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"Irrational exuberance" Mr. Greenspan calls it. Observing the general public's eagerness to invest huge amounts of money in companies displaying neither profits nor customers, he used the phrase to summarize his attitude towards such illogical foolishness.
Unfortunately, enthusiasm for the irrational is not confined to Wall Street. The ever-expanding SUV market is suffering from a similar twist of imprudent public preference. There was a time when ground clearance, wheel travel, and general off-road worthiness mattered when it came to SUVs. But today, sport utilities are more likely to flaunt the latte capacity of their consoles and an unsurpassed ability to charge 16 cell phones simultaneously. Four-wheel drive has merely become the admission ticket to the category, after which you must display features more akin to a German luxury sedan than a backwoods trail runner.
So does anyone care if an SUV has won a bunch of off-road rallies in places most people have never even heard of? Mitsubishi thinks so. The Japanese automaker is betting that a superior off-road pedigree, combined with copious amounts of cupholders, leather, wood, and various other country club options will give its redesigned 2001 Montero appeal to those looking for the ultimate do-anything, go-anywhere vehicle.
And do-anything, go-anywhere it should. Our top-of-the-line Montero Limited came in just over $36,000, a lofty price for a midsize SUV. Of course, the deluxe Montero did come equipped with a long list of features ranging from heated leather seats, a gargantuan sunroof, and a premium Infinity sound system coupled with the usual assortment of electrically powered gadgetry. Then consider that all this comes wrapped in brand-new sheetmetal that makes most other SUVs look like they should be driven by soccer moms and Starbucks squatters, and $36K starts to look all the more reasonable.
Ditching the upright, boxy designs of the past, Mitsubishi gave the redesigned Montero a distinctive new shape that instantly sets it apart from the cookie-cutter SUV crowd. Sporting bulging fenders and a menacing grille, the Montero has a formidable presence when seen from a rearview mirror. With its numerous chrome accents and sharp six-spoke aluminum wheels, it wouldn't be a stretch to mistake the Montero for one of the Toyota Land Cruiser/Lexus LX470 twins.
Like most SUVs, the view from behind the wheel is excellent, imparting a feeling of road dominance that only sky-high sport-utes and full-size trucks can deliver. The absence of running boards, together with the Montero's tall stance, makes for a more difficult entry than that of many competitors. Once seated, the 14-way power adjustable driver's seat is comfortable even after long hours of freeway cruising. A separate power lumbar adjustment provides excellent lower back support without feeling like you have somebody's knee driving into your spine.
Rear passengers will love the space provided by the Montero's tall cabin and wide body, with numerous well-placed grab handles throughout. With more legroom than a Toyota Land Cruiser and more headroom than a Dodge Durango, the Montero provides one of the roomiest rear seats of any SUV. The rear bench also reclines, a nice feature not found on many sport utilities.
New for this year is a folding third-row seat that does a great job of disappearing into the floor when extra cargo capacity is required. The first of its kind in an SUV, it gives the Montero 82 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the second-row seats folded flat, a full 10 cubic feet more than a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Seatbelts and air vents are provided for third-row passengers, but as in most midsize SUVs, the third seat's tight quarters are suitable for small children only, and very limber ones at that.
The huge, side hinged tailgate opens easily and provides ample access to the rear storage area, but the lack of a separate window opening prohibits transport of unusually long items. Another noticeable fault is the placement of the cargo door hinges on the passenger side, an obvious holdover from the Japanese market. "Hello? Mitsubishi? We drive on the right side of the road over here. We don't appreciate having to walk around the gigantic door every time we want to load someone's luggage at the airport, thank you."
Whether on the road or in the backcountry, the Montero's interior is quiet and rattle-free. Fit and finish is excellent, although the materials get mixed reviews. Some discerning editors dislike the combination of hard rubber surfaces and the dashboard "wood," but most of our staff agrees that overall the interior is classy and comfortable and very much looks the part of an upscale SUV. One editor went so far as to say that the Montero has a, "very Land Cruiser-like feel to it, not something I had expected from a $36,000 SUV with Mitsubishi written on it."
Climate controls are of the three-dial variety (temp, fan, direction) as they should be, with our test car benefiting from an automatic climate control system (one of the few available options). Further up the center stack rests the LCD information display that we rarely find useful considering its most complex function is restating the climate control settings already clearly visible a few inches below.
