Mitsubishi Express: Why is the diamond brand now selling a Renault Trafic Down Under?
As strange as it is for the Japanese brand to sell a rebadged French van exclusively Down Under, it's not entirely without reason.
It was two years ago that Mitsubishi became the third part of what is now the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, and it’s only just now that the brand has started to gain some offerings from the other two marques it’s aligned with, but if you were hoping for the diamond brand to have gained some Renault Sport or GT-R performance as a result of the deal, you’d be very wrong.
That’s because the first model it’s inherited to is the Renault Trafic van, which it’s simply swapped the badges on and made some very minor spec changes to, and will sell exclusively in Australia and New Zealand as the Express.
Marking the return of a name that’s been applied to a range of vans and utes sold Down Under since Mitsubishi Motors Australia was founded 40 years ago, it might seem a bit odd that the Japanese company is selling a French-made van in two relatively low-volume right-hand drive markets, but it’s not exactly without good reason.
You see, while Mitsubishi has struggled in places such as Europe, here in Australia it had the fourth-highest number of sales by marque in 2019 with a 7.8 percent share of all new vehicle sales, and so far this year it has maintained that fourth-place standing. Of all the vehicles it sold both this year and last, however, the top-selling was the Triton (L200) ute – its only commercial offering.
Or rather, it was the diamond brand’s only commercial offering until the revival of the Express name with this badge-engineered van. Adding a practically unchanged Renault Trafic to the lineup mightn’t exactly look like something noteworthy from the outset, it now means that businesses, for example, that operate a fleet of Mitsubishi utes can now stick with the same brand for its vans as well, and that greater purchase scale could, potentially, result in better pricing for them.
The other big benefit of opting for the Express rather than a Trafic is that Aussie buyers will benefit from the Mitsubishi ownership experience. With Renault being a relative minnow in our market, Mitsubishi has far more dealers in far more areas, including regionally.
Plus, recent changes to the Mitsubishi Diamond Advantage ownership plan means that Express buyers are offered an Australian industry-leading 10-year/200,000km warranty along with a 10-year/150,000km capped-price servicing program as long as they get the car serviced at a Mitsubishi dealership.
Now before you start screaming at your computer or phone screen, I am well aware that this is all distinctly un-sexy and uninteresting stuff unlike what I'd normally want to focus on in a review, but when you’re dealing with a van such as this, it’s how it looks on paper that matters most, rather than how it looks on the dealership forecourt or how it feels behind the wheel of on the way to the next job site.
As such, before even mentioning its styling, interior, or driving dynamics, the cost of the Express is perhaps the most poignant point to assess, as pricing has long been the trump card that Mitsubishi vans have drawn.
While the old and outdated Express van that last wore the badge in 2013 might have been a fairly horrible thing subjectively, the fact the most expensive variant cost less than $30,000 meant that, objectively, it made a lot of sense for the businessperson looking to save a few dollars.
However, those days are quite clearly long-gone, as this new Renault-derived model starts at $38,490 for the cheapest SWB Manual version, while the SWB Automatic on test here runs for $42,490 before on-road costs. Add in all the options this one was fitted with – including a cargo barrier, non-slip rubber cargo mat, wooden wall panels in the cargo area, and a rear step – and you’re looking at an as-tested price of $45,685.
One thing worth noting is that the larger LWB variants will charge an additional $2000. The other thing even more important to note, though, is that those SWB variants are only a mere $1000 less than their equivalents in the Renault Trafic range, and while the Mitsi may offer the better ownership experience on paper, it misses out on a few features the Frenchie offers in reality.
Most notably, the single-specification Express misses out on the 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto that the Trafic Premium features, with it instead making do with a dated single-din head unit, and while it may offer Bluetooth and DAB+ digital radio connectivity, it’s a clunky ol’ thing to use. You won’t be able to quickly whip it out for an aftermarket double-din touchscreen unless you’re prepared to hack up the dashboard a bit, either.
The lack of a screen on the centre stack means that the reverse camera is now integrated into the rear-view mirror instead, which is not only another dated touch but is only actually fitted as standard to automatic models. Like these issues, another that’s not too easily fixed is the almost complete lack of active safety technology, and the fact that the Renault Trafic's less-than-stellar 'marginal' 3-star ANCAP safety rating from 2015 doesn't bode well for what score the as-yet unrated Express would receive if tested against today's tougher standards.
