Car reviews - Mitsubishi - Pajero - GLS 3.8 5-dr wagon
On-road handling and refinement, off-road ability, switchable AWD system, interior space, comfort, new engine's performance, safety credentials, value
Room for improvement
Increased fuel economy, polarising looks
29 Jul 2004
By TIM BRITTEN
THE Pajero has long been something of a mainstay for Mitsubishi Motors in Australia.
Right from its early 1980s beginnings, when it arrived to challenge established 4WD players like Nissan Patrol and Toyota LandCruiser, the Pajero achieved a more or less instant following with its combination of off-road ability and better than average on-road performance. It could almost be said to be the first medium-duty off-roader.
The Pajero has evolved significantly since the 1980s and today is arguably the best genuine off-roader under $100,000 when it comes to balancing off-road credentials against on-road behaviour.
The big change came in June 2000 when the NM series was introduced.
Putting aside the polarising looks, the big thing about the new Pajero was the switch from ladder-frame chassis construction to car-like unitary construction.
This move away from the heavy-duty end of the market saw the Mitsubishi losing weight while gaining interior space, and lowering the centre of gravity so that the handling became even more stable.
The NM also introduced a fully independent suspension system which was rare – if not unheard of – in a "serious" 4WD. So with its lower, more stable stance, there was also a bump-absorbing suspension system that made the driving experience a whole lot better – on road and off.
The NM Pajero offered generous passenger space as well as a rear load area that bordered on cavernous. The load height is such that two mountain bikes can be virtually wheeled into place.
The Pajero has always tended to be fairly sprightly in terms of accelerative performance and was one of the first to have a turbo-diesel engine as part of the engine line-up.
That continues today, with a choice of V6 or high-efficiency turbo-diesel power.
The V6 option, which started at 3.0 litres in 1991 and grew to 3.5 litres in 1997, has now received another boost, this time to 3.8 litres.
Because the 3.5-litre version is retained in manual transmission Pajeros, this gives buyers a three-engine choice that includes the impressively economical and torquey direct-injection, four-cylinder, Di-D turbo-diesel.
Torque is pretty generous across the range, particularly the Di-D, which cranks out no less than 373Nm at a lazy 2000rpm. The 3.5 and 3.8-litre engines produce more kiloWatts than the 121kW turbo-diesel – 140kW and 150kW respectively – but, while the torque isn’t bad, it’s no match for the oil-burner, with even the new 3.8-litre V6 producing a mere 314Nm.
That said, there’s no denying the instant accelerator response and quiet smoothness of the V6 engines. The 3.8-litre version steps off the line more quickly than the 3.5-litre, while delivering a noticeable shove when asked to pull out and pass slower traffic on the highway.
The subject of this test is the mid-level auto V6 GLS 21st Anniversary version in the new line-up - which, in terms of model range, is essentially the same as before. That is, base GLX, GLS and top-of-the-line Exceed, with all versions offering the choice of petrol or diesel power and all except the Exceed offering a base manual five-speed transmission.
The advent of the 3.8-litre V6 coincided with a sort of invisible update that included the adoption of ABS braking as standard across the range, traction control on all V6s, seatbelt pretensioners standard on all dual-airbag models, alloy wheels for the GLX, improved anti-corrosion treatment and various mechanical upgrades including higher-rated starter motors and alternators for the V6s.
The new 3.8-litre engine is more than just a bigger 3.5. Both bore and stroke have been increased, bringing it closer to a "square" configuration and there are things like fly-by-wire throttle, larger intake and exhaust valves, lighter pistons, connecting rods and crankshaft, and a variable-length intake manifold. It is also LPG compatible.
Mitsubishi claims it accelerates from zero to 100km/h 14 per cent faster than the 3.5-litre and is six per cent faster in the critical 80-100km/h zone. The company doesn’t easily talk about fuel economy, but we found the 3.8-litre appears to be marginally thirstier than the 3.5.
The test car, being a five-speed auto, came with the 3.8-litre engine along with a now standard six-disc in-dash CD stacker and, of course, the new 3.8 badge on the front guard. 21st anniversary sweeteners included leather/fabric seats, with power adjustment on the driver’s side and the popular but off-road unfriendly side running boards (which are illuminated with actuation of the remote central locking).
The sense of driving nothing less than a premium model was always there, accentuated by the somewhat glitzy Pajero grille, the alloy wheels and the adventurous but awkward styling.
As expected, the 3.8-litre’s torque made for a pretty responsive Pajero, despite the fact the GLS V6 auto weighs in at 2090kg. Mitsubishi’s INVECS II "Smart Logic" automatic with its sequential shifting capability makes for a responsive, smooth-changing driving experience.
The Pajero, in an age where genuine sports 4WDs now rule the top-end of the market, could never be called sporty but it’s a good deal more car-like than the Patrols and LandCruisers. Today, Mitsubishi sees vehicles like the Toyota Kluger, Holden Adventra and Ford Territory as competitors.
Venture off-road in company with any of these and the Pajero would disappear up the first steep track while the rest waited at the bottom looking for an easier way out.
The Pajero’s "Super Select" 4WD system has been pretty amazingly adaptable for a long time and is now in its second generation. It allows the driver to choose between two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive at speeds up to 100km/h and incorporates a viscous-coupled centre differential as well as – on 3.8-litre V6 and Di-D models - active traction control.
Engine Brake Assist Control (EBAC), a form of hill descent control requiring no driver input on steep, off-road downhills, is standard on all models.
In high-range 4WD mode, the Super Select system sends 33 per cent of torque to the front wheels and 67 per cent to the rear wheels. The torque split can vary up to 50-50 depending on available traction, via the viscous coupling unit.
The 4WD system means the Pajero can be driven around in fuel-saving two-wheel drive form or operate – especially useful in wet weather or on bad roads – as a full-time 4WD.
On the road, the Pajero feels quite car-like and planted, although the ride is firmer than we’d normally expect of a fully independent suspension set-up. As expected, it wants to run wide when pushed hard into a corner but at least it’s predictable and doesn’t feel top-heavy like many large 4WDs.
Passenger comfort rates highly, with plenty of room in both front and back as well as quite large, well-shaped seats. The third-row seats fold neatly into the floor where they don’t intrude on load space.
The Pajero scores quite well on safety with its impact-absorbing monocoque body, dual front airbags, standard ABS (with electronic brake-force distribution) and, with 3.8 and Di-D engines, stability control. Side airbags are available as an option in GLS, while the GLX still doesn’t get standard dual front airbags.
The opposition might be getting better and more numerous all the time, but the Pajero is right in there as a serious 4WD that gets closer to car-like on-road dynamics than any of the heavyweights, yet is much more capable off-road than any of the SUVs.
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