Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Since birth (1983), the Mitsubishi Montero has been attending the school of T-square design, getting straight A's every year. This is not a good thing. I've been more excited by staring at the cracks in my Los Angeles home's foundation than by looking at Mitsubishi's biggest SUV.
But for the all-new 2001 Montero, somebody at Mitsubishi wised up and dragged the Montero over to Bally's Total Fitness. Put it through some spinning, some bench pressing, a few lat pulls and -- presto! -- the Montero is buff.
And do you know what? It worked. The Montero officially looks cool. If it were a guy, the Montero would feel obligated to take off its shirt in public at every given opportunity. "Look at my mighty pectorals," it would say. "All you other SUVs are but flabby grapes!"
The new Montero's muscular fenders and sculpted body panels are quite a contrast from the original '83 model's rolling-box architecture. The first one was also rather slow (it had a SOHC four-cylinder engine). But that first Montero did offer good reliability and an independent front suspension, items that many SUVs of the time period lacked. By 1992, the second-generation Montero was out. It was more refined than the previous vehicle, and it offered third-row seating, V6 power and leather upholstery.
Throughout the Montero's history, Mitsubishi has kept an eye on off-road capability. The vehicle has dominated in off-road racing, most notably the Paris-Dakar rally. Recently, it swept first, second and third place in both the 1997 and 1998 rallies. Not too shabby.
But racing success thousands of miles away doesn't always translate to selling success in the States. By the 2000 model year, the Montero was being outclassed by vehicles like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Land Rover Discovery II. Both of these vehicles combine luxury and off-road prowess in a more interesting package.
The 2001 Montero (in either XLS or Limited trim) should be much more competitive. More than just the styling has been updated. Actually, Mitsubishi redesigned nearly all of the SUV's components.
The starting point is a completely new unibody structure in place of the former model's body-on-frame design. Mitsubishi says that this new frame is substantially stiffer and safer than the one before.
It's also bigger. Overall length is up 4 inches, the wheelbase is 2.2 inches longer, the front and rear tracks are 3 inches wider, and overall height is almost 2 inches lower. The payoff is improved interior room and a more stable feel. Curb weight compared to a 2000 model Montero is up 111 pounds.
The suspension is now fully independent. Front double wishbones and coil springs replace the front wishbones and torsion bars of the previous model, while a rear independent multi-link with coil-spring suspension replaces last year's three-link solid rear axle and coil springs.
Steering and braking hardware has also been improved. The steering is now a rack-and-pinion design, rather than the old recirculating-ball system. The brakes are still four-wheel discs, but there are now twin-piston front calipers and vented discs all around.
Further braking improvements are found in the ABS system. Because the rear wheels no longer share a common axle, both wheels have their own ABS channel, rather than a single channel that acts on the rear wheels as a pair. Additionally, there's an Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD) system that can improve braking performance when the Montero is towing or carrying a heavy load. Mitsubishi says the ABS system contains additional programming for low-speed four-wheel-drive operation to avoid "skating" on loose gravel or deep snow.
For horsepower, Mitsubishi revised the 3.5-liter V6 found in the previous Montero. Changes in the camshafts, air induction system and the exhaust have increased horsepower by three, added 12 foot-pounds of torque, and widened the power band. Horsepower is now 200 at 5,000 rpm and torque is 235 foot-pounds at 3,500 rpm.
So far, both the XLS and the Limited have the same hardware listed above. But there are differences in the transmissions. The XLS gets a four-speed automatic transmission and a standard part-time two-speed transfer case with shift-on-the-fly capability.
The Montero Limited is upgraded with a five-speed manumatic transmission that allows sequential shifting. This is similar to Chrysler's AutoStick or Porsche's Tiptronic, where the driver can select gears manually simply by slotting the shift lever to a separate gate and flicking the lever forwards or backwards.
The Montero Limited also gets a revised version of Mitsubishi's ActiveTrac. Now electronically controlled, this system offers the choice of two-wheel drive, full-time all-wheel drive, high-range 4WD, and low-range 4WD. In both 4WD modes, the center differential locks automatically. A torque-sensing limited-slip rear differential is standard on the Limited and optional on the Montero XLS.
Overall, these changes are quite impressive. At the Montero's introduction in Tucson, Ariz., we drove a Limited on paved roads, fire roads, and dedicated 4WD park trails. The new rear suspension improves ride quality noticeably on both pavement and over washboard on fire roads.
Though we would guess a Jeep Grand Cherokee would still beat a 2001 Montero in terms of pure off-road ability, the Mitsubishi is near the top of the class, and is certainly more of a mountain goat than many other current SUVs (The BMW X5, the Mercedes-Benz ML320 and the Lexus RX 300 are prime offenders.).
There's only one area where the Montero has a problem, and that's the V6. Mitsubishi might have improved the power output for 2001, but it is still not enough. Power output lags behind most other V6 engines in this class, and is completely overwhelmed by V8s.
To the Montero's credit, acceleration seemed perfectly adequate during our test drive. But for towing or hauling people and gear, we see the V6 quickly becoming overtaxed.
For city driving, the V6 isn't as much of an issue, and the Montero's new suspension is much more capable at providing a decent ride. Steering response is fairly accurate, and the five-speed automatic in the Limited seemed to pick the correct gears. There's still plenty of body roll, however, so the Montero won't beat an X5 anytime soon in terms of handling.
Inside, the 2001 Montero is still a seven-passenger vehicle, though it now offers more space for passengers and cargo. Total cargo volume is up 15 cubic feet, for a total of 82. Front- and middle-row occupants gain the most from the new dimensions, with increases in head-, leg-, shoulder and hip room. Side airbags are now standard for both the XLS and Limited.
Thanks to the new independent rear suspension, Mitsubishi was able to improve the third-row seat, giving it a similar design to that of the third-row seats found in the Honda Odyssey and Mazda MPV minivans. Called Stow & Go in the Montero, the seat can be folded and stored directly in the cargo-area floor to create a flat load floor. It can also be removed to further increase space. Just don't expect to put adults in this seat; legroom is a super-scant 19.4 inches.
One thing we weren't overly fond of in the last Montero was the gauge layout. Mitsubishi improved this, making the buttons more logical. The location of the giant sunroof is better, too, as it is now closer to the front passengers. Materials used are still average.
Notable standard interior features for the XLS include a 100-watt audio system with CD player, remote keyless entry, dual glove boxes and three 12-volt power outlets. The Limited gains leather interior trim, heated front seats, wood trim on the steering wheel, a 175-watt audio system, and an LCD multi-function display mounted on the dash. There's also an optional automatic climate control system for the Limited.
Mitsubishi expects most of the Monteros sold to be Limited models. The pricing seems to be good, with a base XLS at $30,997 and a fully optioned Limited at $36,897. Expect to see 2001 Monteros in dealerships midway through 2000.
So, this SUV could be a sure winner if only it had an optional V8. Despite its newly muscular flanks, other SUVs can still kick sand in the Montero's face.
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