Evolution is certainly a word often associated with the Mitsubishi brand. In this case, however, we're not talking about a turbocharged sport sedan. Instead, evolution refers to the redesigned third-generation 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander, a crossover SUV that has definitely evolved.
As with any redesign, however, the real question is whether the Outlander has evolved enough. We're talking about a hot segment here and being just good enough doesn't really cut it. Throw in the fact that this has been one of Mitsubishi's best-selling vehicles lately and this redesigned SUV is all the more important to the brand.
New Inside and Out
The most obvious change is the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander's exterior styling. It's a more conventional take on the crossover SUV, with rounded corners and large unadorned expanses of sheet metal. All of this was done in the name of improved aerodynamics, according to Brian Arnett, Mitsubishi's product strategy senior manager. The result is a 7 percent lower drag coefficient (from 0.36 to 0.33), which should help in the mileage department. Unfortunately, it also makes this Outlander a little bland. One of the defining characteristics of the previous-generation Outlander was its aggressive Evo-like styling. Now, it's looking a bit generic.
The 2014 Outlander's interior, on the other hand, is an undisputed improvement. A contemporary design, paired with more refined materials, brings the new model up to modern standards. Third-row seats are now standard for all trims and they're much better than the predecessor's rickety perches. That rearmost row is still very cramped, but Mitsubishi contends that these seats are meant for occasional use, and for children only.
The middle-row seats now slide and recline, and that allows for an additional 13 inches of maximum cargo length, but total capacity drops from a spacious 73 cubic feet to a merely average 63 cubes. The split tail/liftgate is replaced by a one-piece liftgate with a power option. Roof rails are also absent, though mounting points are present for aftermarket solutions.
Under the Hood and on the Road
Both existing engines are retained, so the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander is available with either a 2.4-liter four-cylinder or 3.0-liter V6 engine. Power output is about the same as before, with the four-cylinder generating 166 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque while the V6 delivers 224 hp and 214 lb-ft. The V6 is paired with a traditional six-speed automatic with shift paddles, while the base engine comes only with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and no paddles.
We found the base engine and CVT appropriate for city driving, but inadequate on the highway. Reaching freeway speeds required prolonged use of wide-open throttle, which is accompanied by a bovine drone from under the hood. The V6 is the obvious choice for highway duty, though its power delivery wasn't all that impressive either.
On the plus side, the new Outlander does promise greatly improved fuel economy. Mitsubishi claims a combined city/highway rating of 27 mpg for the front-wheel-drive four-cylinder and 23 mpg for the all-wheel-drive V6 (up from 22 mpg and 21 mpg, respectively): best-in-class for seven-passenger SUVs.
These gains are achieved via revised gear ratios and engine tweaks, along with new Eco driving modes. With the Eco modes engaged, throttle inputs are damped to Prius-like unresponsiveness and the air-conditioning is dialed back. For models equipped with the Super-All-Wheel Control (S-AWC ) all-wheel-drive system, the Eco mode forces front-drive-only operation until wheel sensors detect a loss in traction, at which point power is sent to the rear wheels.
Drivetrain-wise, the big news is still to come. A plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) model will hit showrooms in 2014. According to Masatoshi Hasegawa, corporate planning and EV Operations executive vice president, the Outlander was designed from the beginning for either a conventional gas engine or a plug-in hybrid drivetrain, which means cargo and interior space remain relatively identical for both. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine will be paired with an array of batteries for a promised 30 miles of electric-only range.
Behind the Wheel
From the driver seat, the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander manages its size well. On twisting roads the Outlander's handling proved capable as the S-AWC all-wheel-drive system, sourced from the 2013 Lancer Evolution, maximizes available grip. Even so, the lumbering crossover's tall ride height and threat of lurking understeer keeps the Outlander well outside the fun zone.
The new electric power steering offers respectable feedback. Ride quality is well controlled, too, as the Outlander's chassis does an adequate job of flattening out the ruts and bumps in the road. Were it not for the flat, firm seats and noticeable wind and road noise, we'd be fine logging hundreds of miles in a day. These flaws are less critical during daily commuting, allowing other improvements to shine. A new, sharper infotainment display and pleasantly powerful Rockford Fosgate audio system won't hurt, either.
Though owners will rarely need to traverse the wilderness, the Outlander is surprisingly adept at navigating rutted and rocky trails. In V6 GT form, it is limited mostly by its 8 inches of ground clearance and all-season tires.
Though the aforementioned changes may not win you over, safety advances to the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander might. Debuting this year is adaptive cruise control, paired with a Forward Collision Mitigation (FCM) system.
These options are not offered by any of the Outlander's rivals and should be particularly significant for safety-minded shoppers. The FCM uses the same radar monitor as the cruise control to sense impending collisions. Within 2 seconds of sensing a potential collision, visual and audible alarms are triggered. Then, if the driver fails to react, the system begins applying light brake pressure followed by full panic braking to bring the SUV to a halt.
We tested the FCM against a simulated stationary vehicle at 20 mph and it worked as advertised, though Mitsubishi did warn that it would not stop in time at higher speeds. If steering inputs are detected, the system disengages, giving full control back to the driver. If the driver feels the FCM is too intrusive, its sensitivity is adjustable or it can be completely disabled. Somewhat less unique in the segment is a standard driver-knee airbag and an available lane departure warning system, though we found the LDW far too sensitive and annoying.
A Much Improved Crossover
Standing out in the compact crossover segment isn't easy. In the Outlander's case, the fact that it offers standard seating for seven, unique safety features and eventually a plug-in hybrid variant, should help it overcome its lack of name recognition.
The more mainstream styling should also do it some favors as well. We're not fans of it, but compact SUVs sell on utility, not style. Efficiency is also key and this Outlander should deliver in that area, too. Turns out, evolution isn't such a bad thing for the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.