The Mitsubishi Diamonte

Review Notes: Mitsubishi Diamonte VR-X Automatic
Personality Agile sports car merged with near-luxury sedan - keeping its manners without showing off
Quirks Australian flagship of Japanese company. Great stereo looks cheaper than it is. VR-X gets only 5 hp more than base but wants premium. Some warning lights in center console with clock.
Unusual features Gives automotive engineering and construction jobs to Australians. Provides a glimpse of what a 2003 Australian Valiant might be like.
Above Average: Combination of performance and manners, styling
Needs Work In: Gas mileage
Scrape test Passed
Reviewed by David Zatz

The Mitsubishi Diamonte is a highly unusual and ironic vehicle. Despite being designed and built in Australia - one of a very few Australian cars sold in the US - it uses Mitsubishi components, and is the Japanese company's flagship. Mitsubishi's Australian holdings were themselves purchased from Chrysler in their first financial crisis, so that the engineers of Aussie Valiants, Chargers, and Pacers ended up designing this Mitsubishi.

Rumors of the Diamonte's demise were floating around last year, but apparently it will continue - using an extended version of the joint Galant/Stratus chassis being designed by Chrysler and Mitsubishi, reportedly with Chrysler as the lead engineers but using the current Galant as a base. That transformation is due in 2006, so it is safe to buy a Diamonte now without fear of immediate obsolesence.

The Diamonte VR-X, which we tested, boasts a 210 horsepower engine - 5 more than the base model - with whiteface gauges and a sport suspension. These seem to be the main differences between the VR-X and lesser models. That engine is more responsive than the horsepower numbers would imply, thanks partly to a well-designed transmission which always seems ready for acceleration (though sometimes it downshifts early when coasting). The exhaust note is deep and satisfying, without being annoying over long trips, and the engine itself is very quiet. Shifts are firm but smooth. Overall, though the Diamonte is not the fastest car on the road, it is more than quick enough.

The ride and handling are surprisingly well tuned. The Diamonte not only takes fast turns easily, it takes them comfortably. Squealing tires are rare even under very spirited driving. It is unusual to find a car under $30,000 with this level of performance that also maintains a high degree of comfort. Handling on wet roads and over deep puddles is surprisingly good. Simply put, all aspect of driving the Diamonte inspire more confidence. We hope Mitsubishi and Chrysler send more vehicles across the world to be tuned by the folks in Australia.

While the handling is above average, the ride does not suffer, as it does with many competitors. The Diamonte handles road imperfections easily, even deep holes in the road that bounce other vehicles around.

The outside of the Diamonte is clean and uncluttered, with a vaguely BMW-ish front end (which we actually prefer to the BMW series) and a sporty but not aggressive profile. The interior also leans to good taste, with clear gauges, red backlighting, and a silver center stack and console. The controls give a strong feeling of quality, matching the doors and truck.

The climate control is a little idiosynchratic, but easy to use, even with heavy gloves on. The thermostat is set with a dial, the a/c (which has an economy and full mode), mode, fan, and recirculation with buttons. The results are shown on an LCD display, which you need to watch as you press the buttons. That is probably not the best user interface in a car, but it does look cool. Front and rear defrosters are next to each other and beep when you press them so you do not need to look away from the road. The fan makes a lot of noise at higher speeds.

The Diamonte heats up quickly, and may have the most effective defrosters and demisters we have seen in a car. That and front wheel drive should make some snow belt BMW 3-series prospects take the Diamonte for a spin.

The optional stereo is one of those odd bits - it looks like a fairly cheap unit, but provides excellent sound thanks to the individually powered Infinity speakers. Stereo separation is excellent even if you are a passenger.

The various other buttons and controls are all sensible designed. The backlighting control is out of the way, the fuel door and trunk lid releases are next to each other and easily visible (but not in the way), and the window, mirror, and lock controls are all near each other on the door. The cruise is on a convenient separate stalk on the wheel, and stays set (or not set) even after you shut off the engine and turn it back on again. The moonroof controls are clear and easy to use, while the lights are unusually clearly marked.

There is lots of space for the detritus of modern auto life, such as EZ-Pass (toll) units, sunglasses, and cups. In fact, there are four cupholders up front - two of the primitive variety, and two that pop out of the center console. The primitive ones are probably there to make up for deficiencies in the fancy ones, which in our case did not work quite right. There are also small map pockets in the front doors, a covered, padded coin tray, an ashtray, and a slot under the radio which may hold an optional CD changer on other models. The center console has an upper area and a separate, larger lower area which is just large enough to not be able to hold a Kleenex box of tissues (but which holds CDs nicely). Both are padded with a thin layer of felt.

There is ample room for four passengers, and sufficient room for five, with good headroom up front. The trunk is expansive and easy to use, with a small passthrough into the passenger compartment for long objects. The back seats do not fold down, though.

The VR-X model, which is more expensive than the base but not much better equipped, has a list price of $27,700 with destination. Our test vehicle had the Sport package, for another $1,600, which included leather seats, power-memory driver's seat, rear spoiler, and Infinity stereo. The grand total was just over $29,000, getting to BMW 3-series territory. The Diamonte offers a nicer ride, front wheel drive for bad weather, and all the performance most people actually use. Less expensive Diamontes are also available to compete more directly with Impalas, Accords, and the like, and you don't give up too much acceleration by moving to the base models.

Overall, the Diamonte is a good car in a tough price range. Far more comfortable than most sport coupes, it can easily handle a family without giving up too much traction. Those who like space along with their handling and speed will find the Dodge Intrepid competitive, with the Chrysler 300M and Concorde waiting in the wings, all three with more powerful engines but lower gas mileage. The Diamonte is a fine alternative to the Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Impala, and Ford Taurus, and is easily more comfortable than the Honda Accord. It provides a surprisingly pleasurable combination of comfort and peformance, gripping the road in good weather or bad, and growling nicely when you hit the pedal. It's time more people knew about this car.