm. This kind of power curve is fine with driving enthusiasts, but doesn't really dovetail with the way most people drive.

The harmony one feels at work in a car is, of course, as subjective as it is intangible. But it is real. Some cars have it, and some don't. The VR-4 has it. Everything in this car, from the seats and the instrument panel to the drive train and suspension, works together like a Swiss watch.

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