Psst — wanna hear a secret? Mitsubishi, the Asian automaker formerly known for its innovative vehicles like Eclipse and Montero, among others, and recently seen coasting through its meager existence in the world’s largest markets on budget-based products, is still alive and poised to become relevant again. Unlike rivals like Isuzu, Suzuki and Daewoo, which have been sucked into the automotive abyss, Mitsubishi has been consumed by the Renault/Peugeot/Nissan Alliance — the same group that took Opel off of GM’s hands last year. Just think, Mitsubishi will be working with Mercedes, yes Mercedes, like the Renault/Nissan folks are for future technologies. Mitsubishi lives!
After 1,000 wintry miles in the latest Outlander SEL compact crossover — one of only four remaining Mitsubishi models in this market — the impressions ranged from admiration for this gracefully aging platform, while a longing for more refined integration of components and newer dynamics were inescapable from our time together.
The Outlander is the largest “compact” crossover Mitsubishi sells here (with a third version coming soon, along with an expensive plug-in hybrid model to meet mileage standards in California). At 185 inches long, think Chevy Equinox length despite a slightly shorter wheelbase at 105 inches. Packed into the cabin is a comfortable set of powered front seats in top SEL trim, a roomy second row layout that splits, slides and reclines separately, plus a tiny third-row seating design that also folds out of the way. Given the Outlander’s modest footprint, there is a desire in the market for small three-row crossovers and this Mitsubishi fits the bill.
While buyers apparently are shifting their attention away from fundamental dynamics, sensing that differences in chassis and engine performance are frequently minor between competitors, Mitsubishi has thrown its parts portfolio into the SEL to win hearts and minds with a host of appealing features. Heated leather seats, heated leather steering wheel, Apple and Android Auto compatibility, passive access and push-button start, dual-zone auto-climate, selectable all-wheel drive, power liftgate, plus blind-spot detection, cross traffic alerts and lane-change assist all come standard on the SEL level for under $29,000 — base price for a front-drive Outlander is under $24,000. Rain-sensing wipers, halogen lighting, rear privacy glass, 18-inch alloy wheels, heated and power-folding side mirrors as well as a new 7-inch touchscreen complete the standard pieces.
Add the SEL Touring package ($3,000) to get LED lighting all around, forward collision assist, lane departure warning system, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, multi-view rear camera system, big sunroof and a 710-watt Rockford-Fosgate sound system. All nice stuff that aids the ownership experience.
Power comes from a 2.4-liter in-line four making 166 hp. Teamed with a CVT transmission, EPA mileage ratings are 24/29/26 mpg; our realized economy reached 26.7 mpg, which is admirable given the low temperatures and snowy conditions. A V-6 is optional.
Outlander high points include excellent visibility all around. The roof pillars are narrow and the crossover’s styling enhances your view out, rather than impedes. With the selectable-mode camera setup, no Outlander driver should ever experience frustration about not seeing the vehicle’s corners. This was further supported by the vehicle’s airflow design — after 100 miles on a snowy highway trip, the rear window was still dry and clear, a not so insignificant feature.
While the power output number is modest, the Outlander cruises easily and never felt strained. There is a balance between ride and handling that will please the majority of users, plus ingress and egress are conveniently simple — one of the many virtues of a five-door crossover. Drivers living in the Snowbelt will also like the three-mode all-wheel control (Mitsubishi parlance for AWD) with normal, snow and sport modes working to enhance traction.
Steering wheel buttons are decipherable in the dark with good tactile feel for making changes, however the new touchscreen’s tiny interactive spaces often result in unintended inputs. With a crisp graphic face that looks modern, plus a tiny volume knob, the setup is most definitely an upgrade that needs only a larger display.
Autonomous driving proponents claim that we will soon have safe, accident-free travel. Three days driving in inclement weather derided that opinion, as the Mitsubishi’s sensors all signaled inoperation due to the dirty elements blocking their “view.” Forward braking assist, lane departure warning, blind-spot detection and adaptive cruise were all relegated to inoperable as slush, ice and muck covered the Outlander. This is an industry problem, not just Mitsubishi, and it is hazardous to “train” drivers into a state of submission about their vehicle’s capabilities and then render them useless when most needed and making the driver actually drive again. I think we know what the results will be.
But at least Mitsubishi will be here to participate in the development of needed improvements. Once a force in off-road technologies as well as superior small AWD sports cars, the alliance with Nissan and Renault should revive a brand that used to be much larger than Subaru, Kia and Hyundai in this market.