Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
With the ever-increasing glut of oversize gas-guzzling road-hogging sport-utes, the introduction of a vehicle that says "You don't need 300 horsepower to fetch groceries" is a welcome sight. In this case, it's the Mitsubishi Outlander, an all-new entry-level crossover vehicle that attempts to blend traditional station wagon utility with a stylish outer shell and the security of all-wheel drive.
The formula certainly isn't new. The Outlander's main competitor, the Subaru Forester, is already in its second generation, and there are plenty of other half wagon/half truck combos out there that claim to offer everything to everybody. So what is it about the Outlander that Mitsubishi hopes will set it apart from the crowd?
Well, for one thing, the distinctive styling is hard to overlook. While the Forester sticks with a more traditional boxy appearance, the Outlander goes for broke with a more, shall we say, distinctive look. We're not going to make any judgments as to whether it's good looking or not, but the Outlander certainly won't be mistaken for anything else on the road.
Although the two vehicles have differing stylistic philosophies, the Outlander is dimensionally similar to the Forester in most respects. It's longer (4 inches) and wider (not even a full inch) but stands at about the same overall height, depending on the trim level. This makes for an easy entry and exit, especially for those used to climbing up into taller sport-utes. Despite its lower ride height, however, the Outlander still gives drivers an elevated driving position for a clearer view of the road ahead.
Also like the Forester, the Outlander utilizes a four-cylinder engine for less weight and better fuel economy. Rated at 140 horsepower and 157 pound-feet of torque, the 2.4-liter four has enough power to give the Outlander a quick start, but from there on out, the thrust drops off quickly. Acceleration on the highway is leisurely at best, but the engine is refined enough that high-rpm passing maneuvers don't illicit much racket from under the hood.
The only transmission available is a four-speed automatic with Sportronic that allows manual gear control by moving the shift lever into a separate gate. We found the shift points perfectly acceptable in the normal drive mode, but for those who like to have a little bit more control, the Sportronic works well.
Living up to its billing as part-SUV, the Outlander offers both front- and all-wheel-drive versions. All-wheel-drive versions employ a fully automatic center differential that splits power 50/50 between the front and rear wheels under normal conditions. In slippery conditions, the differential automatically redirects power to those wheels with the most traction. We never encountered any such conditions on our introductory drive, but we've driven vehicles equipped with similar systems in slippery conditions and found them to work quite well.
Built on the same platform as the entry-level Lancer sedan, the Outlander shares the same basic suspension design. Enhancements like reinforced crossmembers and specially tuned springs are used to give the Outlander the added durability and all-terrain handling owners would expect from such a vehicle. Like we said, we were never able to venture off-road, but our test drive did include enough tight winding roads and wide-open highways to prove the Outlander a very competent and comfortable handler. It drives more like a car than a tall wagon, with only moderate body roll and a solid feel for the road.
Despite the Outlander's Lancer roots, the interior feels quite a bit larger thanks to the taller roof and a slightly longer wheelbase. There's plenty of room for long legs up front and both the driver and front passenger seats feature seat height adjusters and adjustable lumbar support. We found the seats supportive and comfortable throughout our drive, especially the firm side bolstering. The bench seat in the rear is a little flat, but passenger legroom and headroom was more than adequate, and the seatbacks recline for even more comfort.
The cargo area didn't seem as large and accessible as that of the Forester, and a subsequent spec check confirmed that the Outlander is indeed less spacious in back. With just over 24 cubic feet available with the seats up, the Outlander is almost 8 cubic feet short of the Forester's 32.1-cubic-foot hold. We did, however, find the liftover low, and the liftgate easy to open and close with one hand.
Two different trim levels allow you to stick with either maximum functionality or add a little bit of luxury. The base LS is well-equipped with the usual array of power windows, locks and mirrors; AM/FM/CD stereo; air conditioning; tilt steering wheel; cruise control; and cloth seating surfaces. An optional Convenience package adds keyless entry, roof rails, floor mats and a cargo cover, while an Appearance package includes alloy wheels and tinted windows.
Stepping up to the XLS trim level adds a two-tone color scheme, white-faced gauges, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and upgraded cloth upholstery. There are two additional options packages available: the Sun and Sound Package that adds an Infinity audio system and a sunroof, and the Luxury Package that includes heated seats and mirrors, leather upholstery, side airbags, a compass and an outside temperature gauge.
No matter how you spec it out, the interior's overall look is clean and functional, with deeply recessed gauges (with chrome accents on XLS) and easy-to-reach three-dial climate controls. Extensive use of soft touch materials adds a warm, comfortable feel, while numerous storage bins and map pockets keep it practical. The two-tone color scheme and faux metal accents on the XLS look great, but the optional leather upholstery isn't quite as impressive. We also noted that, like other Mitsubishis, the Outlander's radio controls are too small and crowded together to use without having to look at them and getting distracted.
Like much of its competition, the Outlander is neither overly sporty nor especially rugged. It is, however, thoroughly competent when it comes to the kind of driving most buyers encounter on a regular basis. The suspension is comfortably taut, there's plenty of passenger room and should you encounter some snow or rain along the way, it'll handle the ensuing slipperiness without a hiccup. We would have liked to have seen a little more power under the hood, but considering that most buyers in this category seem to favor economy over horsepower, we don't consider it a major flaw.
In fact, the Outlander's inclination toward frugality it really what it's all about. No unneeded space or unnecessary components, no gigantic mud tires or a dual-range transfer case. This is a vehicle for drivers who realize that all they need is some extra room in back and a little all-wheel-drive help when the weather turns nasty. Oh and maybe a little bit more style than your average station wagon. For those kinds of drivers, the Outlander is a sport-utility worth looking into.
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