Every once in a while, you encounter a car that blows all your expectations out of the water. The new Mitsubishi Outlander is one of those cars. We try hard at Roadfly to find the good in any car, but with the Outlander it wasn’t hard. Given that its predecessor was an also-ran in the compact SUV category, this new Outlander represents a giant leap forward.
It needs to be, because the competition is very stiff. Honda, Toyota and Mazda have all released new or redesigned offerings into this hotly contested category within the past year. Can the Outlander measure up? We think so.
For starters, the new Outlander was Japan’s best-selling SUV – of any size – from its launch in October 2005 until March 2006. The Japanese market is much tougher on large, sloppy vehicles. Interior room, smart handling, and fuel economy are more important in the land of the rising sun, and many younger enthusiasts lament the lack of cool, efficient Japanese cars in the U.S. market. At least when it comes to SUVs, we can now get the home crowd’s ride of choice.
So what makes this SUV so appealing to a techno-crazy, efficiency-obsessed home market? And why should Americans care? Well, the Outlander is packed full of technological wizardry. It has a dial in the center armrest area which toggles between 2WD, 4WD, and “4WD Lock.” That’s not a locking center differential in the off-roading vein, but rather a performance-oriented 4WD mode that can be used even at high speeds. You can select it any time you want, even while driving. And if you want the best handling the Outlander can offer, selecting 4WD Lock is the way to go. Considering that the Outlander’s 4WD will be the basis for the system in the upcoming Lancer Evolution – Mitsubishi’s deadly entry in the World Rally Championship – this isn’t just marketing hype.
Mitsubishi has drawn on its considerable experience in the world of rally racing, even when designing this compact SUV. Mitsubishi has won the Paris-to-Dakar rally – which covers 7,000 miles and claims a handful of lives each year – a staggering eleven times. There is real heritage here, more so than in any of the Mitsubishi’s main competitors.
In that vein, the Outlander is a very competent high-speed traveler. It has a 3.0-liter V6 making 220 horsepower at 6250 rpm and 204 lb-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. That may be a good chunk of ponies less than the 270-hp V6 in the RAV4, but the Outlander is much sportier. There’s a six-speed automatic with a fully manual mode, as opposed to the RAV4’s 5-speed auto without a true manual function. Hence, the Outlander feels much sportier. It has enough power to spin its rear tires on a full-throttle upshift from first to second gear, in part because the 4WD system sends up to 70 per cent of the Outlander’s power to the rear wheels on a standing start. The Outlander features huge paddle shifters that can be tapped from almost any hand position on the steering wheel, and no matter what you do, the transmission won’t try to outsmart you. To top it all off, the Outlander’s roof is made from aluminum to save weight and lower the center of gravity for better handling.
In addition to its sporty DNA, the Outlander has a lot of straightforward practicality to make it a truly excellent all-around offering. Hondas and Toyotas are pretty much the standard for ergonomic harmony, but the Outlander comes darned close. There is a lot of storage, like dual gloveboxes and a stealth compartment on top of the dashboard. Controls are easily operated, and bear no evidence of cost-cutting.
That extends to the Outlander’s excellent navigation system. It has a sliding face that hides the load slot for the CD player, and is touch-operated. It’s hard-drive based, rather than DVD-based, so there’s less fiddling. It has a couple cool features we haven’t seen anywhere else. One is a maintenance monitor, which tracks the common wear items on the car, and tells the driver the dates of their last replacement, and when they’ll need to be replaced again. The other is an environment function, which keeps a record of conditions like temperature and altitude for the past three hours. Considering that a good portion of Outlander buyers will be younger and activity-oriented, these features strike us as an example of remarkable prescience on Mitsubishi’s part.
On that note, so does the fuel economy monitor, which is the default function for the small LCD display inside the Outlander’s instrument panel. The intuitive monitor is displayed as a bar, with increments of 0, 25, 50, and 75. The indicator is kind of like a cell phone’s battery bar, and swings wildly from mostly empty when accelerating to completely full when cruising. It becomes a bit of a challenge to tailor your driving habits for maximum fuel economy, to see if you can beat the government fuel economy forecast of 19 city mpg/26 highway mpg.
The appointments in the Outlander are also a pleasant surprise. Our XLS came with a handsome black leather interior, and a standard third row of seats. However, the rear seats are really an occasional-use-only item. The row folds flat into the floor, which is nice, but it takes a good bit of muscle to get it out. Plus, it’s upholstered in heavy-duty cloth, lagging behind the first two rows. But if you want a luxurious third row, go buy a long-wheelbase Escalade.
All in all, the Outlander registers a pleasant shock on our “I can’t believe they built that car” radar. It’s a hoot to drive, has tons of techno appeal and competition heritage, and is quite well-packaged. Baseline MSRP for our XLS 4WD model was just $25,010. The luxury package (heated leather seats, Xenon lamps, power driver’s seat) added $1,600, and the “Sun & Sound” package (sunroof and nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system with 10-inch subwoofer) padded on another $1,580. Navigation was an additional $1,800, for an as-tested price of $30,615. That represents the best Outlander money can buy, which is one fine SUV.