Car reviews - Mitsubishi - Outlander - LS five-door wagon
Car-like comfort, four-wheel drive system, interior space
Room for improvement
Conservative rear styling, auto-only transmission
16 Jun 2003
By TIM BRITTEN
IT might not be intended to venture into the deepest, darkest parts of the high country, but Mitsubishi's Outlander, the first local attempt by the company at conquesting the soft-road market, seems a worthy substitute for the slow-selling Pajero iO.
The iO, unlike the Outlander, would happily take a bush trek in its stride but is outclassed by other dinkum off-roaders like the Suzuki Grand Vitara, while also struggling against the might of high-profile soft-roaders such as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4.
The low-slung Outlander tackles the Honda and Toyota (and others like Nissan's X-Trail and Subaru's Forester) head-on with attempted aggressive looks, the longest wheelbase in its category and a four-wheel drive system that shares much with Mitsubishi's Lancer Evo rally cars. In fact, it also shares elements with the new Magna AWD.
The Outlander almost ventures into Subaru territory by eschewing the familiar tall-boy look in favour of a car-like profile and a handy step-in height.
Anticipated negative effects on legroom fail to materialize, with plenty of stretching space provided in both front and back seats, and there is a decent load area.
Without the height that assists most other off-roaders provide adequate legroom, the Mitsubishi makes good use of its relatively lengthy wheelbase (it's longer than a Mazda Tribute) to give a similar effect.
The Outlander comes in two auto-only models - the LS and XLS - and Australian versions are powered by Mitsubishi's 2.4-litre, balance-shaft-equipped engine driving through a four-speed sequential automatic transmission.
The drivetrain - without a low-range, creep-through-the-ruts transfer box - has front, centre and rear differentials, with the centre unit using a viscous coupling to send torque where it's best used when traction deteriorates.
The result is that, on the open road, the Outlander is constantly sending power to all four wheels - unlike, say, the CR-V, which normally operates as a front-drive and brings the rear wheels into play only when needed.
There's no doubt the Outlander's is a superior system, especially on wet, or gravel roads, as there's no delay while it decides where the best traction is to be found.
The result is that - and this is surely connected to Mitsubishi's rally experience - the Outlander is a surprisingly fast and well-balanced car on unsealed roads, always finding traction and normally unfazed by even the most treacherous washboard surfaces.
The four-speed INVECS-II transmission is pretty nice, too, even if it only has four ratios, and is a pleasure to shift manually through the short, well-placed lever jutting out of the lower part of the centre dash.
The test Outlander LS was subjected to something a little unusual for a soft-roader. Using a couple of heavy-duty 4WDs as a backup, we decided to satisfy our curiosity about the ultimate ability of such vehicles by taking it on a relatively testing trek into the high country of north-eastern Victoria.
And we found that, yes, the Outlander does have its limits - but then again, it can turn up a few surprises. The main problem, apart from the lack of a low-range for really difficult work, is a slight lack of ground clearance towards the rear where the exhaust hangs down below the suspension (Mitsubishi claims a not-unreasonable minimum of 205mm as well as useful approach and departure angles of 21.4 and 22.2 degrees).
Careful driving will protect the undersides, but there is (of course) a limit to how far the Outlander can go. We found this limit, although the only scar after 70km of bush tracks was a small, re-shaped (and fixed in seconds) protector shield mid-way along the exhaust system.
Traction was no problem, even though the test car was running road tyres, and only one steep pinch put a strain on the auto transmission. Of course, really steep pinches would be another matter, but we knew our territory well enough to be aware we wouldn't encounter anything seriously challenging.
Otherwise the Outlander was a great way to venture off the beaten track very car-like on the road, quite economical and reasonably long-ranged despite a 60-litre fuel tank.
The 100kW engine produces a decent 205Nm of torque, so the car's 1530kg are easily coped with. Passing manoeuvres on the open road are executed quickly, and the performance on a winding, hilly road is quite satisfying.
There's a slight lack of feel in the assisted steering, but the Outlander tracks securely and leans minimally on bends.
Understeer, the ultimate characteristic of most AWDs and front-drives, is kept at bay most of the time, and there's the wonderful feeling of being able to floor the accelerator mid-way through a corner, knowing that all four wheels are working at keeping you on your chosen line.
The Outlander's cabin, as mentioned earlier, is quite spacious and offers genuine adult legroom in front and back seats simultaneously. The load area - with no protective cover in LS - is also quite spacious and can be extended impressively via the split-fold rear seat.
It's not bad for convenience either. There's a decent centre console that incorporates a handy flip-down at the front containing twin cup-holders, as well as a small tray for mobile phones, or sunglasses.
The glovebox is quite big too, and there are decent door pockets as well as a small compartment on the right side of the luggage area - where there's also a second power socket.
Things we didn't like about the Outlander included the foot-operated parking brake (to keep the centre console area free of restriction?) and the grey drabness of the LS interior.
And, although it's a little contrived, we really don't mind the idea of a tailgate-mounted spare wheel, rather than one located, like the Outlander, under the rear floor. You can get away with things like that in a soft-roader.
Around-town fuel economy is nothing brilliant, but on the open road the Outlander will put away a surprising number of kilometres, up to 500km given reasonable care.
Equipment in the base, $32,000 LS is more than adequate with driver and passenger airbags, cruise control, air-conditioning, single-CD sound system and a height-adjustable driver's seat. Remote central locking, as well as front and rear power windows, are also standard.
The XLS is quite a bit more expensive - about $5500 more expensive - but it does throw in things such as anti-lock brakes (three-channel only, with drums - not discs - at the rear), side airbags and a six-disc CD stacker that are available in the LS as a $2500 option pack.
The XLS gets these, plus a sunroof, alloy wheels and roof rails, leather-rimmed steering wheel and better-grade seat trim.
Among soft-roaders, the Mitsubishi Outlander stands out with almost outrageous front-end styling followed by a clean, if a little conservative, profile. It certainly looks different to those it most directly challenges but it doesn't lack passenger or cargo-carrying ability - and we'd like to see any of its contemporaries matching it in the bush.
To be quite honest, Outlander is a surprisingly effective, well priced and useful soft-roader.
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