The Montero incorporates numerous high-tech safety features ranging from standard front and side impact airbags, front passenger seatbelt force limiters, and a heavily reinforced steel body structure. A collapsible carbon-fiber drive shaft and an impact-protected fuel tank are other examples of the Montero's extensive array of advanced safety features.
On the road, the Montero's suspension is firm enough to keep it under control during evasive maneuvers, but don't expect car-like handling. The dual-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension design results in an overall feel that is soft and forgiving, but occasionally even minor road irregularities transmit a surprising amount of harshness throughout the otherwise isolated cabin.
A new rack-and-pinion steering system features an advanced anti-kickback design that reduces abrupt steering-wheel movements in off-road situations. Turning radius has been reduced, but in day-to-day driving, the steering is slow, requiring excessive wheel input for tight maneuvering.
The new Montero also received a thoroughly revised ABS system utilizing four-wheel ventilated discs and an advanced proportioning system that tailors brake force to each individual wheel. The big sport-ute stopped in 136 feet from 60 mph, a respectable distance for such a large vehicle. Straight-line stability under hard braking is good and fade is nonexistent. We produced consistent distances during repeated emergency stops.
Since this truck's roots lay in less paved parts of the world, we headed for the hills to see just how nimble this rally winner would prove. A long afternoon flogging the Montero through every type of obstacle we could find led us to a simple conclusion -- the Montero's off-road prowess is exceptional. Whether it was rugged washboard, fast fire roads, or technical, rock-strewn riverbeds, this truck never flinched. It also never bottomed out, scraped a side sill, or gave any sign that its abilities had been surpassed.
The Montero's ActiveTrac four-wheel-drive system allows the driver to select from four different modes to suit any type of terrain. Although a lever is used to select the various modes, it is not directly linked to the transfer case. Instead, an electronic signal is sent to a computer, which then signals a motor drive to take care of the dirty work. This gadgetry translates into simple and straightforward four-wheel-drive engagement that most of our editors liked, but some drivers questioned why Mitsubishi didn't abandon the bulky lever in favor of a push-button system considering the Limited's luxury status.
Much of the Montero's improved off-road comfort and capability is a result of a new unibody frame and a fully independent suspension. Switching to unibody construction, from traditional body on frame, allows for more interior room, lighter weight, and a much more rigid overall structure. Mitsubishi claims that its new suspension design increases front and rear wheel travel while providing 2 additional inches of ground clearance. After our long day in the rough stuff, we have no doubt that these upgrades are a vast improvement over the traditional but simplified straight axle suspensions used on most SUVs.
Although the Montero Limited represents the pinnacle of Mitsubishi's SUV lineup, it does share the same basic engine with its smaller Montero Sport sibling. Sized closer to the Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Pathfinder, the lighter Montero Sport is a better match for Mitsubishi's big V6. Slightly modified from last year's version, the 3.5-liter engine in the Montero is now rated at 200 horsepower and 235 foot-pounds of torque (slightly less in the Montero Sport). Considering the number of mini-utes roaming around with V6s of comparable horsepower, it's unacceptable for a vehicle of the Montero's size and price to offer an engine with such average numbers.
To its credit, the 3.5-liter powerplant is smooth and quiet and rarely felt underpowered around town, but quick part-throttle downshifts led us to believe that Mitsubishi is fully aware of the lack of low-end grunt. Passing on the freeway requires a little more planning as the engine struggles to drag the 4600-lb. brick along at 70-plus mph. All that hard work results in poor mileage as well; our Montero only mustered a little over 14 miles per gallon during its weeklong stay.
Towing capacity is rated at 5000 lbs., equal to that of the 4Runner and Pathfinder, but significantly less than the V8-powered Explorer or Durango. Considering the Montero's already hampered ability to get out of its own way, adding another 2 tons would likely drag the lethargic beast down to intolerable levels of performance.
All Montero Limiteds come equipped with Mitsubishi's five-speed Sportronic sequential shift transmission, while Montero XLS gets a standard four-speed automatic. The Sportronic gearbox allows manual shifting by simply moving the shift lever into an adjacent gate and then bumping it forward for upshifts and back for downshifts. It worked, but was too sluggish to be of use around town. At the track, this trick feature did little to reduce leisurely mid-11 second zero-to-60 times.
