With an ever-increasing amount of new SUV models being released, it's getting tougher for a car company to get its product noticed. No sooner does a model debut to the oohhs and ahhhs of the general public than another comes out, bum-rushing the spotlight and rendering the other rig yesterday's news. Mitsubishi's new mini-ute, the Outlander, has its work cut out; it showed up late for tryouts when there's already a strong starting lineup with players such as the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester and Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute twins.
So how does the Outlander compare? With a wheelbase of 103.3 inches and a weight of 3,461 pounds (with all-wheel drive), the Outlander is roughly the same size as the CR-V and Escape, which spec out at 103.1 inches, 3,318 pounds and 103.1 inches, 3,457 pounds, respectively. Like the CR-V and Forester, the Outlander's sole engine is a four-cylinder; there is no V6 option as in the Escape/Tribute or Saturn Vue. At 140 horsepower and 157 pound-feet of torque, the Mitsu's 2.4-liter four is down on power compared to the Honda (160 horsepower, 162 lb-ft) and Subaru (165 horsepower, 166 lb-ft). The Outlander does, however, have more power than the four-cylinder versions of the Escape/Tribute.
Two trim levels, both with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive, are offered. There's no stripper here as even the base LS comes with power windows, locks and mirrors; AM/FM/CD audio; air conditioning; a tilt steering wheel; and cruise control. Nor is there a confusing laundry list of options for the LS, just two available packages: a Convenience package adds keyless entry, roof rails, floor mats and a cargo cover; while an Appearance package includes alloy wheels and tinted windows. Those looking for more of an upscale feel will want the XLS, which adds alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, white-faced gauges, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and upgraded cloth upholstery. For more luxury, there are the XLS' optional packages: the Sun and Sound package that adds an Infinity audio system and a sunroof, and the Luxury package, which is detailed below. For 2003, pricing (including destination) ranges from $18,577 for a front-drive LS to $21,370 for an all-wheel-drive XLS.
Perhaps the most distinguished aspect of the Outlander is its prominent proboscis. Most staffers liked the aggressive nose, a split-grille arrangement with a strong central hood bulge that continues down to the bumper. But some folks thought it was too much; one wag (who might watch too much of the Animal Planet channel) said it reminded him of a duck-billed platypus. The Outlander's clean flanks are accented with muscular wheelwell arches and the clear-lens taillights reminded more than a few folks of a Lexus RX 300, which we suppose isn't a bad thing.
The Outlander's handsome cabin drew more of a unified response; it was a hit with virtually everyone who either climbed behind the wheel or rode in the backseat. The instrument hoods (which recall the dash of an old Alfa Romeo Spyder) house easy-to-read gauges. The center stack sports the simple three-knob climate control setup we prefer, and an analog clock is mounted, a la Infiniti-style, up high in the center of the dashboard where it's clearly visible. There's plenty of storage on the Outlander. In addition to the console's deep two-tiered covered bin are a couple of small, open compartments that are ideal for a cell phone or garage door control. Two large cupholders in front and two in the fold-down rear center armrest are well-positioned and functional; they don't block controls when in use and are deep enough to avoid worries of spilt sodas. Our tester had the Luxury package that took our Outlander uptown with leather seating, an auto-dimming rearview mirror (with compass and outside temperature display) and heated front seats and side mirrors. That package also bumps up the safety factor as it includes front side airbags.
The firm bucket seats are well-shaped and the driver seat boasts a lumbar support control with a wide range of adjustment. The 60/40-split rear seat was lauded for its abundance of legroom, reclinable backrest and flip-down center armrest with cupholders. With the rear seats up, cargo capacity is rated at 24.4 cubic feet. Flip them down (which is a breeze; it can be done with the three headrests in place and the front seats all the way back) and capacity is increased to 60.3 cubic feet. Comparison shoppers will note that this is around four to eight cubes less than the Outlander's chief competitors. Even the petite Toyota RAV4, at 68 cubes, has more cargo volume. But the Mitsu does provide more room for its rear occupants than the RAV, so it's essentially a trade-off. A number of handy features are found in the cargo area, such as a power point, tie-down hooks (for an optional cargo net) and a couple of shallow compartments hidden under the floor.
No manual gearbox is offered; all Outlanders have a four-speed automatic with the Sportronic manual-shift capability. The lone transmission offering is in contrast to most of the competition who typically offer a choice between a manual or automatic box on their SUVs. This is probably not an issue here in the States, where most folks, short of hard-core driving enthusiasts, seem to prefer automatics.
Around town, the Outlander jumps when the whip is cracked, furnishing quick off-the-line response that comes in handy when dealing with the cut and thrust of metro traffic. Mitsubishi claims that this engine is torque-rich, and it is, making its maximum twisting force at just 2,500 rpm. At higher speeds, such as when preparing to merge onto the freeway, the Outlander gets winded as the velocity climbs. To its credit, the engine never sounds coarse, and once up to speed it will cruise at 75 all day long without a whimper. Under the scrutiny of our instrumented testing, the Outlander took 11.5 seconds to run from zero to 60 mph. With most small SUVs dispatching this sprint in anywhere from the high 8s to low 10s, it puts the Outlander out at the back of the pack. The gearbox makes the most of the engine's available thrust, downshifting promptly when needed. The tranny is also liquid smooth even under full-throttle acceleration, but it seems that somewhat slushy upshifts are the price paid for its seamless operation.
With a front disc/rear drum setup and without the benefit of ABS (it's optional), braking distances were on the long side; hauling the Outlander down from 60 mph took 145 feet, a number more closely associated with full-size SUVs. The pedal is linear and easy to modulate under normal driving, but under hard braking it wasn't easy to bring the binders to the point right before they locked up (called threshold braking). As always, we recommend getting ABS if it's available and surmise that, had our vehicle been so equipped, it would have posted a stopping distance five to 10 feet shorter.
