For a brand that had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel in this market five years ago, Mitsubishi is climbing out of a hole that most people felt was insurmountable. The key: crossovers, three of them in fact. If not for its Outlander series of small crossovers we would be talking about Mitsubishi in the past tense — like Mercury, Isuzu, Suzuki, Saturn, Plymouth and, well, you get the idea.
The swift consumer conversion from cars to crossovers is so significant that industry pundits are now openly wondering if the remaining car-focused driver is a large enough segment to support the countless models and brands of four-door sedans that still exist. Toyota says yes, they are still the car juggernaut, and Honda says yes, but Ford, FCA and several other automakers are reducing automobile output to mere fractions of total production. Like Mitsubishi.
With Mitsubishi sales up 16 percent year-to-date (sales of our featured Outlander Sport have increased 35 percent) the brand has clawed its way past Lincoln, Land Rover, Volvo, Porsche, Tesla and several other automakers on the sales charts. Now part of a Nissan and Renault international alliance, Mitsubishi actually seems like a better long-term bet in the market than some of these previously mentioned brands.
An entry-level brand for decades, the Outlander Sport is a subcompact five-door looking for love in the heart of a burgeoning marketplace. Exactly 16 inches shorter than its Outlander sibling — the model upon which it is based — the Sport obviously has less second row space and a shorter cargo compartment, but the shortcomings end there. The features and content are similar, the options too, while a proliferation of models and prices should help buyers find happiness at livable numbers. Base front-drive ES is only $20,295. Loaded SEL 4WD starts at $25,895 before optional features shown are added: 710-watt Rockford-Fosgate audio, panoramic sunroof, forward collision system, lane departure system and automatic high beams.
Power comes from two different four-cylinder engines. A 2.0-liter 148-hp engine is standard with a 2.4-liter 168-hp motor optional. Each is partnered with a CVT automatic transmission, but neither motor is mated to a power-generating turbocharger or electric battery pack to increase efficiency. Still, the realized fuel economy for our Octane Blue Sport bested the EPA highway rating of 28 mpg by over two miles per gallon during its visit, surpassing the magical 30-mpg threshold that makes these compact “wagons” so much more popular than the small cars they are based on. With a lockable 4WD switch, an expanding cargo hold, and a comfortable elevated seating position, the Outlander Sport checks off the boxes that buyers are seeking.
Controls are straight out of standardized operation — fluid switches, stalks and buttons, right where they should be. There is push-button start. The shifter is a conventional console lever. Even the steering wheel buttons are intuitive. Only the touch-screen audio/entertainment frustrates, as these tiny touch-points are difficult to access while driving and strongly suggest the need to return to common knobs and buttons.
After a few days with the Outlander Sport, it is clear that Mitsubishi copied the Korean playbook: include lots of sensible, likeable features at a low price, burnish the exterior with attractive styling and the latest LED lighting, price the vehicle aggressively and voila! Watch the turnstiles count the customers. Most buyers won’t protest the less than perfect ride and handling, because their previous car was worn out and much compromised, and besides, they will have a new-car warranty with a crossover that will have more meaningful bells, whistles and safety gear than anything else they were driving.
The rub will be if consumers get picky and do some comparison shopping against the rest of this segment. With rival names Honda HR-V, Subaru Crosstrek, Hyundai Kona, Mazda CX-3, Nissan Kicks and Ford EcoSport, shoppers might find deals or certain components that swing the tide away from the Sport.
Mitsubishi has a strategy for that position; its quality scores have been climbing, a lot. Safety sells. Fancy sound systems, auto climate controls, heated leather seats and big sunroofs sell. But quality sells once and again on resale. Quality sells reputation and improves earnings long-term.
Hitched to Nissan and Renault, Mitsubishi will now share engineering on hybrid/electrics, sophisticated four-wheel drive systems and turbo-motors. And crossover design. And not just here, but in all its markets. Long view, it’s probably good again to be a Mitsubishi retailer.