2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV First Drive | Edmunds

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV First Drive

The Family SUV That's Also a Plug-In Hybrid


All four wheels of our 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV scrabble for traction as we negotiate another hairpin bend on this steeply climbing dirt road. It's a reasonably well-maintained single-lane truck trail of the sort you find in national forests, but the very fact that we're here at all is somewhat unusual.

That's because our all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi crossover SUV is running entirely on electricity, with its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine lying dormant. As ever, PHEV stands for plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, and in this case, this means our trusty Mitsu crossover is toting enough battery power to keep going on this forest trail for an EPA-rated 22 miles — on level terrain, at least.

But limited EV cruising range doesn't mean this trip is destined to be short-lived. Once the main battery runs down, the engine will come alive, powering the front wheels directly in hybrid mode while simultaneously generating electricity to power the rear ones when the need arises. In this way, we can drive as far into the "outland" as our gas tank can carry us at a rated 25 mpg combined.

Plug-in hybrids are not exactly new, but our Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is nevertheless unique because this is a family-friendly SUV that's aimed at the affordable end of the market. With two years in sales already under its belt in other world markets, the Outlander PHEV is the first vehicle of its type that is not based on a pricey high-end luxury model. And for 2018, it's coming to the USA.

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

A Unique Powertrain
Mitsubishi's lineup of conventional gasoline-powered 2018 Outlanders features models available with either a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 166 horsepower or a 3.0-liter V6 that produces 224 horsepower. Four-cylinder models are available in front- or all-wheel drive, but the V6 GT is strictly an all-wheel-drive machine.

The 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is available only with all-wheel drive, and the total output of its unique powertrain is 197 horsepower. Actually, the front wheels are powered by a 117-horsepower 2.0-liter engine, and this is coupled to a hybrid system, which is composed of a 60-kilowatt electric motor and a generator. There's no driveshaft leading to the rear wheels because they are powered by a second 60-kW electric motor that's mounted under the cargo deck. The underbody tunnel space normally occupied by the driveshaft is where you'll find the 12-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and a thicket of orange cables that hook it all together.

A 12-kWh battery pack might be expected to deliver more than 22 miles of range in another vehicle. But the Outlander PHEV is a 4,178-pound SUV, not a compact sedan, and its rated electricity consumption rate of 45 kWh per 100 miles tells the tale. By comparison, the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid can go 53 miles on electricity with an 18-kWh battery pack because it consumes just 31 kWh every 100 miles.

It takes a leisurely 3.5 hours to recharge the Outlander PHEV using standard 240-volt Level 2 electric-vehicle charging equipment. If you use the included 120-volt Level 1 backup cord, it'll take between eight and 13 hours to recharge, depending on the state of your home wiring. But these are not your only choices for recharging, because the Outlander PHEV also supports 400-volt Level 3 CHAdeMO charging equipment that'll fill the battery to 80 percent in just 25 minutes. Level 3 support is common in pure EVs because of their much larger batteries, but the Outlander is the only PHEV we know of that supports DC fast charging.

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Multiple Modes
With a full battery, the Outlander PHEV driver can choose to start off in EV Drive mode. This is a zero-emission mode in which the front wheels are driven by the front electric motor, with the rear motor joining in to enhance efficiency, traction or stability as determined by the Super All-Wheel Control (S-AWC) system. It's also possible to engage a four-wheel-drive lock feature that simulates the 50-50 torque split of a locked center differential.

Series Hybrid mode engages if you mash the throttle or when the battery otherwise can't meet demand, and that's when the engine comes to life to power the generator to make additional electricity for the two drive motors. The driver can also manually select this as a battery charge mode to build up the battery for reserve power.

The third mode is Parallel Hybrid mode. This is the default state during extended freeway cruising or any time after the battery runs down, and it's how regular hybrids — ones that don't plug in — operate all the time. The engine dominates the proceedings, and the electric motors and generator help out when necessary using electricity recovered during regenerative braking events or generated during those fleeting instances when the engine's optimum efficiency point results in more power than the driver needs. The driver can also select this mode when the battery is full to preserve EV mode for later on. Mitsubishi calls this Battery Save mode, while we call it Date Mode.

Because it has electric motors at both ends, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is particularly good at regenerative braking, in which both drive motors are temporarily reconfigured to use their magnetism to turn motion into electricity rather than the other way around. The Mitsubishi also has a highly intuitive five-level regeneration system that helps the driver get the most out of it using steering-mounted shift paddles.

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Some Side Effects
If you're thinking all of this sounds like a lot of hardware, you're right. The Outlander PHEV is no larger than any other Outlander, and the Mitsubishi engineers have done an admirable job of packaging all this hardware to minimize the trade-offs in packaging efficiency. But there have been sacrifices.

Front and rear headroom and legroom are unaffected, and you'd be hard-pressed to tell the PHEV from a standard Outlander model when you're seated inside. But this only applies to the first two rows of seating because the Outlander PHEV is strictly a five-passenger machine. It does not have the third-row seat common to other Outlanders, although we don't consider it much of a loss in passenger capacity. That's because no Outlander is really large enough to house a third row that offers credible seating for anyone other than small kids anyway.

The rear cargo deck is a bit higher, too, which eats into cargo space somewhat. Rated capacity behind the second row dips from 34.2 to 30.4 cubic feet — a loss of 11 percent. And you won't find a temporary spare tire under the floor because the PHEV uses that space for the hybrid hardware and substitutes a tire inflation kit instead. Farther underneath, some of the components hang down a bit more such that ground clearance is 7.3 inches instead of the usual 8.5 inches.

