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Car reviews - Mitsubishi - Challenger - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Value, blend of on-road manners and off-road ability, good value, relatively compact medium SUV
Room for improvement
Noisy engine, auto doesn’t hold gears, second-row seat folding arrangement

3 Dec 2009

YOU have to wonder sometimes what would turn back the tide of softroader SUVs such as Territory and Kluger, and the answer is not a single thing.

This type of SUV – a jacked-up car with no real off-road ability but refined city manners – is what the bulk of the market really wants, and the sales numbers have consistently proven that for years.

That does not mean there is no market for true off-road wagons in Australia, and especially those that have the right specifications and features, along with the right sticker price. This is where Mitsubishi hopes its new medium entrant the Challenger will fit the bill perfectly.

The Challenger looks the part, in an inoffensive, conservative and derivative way. The front looks much like Triton and the rest of it looks entirely forgettable. Which is a good thing, as it is unlikely to offend anyone.

The interior has some well-thought out elements but as a whole is not any huge leap forward in cabin design or layout. The dash has major controls placed up high and well marked, and the instruments are clear.

One of the few flaws is the silver finish of the air vent surrounds, which cause a distracting reflection in the windscreen in bright sunlight.

The parking sensor cancel button and rear air-conditioning switch in a recess low on the centre stack take a while to find too.

Curiously, the fitment of satnav in the XLS means that the standard trip computer in LS is removed – and is not included in the upper-grade model’s sat-nav package.

The old school transfer lever and high-range gear selector are set-up for left-hand drive, and so the gearshift is a bit of a reach to the left, while the transfer lever can rub against the driver’s knee.

Cabin storage is adequate, although Mitsubishi wants to put us on a cupholder diet. The cupholder recesses – two in the centre console, two in the second row fold-down armrest, two in the third-row sidewall moulding and one each in the door pockets – are on the small side. The door pockets and centre bin are not tiny, but neither are they generous.

So the controls and storage are not entirely cohesive, but the Challenger is one of the better SUVs for driver vision and occupant comfort.

The side mirrors are a useful size, the pillars are not too thick and the windows are not the size of a ship’s portholes, as they seem in some vehicles these days.

The roomy cabin offers front seats with secure side support. The second-row seat is flat, but still comfortable in the outer positions. The centre position is not ideal with its firm padding but at least the centre tunnel does not impede much on leg room.

The third-row seats in the seven-seater models have a simple tumble-forward one-third split on the right-hand side, which means that to get two kids into the third row from the kerbside of the car, you have to turf out two people sitting in the second row. Which becomes more complicated when they are in child seats or booster seats, which leaves the one-third split on the traffic side of the vehicle as the only access point, unless you get the kids to clamber up from the tailgate.

Speaking of child seats, the tether points are in the ceiling near the tailgate, with one bolted in and one supplied in the glovebox. Presumably you have to fit the second bolt and buy the third bolt yourself if required.

Most wagons and hatches now have the tether points integral with the seat, which is most convenient and takes least space. The ceiling-mounted tether points will get in the way of third-row occupants or luggage if fully loaded as a five-seater.

At least the third-row seat itself is comfortable, although restricted in headroom if approaching 180cm tall. Adults could last a short-to-medium distance back there without screaming to be let out.

While the cargo area is tiny with third row seats up (as is typical of medium seven-seat SUVs), with the third row folded into the floor the Challenger has a usefully large, squared-off load space. The second row tumbles forward leaving a deep, ceiling-to-floor space in that area of the cabin but not a fully flat cargo floor, which some find more useful.

The cargo area has a 12-volt accessory socket on the sidewall and four useful tie-down points, while the underslung full-size alloy spare still makes tyre changing a chore with a load in the back, as the wind-down crank point is deep into the cargo floor area.

Fire-up the 2.5-litre diesel and you will not mistake it for anything else. It has the characteristic diesel rattle and it only becomes more obvious as you drive around at low speeds.

This is not a quiet engine, and neither is it all that smooth. At least it provides good response down low when keeping up with traffic, although like many such turbo-diesels, turbo lag can cause a few heart-stopping moments when lunging for a gap in traffic and expecting an instant response.

In the mid-range, the 2.5-litre’s torque seem a little concentrated around its 2000rpm torque peak. Although it is fairly responsive, overtaking requires some planning. The transmission kicks down on hills to maintain speed.

The engine spins at about 1900rpm at 100km/h in top gear, near peak torque.

The transmission is smooth and the ratios seem about right, but the manual mode is not terribly effective, changing up about 300rpm short of redline, at 4200rpm.

The Challenger has one of the most sophisticated 4WD systems around, although it employs an old-school clunky lever to activate it. Maybe we are getting spoilt, but the latest generation of electronically engaged 4WDs systems seem so much easier to operate.

At least the Super Select transfer case offers the most choice of any 4WD system, with two-wheel drive, full-time four-wheel drive or centre diff locked high- or low-range for slippery off-road work.

Once low-range is engaged, the driver appreciates the Challenger’s adequate ground clearance and standard rear diff lock and a bonnet that is sufficiently curtailed to make placement on tracks relatively easy.

The traction control active on front wheels is not as strong as others, and while the rear diff lock is a definite plus, in some circumstances it seems to lack the traction of a well-sorted off-road traction control system.

Rear-axle articulation is okay rather than superb, and low-range reduction gearing in the auto we drove is like many autos in that it does not have a huge amount of engine braking. In fact, the vehicle we drove did not have engine braking at all, eventually, as it would automatically shift up to second gear at 3200rpm, despite being locked in first gear in manual mode.

The Challenger is like many separate-chassis, independent front and live rear-axle designs in that it will ride, handle and corner well enough for most requirements but is not the most dynamic or smooth riding of SUVs you need to buy a Territory for that.

The steering is quite accurate, though lacking in feel, and the Challenger adopts a lean though corners, although not as much as you would expect. The rear axle does not skip around much at all and the ride becomes surprisingly compliant at speed.

For what this is – an SUV wagon built on a ute frame – this is a reasonably well-sorted chassis.

If you’re looking for the last word in SUV innovation and design, you will find the Challenger wanting. But if a relatively nimble, smart-looking and straight forward wagon that really can go off-road, offers the promise of diesel economy and does not cost the earth is what you need, the Challenger will fit the bill admirably.

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