Sub-compact class crossovers are playing a large role in the whole crossover expansion. Which seems really odd, because as recently as five or six years ago, automakers struggled to sell hatchback compact cars in this market — a fixture of the new car market in the rest of the world. Now, crossovers, all with five-door layouts, are the rage.
Traditionally a niche player in the American market, Asian automaker Mitsubishi has played at the margins, trying to be a viable entry-level, low-price option for buyers. The Evo sports sedan pushed the envelope some, and would have been more popular with some continuous improvement, while the Eclipse coupe — perhaps their best known product — was abandoned before it should have been. And while Mitsu sells lots of trucks in other markets, it has struggled mightily to make inroads in the truck-heavy North American market.
These product cycle ups-and-downs have led to inconsistent sales volumes. With only five offerings in showrooms now, the tiny Mirage (built in Thailand), the compact Lancer sedan, the least expensive electric car available — the I-Miev, plus the compact Outlander and this week’s subcompact Outlander Sport crossovers, one can be forgiven at observing the gaps in the lineup.
The Outlander Sport is trying to do yeoman duty against rivals named Honda HR-V, Chevy Trax, Jeep Compass, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX3, Nissan Juke, Subaru XV Crosstrek and other subcompact class crossover wagons with larger dealer networks, more development dollars and bigger marketing campaigns.
To make the Outlander Sport work, Mitsubishi has thrown a lot of “stuff” into the vehicle. From a visual and perception outlook, it works. The Outlander Sport looks interesting, even inviting to the target audiences — both inside and out. Content is the key asset to many buyers today; how are they entertained, amused and otherwise engaged, as driving is not their main mission.
In top SEL trim, the Outlander Sport pulls off this win with a long list of features. The 2.4-liter 168-hp four-cylinder engine from the longer Outlander is included here, replacing the 148-hp 2.0-liter motor. A CVT automatic replaces the manual transmission, while Mitsubishi’s All Wheel Control AWD system, with a locking button to keep the four-wheel traction engaged when necessary, augments the standard front-wheel drive.
Outside, there are LED taillights, front fog lamps, heated power-folding mirrors, 18-inch wheels and enough chrome trim strategically employed in the fascia and body-sides to make the crossover look modern in this raging category. Up top, a huge panoramic sunroof exceeds anything else in this class.
More “stuff” inside moves buyer impressions, but also the price. A base Sport starts at under $20,000. Our sampled SEL lists for over $26,000 — which isn’t a deal breaker, but it does place the Sport into other price points with compact crossovers that offer more polish and performance.
Some of the notable equipment includes heated leather seating, power adjustable for the driver only, rain-sensing wipers, auto-climate controls, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift lever, steering wheel paddle shifters for the CVT (why?) plus a keyless ignition. A rear camera is included as well as Bluetooth access, Digital radio, and Sirius. A 6.1-inch center-dash touchscreen handles the info/entertainment relay.
All is well; the interior works with good seating, a convenient center console (with multiple slots and sockets) plus sight lines are decent despite the relatively low roof line looking to the rear. The rear seating is good if not spacious, but the intended audience in this space tends to be children not football players. You can just reach the release levers for the folding seatbacks from the cargo hold if you contort your hand, as the short cargo hold will necessitate strategic packing — or folded seats.
Cruising is relaxed, if not enthusiastic, as the CVT and engine don’t feel inclined to hurry. Others have done CVT automatics with less-intrusive reactions, perhaps a day at the Nissan CVT spa would be helpful here. And the Mitsu’s older 2.4-engine doesn’t deliver the kind of fuel economy necessary to match the big players in this subcompact group; 22/27 mpg on the EPA projections with 25 mpg realized in rural driving.
The Sport’s ride and handling also drew attention, but not acclaim. There is a lot of body lean in relatively low-speed cornering and the choppy ride over uneven surfaces belies the independent suspension below. With 105 inches between the wheels — the same as the larger Outlander, and longer than most rivals — a better ride was expected.
High points have to include the attractive interior layout and the plethora of features. Buyers will like the subtle pieces that make ownership more valuable. The styling also sets the Mitsu apart from its rivals, some of which look downright strange. A low entry price will entice some buyers too; front drive models with 30-mpg for under $20K is reasonable for shoppers who are tired of buying used cars that cost more in the long run.
That said, the Outlander Sport would benefit from some chassis work to enhance the overall ride and handling balance and Mitsubishi has to develop, or employ, more fuel-efficient powertrains to reach higher fuel economy standards and to meet the competition. Low gas prices are here for a while, but not forever.