Shopping: Japan turns Teutonic

ROAD TEST Mitsubishi Galant

Mitsubishi Galant. Yes, it's all new, as Japanese cars are every four years or so, but I bet you'll find it hard to picture what a new Galant might look like without the prompt of a picture. After all, what we're talking about is just some more grey Japanese porridge, isn't it? Toyota Carina, Nissan Primera, Mazda 626, Honda Accord, Mitsubishi Galant - none of them exactly leaps out and thrusts its personality at you.

Maybe that's because Japan's economic miracle is abating, production costs are high, profits are disappearing and, more than ever, Japanese car-makers are playing safe, conservative and - the B-word that every UK importer of Japanese cars detests - bland. But wait. See that chiselled nose with its chamfered corners? Not much sign of the default-design inane grin here. See that tidy tail, also rather pleasingly chiselled? It's almost BMW-like. See that curving rear roof-line, the cut of the rear pillars, the broad-shouldered rear wheel arches? Germanic again.

Here's a breath of fresh air: a Japanese car with an identity of its own, and a rather European one as it happens. It's also slightly bigger than most of its mainstream compatriots outlined above, virtually Volvo S70-size, an upmarket shift made possible by the recent arrival of the Dutch-built, Mondeo-confronting Mitsubishi Carisma (a car whose identity and aura are definitely not eponymous, never mind any solecisms of spelling).

Talking of which, Mitsubishi is backing a new "Galant" driving course to promote courtesy on the road as well as the new Galant. This is laudable, if slightly tacky; fortunately, the car is rather good, too. In Japan it gets the new, high-economy, Gasoline Direct Injection engine I described in these pages a few weeks ago, but for Europe that engine is Carisma- bound instead. (It's destined for Volvo's S40 and V40, too, because these cars and the Carisma are fruits of a Mitsubishi/Volvo joint venture.)

So European Galants come with either a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine of 134bhp or, as in the car I tested, a new 2.5-litre V6 which delivers 161 bhp. My car also came with the optional automatic transmission, air- conditioning and leather trim, which together push the price up to pounds 23,540 on the road, but V6s start at pounds 20,610 and you can have a 2.0-litre for pounds 17,210. Estate-car versions are available for an extra pounds 800, but as yet Britain is to be denied the turbocharged, four-wheel-drive, 280bhp VR- 4 version offered in Japan. "It's too manic," Shunji Takeshita, the Galant project manager, told me.

There's nothing very adventurous about the Galant's interior, but it's well made out of high-quality materials, and is pleasing enough to the eye provided you don't look too closely at the fake wood. The doors shut with a solid "thunk", the front seats adjust electrically, and the whole car has a feeling of substance that the smaller Carisma lacks.

The impression stays with you as you move off, too, because the V6 engine is both quiet and muscular, and the automatic transmission, which adapts its gear-change strategy to what it considers to be your style of driving over the past few miles, is responsive without being snatchy. It suits the engine well, helping brisk progress to be smooth and serene.

Supple, "multilink" suspension helps here, too: it soaks up bumps effectively, while keeping firm control of unwanted lurching and heaving to the benefit of both the occupants' comfort and the precision of the handling. The Galant corners confidently without drifting wide or losing its balance, and the steering feels reassuringly weighty at speed.

I like this car. It looks good, it feels all-of-a-piece, it's satisfying to drive, and it has definite stirrings of personality. Makes a change from all those haughty Germans, too. Just a shame it has a silly name.

Mitsubishi Galant 2.5 V6

Specifications

Price: pounds 23,540 OTR with auto transmission and powered leather seats.

Engine: 2,498cc, V6, 24 valves, 16lbhp at 5,750rpm; four-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: top speed 134mph, 0-60 in 9.4sec.

Fuel consumption: 25-30mpg.

Rivals

Ford Mondeo 2.5 V6 Ghia X, pounds 22,810 OTR Smaller, cheaper, quicker than Galant, with less comfort and less sense of occasion.

Peugeot 406 V6, pounds 23,640 OTR Very rapid, terrific handling, wonderfully comfortable; a Peugeot to beat the German icons.

Volvo S70 2.5 20V CD, pounds 26,215 OTR Biggest and most expensive of these rivals, five-cylinder engine sounds good; build quality is not great.

Vauxhall Vectra V6 CDX, pounds 21,690 OTR Rapid and reasonably roomy, but the least fun to drive of these rivals. Decent but forgettable.

Volkswagen Passat 2.8 V6 synchro, pounds 21,841 OTR Still a couple of months away, even though price fixed, but quick, capable, well designed; 4-wheel- drive VW is the best bargain here.

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