Other clear signs of the donor Trafic’s age are the phone cradle that is far too small to fit any modern smartphone, and the basic dot matrix screen in the gauge cluster, although having a digital speedometer there is at the very least a nice touch.
It’s not all bad on the inside of the Express, though, drab as the sea of grey plastic you’re greeted with as you jump inside may be. The three-seat layout it offers is handy for squeezing the apprentice in, the big dash-top storage bins and other little cubby holes are all incredibly handy for storing things like tools and paperwork, and it must be said that there’s plenty of room to stretch out and get comfortable in it, especially with some cleverly-placed armrests for the driver.
Being a van, though, it’s the cargo area that’s the most important part of the whole vehicle, and it must be said that the Express has a good one. Offering 5.2m3 of cargo space and a 1115kg payload in SWB Automatic form as tested – which grows to as much as 6.0m3 of cargo space and a payload of 1200kg should you opt for a LWB Manual model – there’s certainly a lot of space to work with, and the optional non-slip rubber floor covering does a thoroughly impressive job of stopping whatever it is you’re hauling from moving around.
Making it incredibly easy to load is the fact it has sliding doors on both sides of the vehicle, along with standard rear barn doors with an initial 85-degree stop and an additional 160-degree stop to make loading pallets with a forklift an easy task unlike in something such as the otherwise excellent Toyota HiAce which is currently only available with a top-hinged tailgate.
Of the three drivetrain options the Trafic offers, all of which are turbo diesels with front-wheel drive, the Express is available with two of them.
Opt for a model with a six-speed manual gearbox and you’ll get the Trafic’s mid-level 1.6-litre twin-turbocharged diesel engine that makes do with 103kW and 340Nm. However, if you go for a model fitted with the six-speed dual-clutch automatic such as the one on test here you’ll get a larger 2.0-litre single-turbo engine that makes a punchier 125kW and 380Nm.
With peak torque coming on at a low 1500rpm, it’s easy to chirp the tyres off the line and encounter some torque steer at low speeds – which certainly isn’t great, although nor is it surprising that its power delivery is not the most refined – but when you’re between 60-100km/h it really does have some grunt to it, and it must be said that the dual-clutch ‘box is a very smooth operator.
Of course, get it up to higher speeds and the power will start to taper off – and its distinctly un-aerodynamic slab-sided profile and deafening levels of tyre roar from the cargo area will come into play as well – but at the speeds it’s going to spend most of its life travelling at this engine feels a perfect fit, especially as it has more than enough torque at the right point in the rev range for making light work of moving a decently heavy load around. It's fairly light on the fuel consumption, too, returning an indicated 8.4L/100km over the course of 425km against an official claim of 7.3L/100km despite my lead foot.
In terms of how it feels from behind the wheel, it’s pretty much what you’d expect the average van to feel like. The much newer HiAce’s pleasant SUV-like dynamics aren’t to be found here – instead, the steering feels slow on centre, the ride feels a bit jittery when unladen, and the lack of a window on the passenger-side rear sliding door means you’re likely to kiss the kerb with the rear wheel if you aren’t paying attention to where you’re placing the vehicle through tight left turns.
However, the jittery ride is easily sorted with a bit of a load in the back – a tip run with some old office furniture and a trip to collect some new furniture with which to replace it was more than enough to smooth out the ride – and the rest of the minor gripes I have with the way it drives simply don’t matter.
At the end of the day, what matters with this van, like all others, is the bottom line. Although it’s not as cheap as I think it could or should be based off the list-price, Mitsubishi is offering a range of drive-away deals for those both with and without an ABN to help the numbers add up a little better.
More impressive though is the 10-year warranty it offers. Although it wasn’t introduced until after I’d handed back the keys to this one I spent some time driving, it’s done a lot to help sweeten the deal in my eyes, and even though there may be some catches to it – such as the 200,000km mileage cap and need to get it serviced at a Mitsi dealer for it to be extended from five years to 10 – it’s the sort of thing that’s going to entice sole traders into ponying up for one.
Factor in a no-surprises capped price servicing deal for the same length of time and it all starts to make a lot more sense now than it did back when it launched locally in July and when I drove it last month. It might not be the best-equipped, or the safest, or the nicest-to drive van on the market, but a good ownership deal such as what Mitsubishi’s offering here has to count for something.
This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on October 27, 2020. The vehicle tested here was provided by Mitsubishi Motors Australia. All noted prices are in Australian dollars (AUD).