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

Our Opinion

We like
Off-road abilities, OK on-road manners, value for money, strong diesel engine, good turning circle, long Mitsubishi warranty
Room for improvement
OK on-road manners, firm ride, low-range gearlever fouls driver’s knee, noisy diesel engine, no trip computer on top-line XLS due to sat nav, cramped rear seat, LHD split-fold rear seat bias, roof-mounted child-seat anchorage points

29 Jan 2010

IT’S not just the (tragic) space shuttle connection that sees the Mitsubishi Challenger come over all 1986 on us.

Back in the days of Chernobyl and Dogs In Space there was a growing trend towards the wagon-isation of the one-tonne pick-up truck, as witnessed by the Toyota 4-Runner and Nissan Pathfinder.

You might recall that both were begat by the Hilux and Navara utes respectively, with the nose section on both vehicles being the only real visual connection between the everyday workhorse and family off-roader plaything.

Fresh, butch and with more attitude than Bea Arthur in The Golden Girls, the Japanese duo were the Sandman and Sundowner panel vans of the era.

But anybody who has ever had the pleasure of driving or riding in one of these “sport utility vehicles” (as the Yanks dubbed them) were always reminded of the truck DNA lurking underneath, from the tight cabin packaging to the wayward handling and punishing ride.

It took Mitsubishi all of about 15 years to crash this party with its first Challenger, derived from the Triton pick-up of the time, only to discover that the 4-Runner was six feet under (usurped by the far more civilised – and successful – Prado), the Pathfinder II had gone plush, and most 4WD buyers were going gaga over compact SUVs.

Anyway, the Mitsubishi soldiered on until 2007, never selling more than a couple of thousand a year, and with only the forgotten Rodeo-based Holden Frontera and Ssangyong Musso to keep it company in the cheaper end of the truck-based medium SUV market (until the Pathfinder got its ladder-frame groove back with the Mk3 model in 2006).

Now, surprisingly, there’s a new Challenger – and we can feel another 1980s revival coming on. Holy Baltimora, Batman!

But some hard facts first are in order here.

Though this PB model is based on today’s ML Triton 4x4 pick-up and so again comes complete with a separate chassis and dual-range transmission, it’s more than just a truck with a neat five-door wagon body bolted on top.

There’s a new three-link live axle rear end in place of the workmanlike leaf-spring suspension of the ute, as well as a 200mm cut in the wheelbase (for whatever that’s worth), and six airbags.

You can also option the PB Challenger with a two-person forward-facing third-row seat, along with a host of other convenience and comfort features.

Our XLS test car included climate-control air-conditioning, cruise control, 17-inch alloy wheels, a rear differential lock, side steps, roof rails, chrome grille, exterior door handles and mirrors, leather seats, a powered driver’s seat, wood-trim, an audio upgrade, satellite navigation, reversing camera and video jack, Bluetooth, a cargo blind and cargo room net, privacy glass, fog lights, headlight washers and rear parking sensors.

And since it costs between about $8000 and $15,000 less than the larger, equivalently equipped NT Pajero (which features monocoque construction despite its impressive off-road capabilities), the Challenger’s place in the world of the 2010s suddenly becomes somewhat clearer.

But does it seem like a wagon-ised 1980s pick-up truck like the squeezy old one felt?

First impressions are promising.

For starters, the body is smooth and contemporary, with slick pullout door handles, flared wheel arches, a subtle upsweep of the side window profile, and no tired 4x4 clichés like tailgate mounted spare wheels. Only head-on does the Triton connection click.

But we think Mitusbishi is missing a trick here because the Challenger might be too wagonoid for its intended market, lacking the beefcake bulk of those 4-Runners and Pathfinders of yesteryear. Remember how proud Marty McFly was of his foxy Toyota 4x4 at the end of Back To The Future? He wouldn’t give this one a second glance.

Indeed, on its rather narrow and high tracks, there’s a sad tippy-toed stance to the PB that suggests pedestrians walking by should stand back a bit.

Open the solid and sturdy doors (especially the smallish rear ones) and climb inside, and the Triton truck origins are even more obvious.

A high floor sill, coupled with flat seats, necessitate legs-stretched-out seating up front and an annoying knees-up posture for the poor folk out back.

The cushion is shallow and not very supportive and the front buckets themselves feel like they were designed for small statures. Your tester is only 178cm tall so we can tell you right away that if you’re a basketballer-type height-wise then look elsewhere.

Worse, the driving position is hampered by a dual-range gear lever that’s prone to vibration and fouls the left knee, rubbing itself against your leg like a randy Jack Russell.

On the plus side, you do sit high, with a commanding view up front, aided by deep side windows (that only go down half-way in the back) and huge door mirrors. In the XLS the parking sensors and rear-view camera combine with the narrow proportions to make reversing a doddle.

The cylindrical style dashboard is an attractive and functional variation of the Triton’s likeable item.

We rate the good-looking tilt (but not reach) steering wheel (that has remote audio and cruise control buttons on the chromed bit of the spokes), crystal-clear instruments (complete with their chrome rings), no-nonsense heater/air-con controls, ample ventilation outlets and plentiful storage units – including a deep centre console bin.

But the easy-to-use sat-nav set-up means the base model’s handy trip computer vanishes.

Clamber out back on to the theatre-style raised bench and you will find overhead grab handles and storage receptacles galore (good) but limited foot space (bad) and the feeling that you are perched too high up in that tall and narrow cabin. Getting out for children is also quite a long jump down.