Most of this is small beer compared to our biggest gripe about the Outlander PHEV's packaging, which is a rather significant loss of gasoline tank capacity. The AWD 2.4-liter gasoline model averages 26 mpg combined and can carry 16.6 gallons, which is 432 miles of cruising range. The tight packaging of the PHEV allows for only an 11.3-gallon tank. At an average of 25 mpg on gasoline, this represents just 283 miles of cruising range. Add in the 22 miles of plug-in battery electric range (which you can realistically refill no more often than once per day on an extended road trip, if at all), and the total rises to a middling 305 miles, which is still 127 miles shy of the 2.4-liter gasoline model. The comparison is even more unkind if we consider the front-wheel-drive 2.4-liter model, which is good for 27 mpg combined and 448 miles per tank.

But it's not all bad news. The PHEV's slightly smaller cargo area sports an optional 110-volt power outlet that's rated for 1,500 watts. You can run some serious camping and tailgating equipment from this vehicle, and the large main battery pack and the engine's Battery Charge mode can both support it as long as there's fuel in the tank.

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Visually Similar
If not for some obvious PHEV graphics, you'd have a hard time telling the 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV apart from the conventional gasoline-powered version of the current-generation Outlander that's been on sale for three years. The front grille differs slightly, there are chrome accents for the rocker sills, and the 225/55R18 tires are mounted on aluminum alloy wheels that have PHEV-specific black accents. Also both rear fenders of the PHEV have fuel doors — the usual one on the left for gasoline plus another one on the right that hides the electric plug-in receptacles.

There's not much different inside either. The PHEV is sold in SEL or GT trim, so certain premium Outlander features such as leather seats and dual-zone climate controls that come standard on the regular SEL and GT are standard here. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto underpin the same AM/FM/XM/HD touchscreen audio system, and the same option packages are available along the same SEL-GT fault lines, too. The only real PHEV-specific gear amounts to a four-spoke steering wheel, an EV mode button and a unique shifter on the center console, and shift paddles reconfigured to manipulate the aforementioned five-level regenerative braking. Also there are some extra pages of PHEV detail hidden in the depths of the central touchscreen's menus.

In fact, you might even see a 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV with the optional factory tow hitch because this plug-in hybrid is rated to tow the same 1,500 pounds as its 2.4-liter gasoline counterpart. We can only imagine what towing would do to the PHEV's already pitiful cruising range, but we think it's great that Mitsubishi has even bothered, because a trailer hitch receiver is a nice thing for any SUV to have, even if you only ever hang a bike rack from it.

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Behind the Wheel
Our drive of the 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV was admittedly brief and confined largely to unpaved surfaces, but we were nevertheless able to appreciate the power and traction-management prowess afforded by its twin-motor all-wheel-drive design. At no time did any of its tires lose traction or break free on the loose, pebbly surface. Those first EV-powered 22 miles are utterly quiet, too, which is a strangely odd feeling while climbing an off-road grade. At first blush, we think this PHEV system seems well-suited to soft-road car camping excursions, so long as the road surface isn't more uneven than this vehicle's modest ground clearance can handle.

Downhill, the multistep off-throttle regenerative braking system proved to be particularly easy to control. There are five steps to choose from, not including the freewheeling zero position that's meant to feel like normal engine braking. Step 2 is the off-throttle default when the selector is in D, while Step 4 is the default in position B, which is what most hybrids have in place of L because there are no fixed gears. Compared to other schemes we've sampled, the Mitsu's easy-to-reach shift paddles proved to be a superior way to make changes in the regeneration modes, particularly as a way to tweak the feel of the off-throttle braking into tight corners on pavement.

Apart from this, the Outlander PHEV drives and feels like a garden-variety Outlander. The seats are every bit as comfortable. The steering wheel feels nicely chunky even though it seems a tad too far away at its closest telescopic position. The various dashboard controls are as logical to decipher and easy to reach as ever. And the PHEV's interior color palette and list of standard equipment are very nice since this model is sold only with the best two of the Outlander's five grades of interior trim.

2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Cost of Entry
Plug-in hybrids are always costlier because they have all of the usual gasoline drivetrain components plus many of the electric components of a pure electric vehicle. Still, the 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV manages to make a financial case for itself, although only so long as the current federal tax credit for EVs and PHEVs remains in place.

This credit varies with battery size, and the 12-kWh pack in the Outlander PHEV is currently good for a $5,836 federal tax credit. (You'll want to confirm this with your tax professional of course.) But delayed gratification is necessary if you buy because a credit is not an instant rebate. If you lease, on the other hand, most dealers will slice off the credit from the transaction cost because as lessors they get the credit themselves (and have to deal with the associated paperwork).

With that in mind, the 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL PHEV is set to start at $34,595 (before destination charges), which at first seems a lot higher than the conventional all-wheel-drive, 2.4-liter Outlander SEL's price of $27,995. But once you figure in the tax credit, the price difference drops to a very manageable $764. The same is mostly true on the GT side of the ledger as well. The Outlander GT PHEV costs $40,295, and the GT 3.0 V6 costs $34,595. Here the PHEV version with tax credit is actually $136 cheaper, but the conventional GT does have the more expensive combination of a powerful V6 engine and a traditional six-speed automatic.

All of this is a good start, but it's clear to us that a more comprehensive full test is necessary before we can thoroughly dissect the 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and understand its fortes and foibles. For now, the Outlander PHEV seems worthy of a second look, if for no other reason that a reasonably affordable family SUV that also happens to be a PHEV happens to exist in the first place.

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