An independent suspension consisting of struts up front and a multilink, coil spring setup out back holds up the Outlander. Whether you go with an all-wheel-drive or two-wheeler Outlander, the tire size (225/60R16) is the same, though the tires themselves are different brands. The Yokohama Geolanders found on our front-driver provided the requisite stance, plenty of grip in the corners for this class of vehicle and a quiet ride at freeway speeds. Through the winding sections of our test loop, the Outlander felt composed with light but precise steering and, even when driven somewhat aggressively, a minimum of body roll. Zipping through the slalom, our test jockey noted that a few times the steering's power assist lagged a bit as he quickly flicked the wheel left and right. Though the Outlander was stable, its 58.6-mph trip through the cones makes it a few mph slower than the Escape and CR-V. Obviously, unless one plans on running autocross events with their Outlander, this minor deficit should be unnoticeable.
A major benefit of this type of SUV ("car-based" with a unibody architecture as opposed to being "truck-based" with a separate, heavy-duty frame) is more comfortable ride quality, which the Outlander delivered overall but the sharpest impacts. Running at 70 mph on the freeway, the Outlander is fairly quiet save for some wind noise around the A-pillars, which is typical for an SUV.
Although it lags behind the class leaders in outright performance, the Outlander is not without its virtues. Its unique looks, classy cabin, pleasant ride characteristics and user-friendly functionality will win over its share of fans. For the reasons that folks buy mini SUVs, such as to handle the daily commute and to haul playthings (like snowboards, mountain bikes and kayaks) to the playgrounds (the mountains, trailheads or lakes), the Outlander should prove more than adequate.
System Score: 8.0
Components: This is one of those systems that has a poor radio coupled to excellent speakers. As a result, you get a stereo that is difficult to operate but sounds wonderful.
This Infinity-branded system begins with a smallish head unit crammed into a single-DIN opening. Controls on the radio are crowded, with undersized buttons and poor ergonomics. The preset buttons at the bottom of the radio faceplate are crammed together with virtually no space between them, making the head unit difficult to use while driving. Also, because of the small size of the head unit, the system is under-featured, missing some of the accoutrements we've come to expect on late-model systems, such as radio data systems (RDS) and digital signal processing (DSP). Instead you get a bare-bones radio that scarcely meets the minimum. Luckily, the head unit includes a built-in six-disc CD changer. Also, the system has no steering wheel controls.
Things get much better in the speaker department. Speaker locations and sizes include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus a similarly sized pair of midbass drivers in the front doors. A fine pair of dome tweeters graces the A-pillars.
Performance: This is an excellent-sounding system. We put it through its paces with a number of different kinds of music, and for the most part it shined on every one. Bass response was particularly impressive, especially considering the absence of a subwoofer or any driver in the system larger than a 6.5-inch cone. Bass was not only deep and rich, but punchy, with great attack on percussion across a wide range of single paths. Mids exhibited good detail and intricacy as well, while highs, due to the excellent placement and aiming of the separate tweeters, presented a superb soundstage in the front seats. Although we found the upper register just slightly snaky and raspy, this was more than made up for by the impressive dispersion pattern of the tweets. Acoustic strings sounded lush and warm, horns blared without blazing, and female vocals were just ever so slightly overcooked. Finally, this system played really loud, so for you head-bangers out there, pull out Metallica's "Kill 'Em All" and do some brain damage. All in all, an exuberant and impressive-sounding system.
Best Feature: Great bass response.
Worst Feature: Small head unit.
Conclusion: It's a never-ending battle. Seems it's really hard to find a system that ranks high in both functionality and sound. In the case of the 2003 Mitsu Outlander, you'll find an awesome-sounding system tied to a funky, clunky head unit. We had no choice but to knock off serious points from the front end of this puppy. But if you like great sound and aren't put off by a radio that needs a serious dose of mega-vitamins, perhaps this one's for you. Turn it up and put a bag over its head. Scott Memmer
Senior Editor Brent Romans says: Just like reality TV shows, the amount of compact SUVs available continues to expand. With so many choices, how are you supposed to choose? Which SUV will be the next American Idol? Well, fortunately for you, I've driven just about all of them and can report with fair authority as to the particular advantages and disadvantages of each. The Outlander stacks up pretty well. It has all of the basics covered. It drives fine. There's enough power for everyday use. Its styling, particularly in front, is at least distinctive. It seems comfortable. The cargo hold is of decent size. If you are shopping for a vehicle in this class, I'd certainly suggest checking out the Mitsubishi, as it just might suit your needs and desires. I suspect that I'd probably end up with either a Honda CR-V or a Ford Escape; the CR-V has Honda reliability, and the Escape has the best driving dynamics of the class. But the Outlander certainly isn't a bad choice.
Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick says: I love this segment. These vehicles are made for people like me mother of one who doesn't want to climb into an Escalade and doesn't like to think of herself as minivan material. The first time I saw a Toyota RAV4, I thought it would be my next vehicle. But then I saw a Honda CR-V, and then a Subaru Forester, and a Ford Escape my allegiance quickly moving from brand to brand. These are all really fine vehicles with similar power, comparable cargo capacity and good value. I like the Mitsubishi Outlander for the same reasons I like the rest of its competitors. It sits up high enough to offer a good view of the road ahead, but doesn't require a step ladder to climb into the cabin. It has adequate around-town power and gets good gas mileage. You can strap a kid into the backseat and still have room for the stroller and six bags of groceries in the rear. Is there anything in particular that stands out to me on the Outlander? No, not really. But since it's the latest vehicle to join this segment, it'll probably become my first choice.
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