Off-road the shifter was a different story. Banging through the gears while negotiating fast canyons was so much fun we almost forgot about the lackluster V6 under the hood. Steep descents that would send most oversized SUVs careening down the mountain were negotiated with ease in 4-Lo and first gear, with engine compression keeping the Montero at a slow and safe 3-4 mph. Cresting the top of a hill or powering through the mud is not the time for your automatic to decide it wants a new gear -- with the Sportronic system you'll face no such predicament.
As much as we liked the Montero Limited, we still find ourselves struggling to decide if we would drop $36K to buy one. A nicely optioned Chevrolet Tahoe could be had for roughly the same price as our Montero tester, and it could carry seven adults with a 285-horsepower V8 to boot. The Dodge Durango also carries seven, has a standard V8, and is comparably priced.
Bear in mind that the base Montero, the XLS, stickers closer to $31,000, has the same engine and Baja-ready suspension, and sports the same sharp styling that makes the Montero so unique. At that price, the Montero is a steal when compared to similarly equipped sport-utes. Stepping up to the Limited does add a dizzying array of luxury features, but it still suffers from a V6 that lacks the full-bodied muscle of its V8 competitors.
If you're looking for off-road capability, one-of-a-kind styling, and generous room for five, then the new Montero deserves serious consideration. But if hauling seven passengers or towing a trailer is a regular part of your SUV's duties, we suggest looking into some of the larger and more powerful sport-utes in the SUV realm.
System Score: 6.5
Components. This Infinity system begins with a 6-inch subwoofer along the rear sidewall. The sub really aids in the overall sound of the system. It is complemented in the speaker department by a pair of 6-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus a pair of 6-inch mid-bass units in the front doors, coupled to a pair of tweeters above. The tweeters are housed in their own enclosures, located between the side mirrors and the dash. For some reason (and we've seen this in other Infinity sound systems), the tweeters are aimed off kilter. They're pointed too high, overshooting the driver (and I'm 6-foot-2!)
The radio design is cluttered, crammed into a small faceplate that crowds many of the features into too small of a space. For instance, the buttons are tiny, and many of the controls have little or no space between them, making for some dicey driving. On the plus side, the radio has a nice, ridged volume knob that is easy to find and use. Overall, the head unit lacks ergonomic design, and doesn't measure up to many vehicles in this class. It includes 12 FM and six AM presets, a single-play CD, and no cassette.
Performance. There's a thinness in this system that I can't quite put my finger on. It has many fine qualities, such as a thumping bass (thanks to the sub in back), but on certain kinds of music it doesn't sound quite right. For example, it sounds great on acoustic instrumental music (strings, guitar, piano), but not so good on rock and reggae. Some of this may have to do with the tweeters, which, because of their poor aiming, simply don't produce the "sweet spot" you'd except from a system of this caliber. Also, the amp sounds grainy and distorted on certain kinds of music, above about two-thirds gain. Kind of a strange system, with some interesting qualities.
Best Feature: Rear subwoofer.
Worst Feature: Crowded faceplate, and poorly aimed tweeters.
Conclusion. I marked off heavily for the poorly designed head unit and the misaimed tweeters. This is pretty rudimentary stuff, and Mitsubishi should have gotten it right. Competition is steep in this segment, and many of the Big Three SUV audio systems stomp all over this one, especially in terms of ergonomics. Scott Memmer
"We are very happy with our choice of the Montero. It handles great on the highway as well as on the dirt road (that includes mud holes). This car has taken us to places not many other SUVs will be able to get to. This is a true off-road-capable vehicle. Just having a vehicle like this makes you want to take it into the wilderness. At the same time, the styling and comfort are top-of-the-line. Driving it in the city makes one feel like a million bucks. Favorite features: Handling, off-road capabilities, shift on the fly AWD and 4WD, driver information system, giant sunroof, good sound system, seating for 7. Suggested improvements: Few more horses under the hood would be nice." hunterd, Aug. 24, 2003
"Truthfully there are only two minor things that I'd say. The engine really doesn't give you enough zing when you want to accelerate hard. And its gas mileage doesn't make me exactly excited. That said, more power would decrease the gas mileage even more. And while this is an SUV, I knew what I was getting into when it comes to paying at the pump before I purchased it. Want higher mileage, get a compact! Favorite features: 4WD, even though we don't use it much in Texas. And console love that it's adjustable." Monty Lover, July 24, 2003