Strangely, considering that Mitsubishi is aiming this at adventure-addled families, the child-seat anchor point is on the ceiling of the cargo area, thus necessitating luggage-space hindering straps.

Plus, the split-fold rear seat for third-row access in seven-seater versions is biased for left-hand drive markets since the smaller portion that would be used more often to dislodge the fewest occupants out back is on the road side in Australia. This does not auger well for the placement of a child seat either if one needs to be placed permanently in the middle rear.

The cargo area’s loading height is also rather lofty but usefully shaped and helped out by rear seats that tumble forward at a tug of a lever. The (full-sized alloy) spare lives underneath the car directly below the boot floor, and is released via a turn of a nut – Peugeot 504 style.

If you’re into trailers and such then consider this statement from Mitsubishi: “Towing capacity is a generous 2500kg with 10 per cent ball load.” That’s some way below the Pajero’s, however.

So the Challenger’s interior is a bit tight for taller folk but well finished, with plenty of standard features. We also like the fact that both road and wind noise are subdued.

But there’s no quietening down the lusty but loud 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine – a modern and efficient common-rail unit that clatters enthusiastically when cold and then goes on with a slightly lesser commotion for the rest of your journey.

But it is smooth and sufficiently responsive, considering that a. it’s married to a five-speed automatic gearbox b. the relatively small engine capacity and c. the Challenger XLS’ hefty 2059kg kerb weight.

With the above ingredients turbo lag will always be present, but once the tacho is swinging past 2000rpm much of the inertia is overcome and the Mitsubishi builds up a surprising surge of forward thrust.

On the move there is sufficient torque on tap (350Nm max) for fairly swift overtaking manoeuvres to be executed, while the Challenger seems right at home cruising along the highway.

That tried-and-true INVECS II Smart Logic auto is well matched to the mouthy diesel – and includes a Tiptronic-type sequential function if you’re in the mood to hold on to gears a bit longer than the trannie in Drive.

We were less enamoured with the fuel consumption, though, registering well over the (already quite steep) 9.8L/100km official combined average – on both urban and country road driving scenarios. The manual is significantly more frugal, we hear.

But the Challenger redeemed itself – in rear-wheel-drive mode at least – with a tight-ish turning circle (that narrow track has to be good for something), as well as quite responsive steering.

The handling is not as ponderous as the tallboy stance might have you fear, but there is no escaping the Challenger’s high centre of gravity, so while corners are attacked with an impressive degree of control, it feels quite roly-poly from the wheel. The grip from our 2800km-old example’s tyres was also commendable, while the brakes – of the four-wheeled ventilated variety – proved progressive and reliable.

Happily the rear end won’t lose its chosen line through a corner if it encounters a road bump, like some other similarly configured vehicles. The Challenger feels well planted as a result.

Yet despite that coil suspension system, the Mitsubishi’s ride on inner urban roads is disappointing it seems to seek out every surface indiscretion with glee, and lacks sufficient absorption for it to ever be called comfortable – choosing to clamber dopily over them instead. Only on super-smooth bitumen does the ride feel likewise.

This, more than anything else, betrays the light truck origins of the Challenger from behind the wheel.

If you live within the confines of a city and don’t require all that extra off-road related engineering that Mitsubishi supplies, then we suggest you buy an Outlander or some other largish compact SUV. There’s no need to lug around all that extra 4x4 gear.

Indeed, the latest Prado and Pathfinder – both extremely capable off the beaten track – are also better around town anyway.

Where the Challenger does live up to its name is as a value-for-money dual-purpose off-roader proposition, thanks to its sophisticated dual-range Super Select full-time/part-time 4WD system.

Leave it in 2H and it runs in rear-wheel-drive mode, but full-time 4WD (4H) can be selected on the fly on bitumen for added traction. When surfaces become a bit more slippery the centre diff can be locked in while for slower off-road progress, low-range (4L) gearing and a rear differential lock are also present.

So is MATT (Mitsubishi’s All Terrain Technology system) that employs the standard stability and traction control systems (ASTC), as well as the anti-lock brakes with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, helping to keep things from getting out of hand.

However, unlike its Toyota and Nissan rivals with their fancy electronic buttons, the Challenger’s driver must use that old-school knee-massaging dual-range lever that is requires a strong hand.

Not that we actually exercised this operation beyond 4H during this particular on-road only test, but according to our resident 4x4 specialist Phil Lord – who has also driven the Challenger, but over rugged terrain – the Mitsubishi is admirable in its off-road abilities.

Aiding this, he says, are short front and rear overhangs, an adequate (220mm) ground clearance, standard rear diff lock and the commanding driving position.

On the other hand, rear-axle articulation “is okay” only, while the low-range reduction gearing in the auto could use engine braking, as it can automatically shift up to second gear despite being locked in first gear in manual mode.

As a result, since the sort of people who would consider buying a Challenger for its off-road ability are probably more likely to be rural based, perhaps they would be better off saving a bit of money by buying the cheaper and more economical manual version instead.

All up, then, the Challenger has a set of talents tailored for a specific 4WD use.

If you want a strong mid-sized off-roader that is perfectly capable on-road as well, then Mitsubishi certainly has the SUV for you.

But she has ‘Pajero’ written all over him, to paraphrase a classic old Econovan advertisement, because the roomier, comfier and more urbane senior Mitsu 4x4 does everything the newcomer can – and much more besides.

Like that Ford commercial – and despite of all of the modern stuff on top – the latest Challenger ultimately feels like it belongs in another era.

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