Car reviews - Mitsubishi - Pajero - GLS DI-D 5-dr wagon
Interior space, ride and stability on the open road, off-road ability, responsive engine
Room for improvement
Noise, vibration and harshness levels, dated interior, sharp low-speed ride, new towing capacity not what it first appears
13 Mar 2009
By PHILIP LORD
THERE is no lack of choice in medium SUVs, but if your preference is for a ‘traditional’ SUV with seven or eight seats, proper off-road ability and towing capacity, the choice narrows significantly.
For the tough guys, the choice boils down to the Mitsubishi Pajero, Toyota Prado, Nissan Pathfinder and bit-players such as the Jeep Commander.
Despite being given the most recent renovation (the December 2008 update), the NT Pajero is the oldest of all in its basic structure, which dates back to 2000.
Thankfully, the major sheet metal changes that Mitsubishi penned for the most recent series (the 2006 NS) have not been fiddled.
When the 2006 NS Pajero was released, it came with a far more pleasing and angular front-end design – reminiscent of Mitsubishi’s Dakar rally challengers – and despatched the NM’s bulbous front mudguards that you either loved or hated.
Despite these and other changes, elements of old school remain, including the tailgate-mounted spare wheel – despite its move to a more central and lower position for NS – and angular side window profile.
Inside, you get a better perspective of an SUV that, in its basic structure, no matter how worked-over, is about to reach its 10-year anniversary.
Rear door openings, for example, have more wheel-arch intrusion than more modern designs the second-row seat folding arrangement is bulky and old school in its space-soaking – and not space-saving – arrangement the side-swinging tailgate is simply unheard of in modern designs.
While the third row looks clever at first glance – it folds neatly under the cargo floor – the seats are each rated to take only 70kg and must be folded in unison. You can’t fold down one seat to make use of cargo space if you need to only occupy six of the seven seats.
The Pajero’s interior fit and finish is not quite as consistent as most of its competitors.
While it makes a good first impression, you can see where the development money stopped – right about the point where the dash meets the lower centre console, with its hard plastic and cheap-looking lidded compartment.
The Prado is not exactly a new SUV, either – it arrived in 2003 – and it was far better finished then and still feels it all these years later.
The Pajero’s front seats are comfortable and the driver has commanding view ahead and to the sides. While the side mirrors are large, rear vision is otherwise not ideal. Large rear headrests and the tailgate-mounted spare encroach on vision. Rear parking sensors are optional.
The instruments are clear and entirely legible, and controls do not present any glaring issues. Thankfully, the buttons on the sound system are bigger, far more legible and far more intuitive to use than previous model’s tiny controls.
The rear seat is a little flat but spacious in head, leg and foot room, but only offers one childseat tether point in the cargo floor as standard – you have to buy your own tether points to bolt into the threads if you have more than one seat to fit in.
The cargo area is a well-shaped load space with solid tie-down points, and the 60-40 split fold second row is easy to drop down even if it’s not the latest thing in its folding arrangement or space efficiency.
With all three rows of seats in use, like many other such wagons, there is limited cargo space.
The Pajero’s turbo-diesel engine is no longer cutting edge and feels it. Even though its NS revision in 2006 featured common-rail injection, and Mitsubishi says myriad changes were made to improve noise, vibration and harshness in the new NT, it is hard to see what the difference is. When you fire up the engine, even when hot (diesels always sound noisier when cold), it settles to a noisy clatter, and you can feel the engine vibrating as you sit in gear in traffic. When you rev it, you are also clearly reminded of the fact that this vehicle has a compression-ignition engine.
Thankfully the performance results are worth all the noise, and the truth is when cruising in top gear, the clatter disappears and the Pajero is a quiet cruiser (on smooth roads, at least) when it’s sitting around 2000rpm. While there is turbo lag down low, it is not severe and the engine spins up nicely into its torque band.
The transmission is seamless in high range, although it can lurch a little on up-shifts in low-range.
The engine can be thirsty, though. While light freeway cruising yielded 9.9L/100km – above the combined urban/country figure of 9.2L/100km but still quite acceptable for a medium/large SUV – in traffic around town it was hard to get it down to less than 13L/100km.
It was revealing just how thirsty a big displacement four cylinder can become when under load. Towing a 2000kg tandem axle caravan, the Pajero averaged 18.0L/100km. By contrast, a Prado TD towing an identical-weight van uses more like 14.0L/100km. The Pajero is a better towing performer, but you pay for it as the bowser.
There are not many better handling wagons in the Pajero’s class, and if you load up and head off on fast dirt roads or poor secondary bitumen, you will marvel at the Pajero’s absolute composure at speed.
It leaves the likes of Prado floundering in its wake. Cornering is pretty good for such a wagon compared to dual-range brethren such as Pathfinder and Prado. Once you throw in soft SUVs like Territory, and the Pajero suddenly seems cumbersome.
While the Pajero might not move around much at speed, it is noisy on a rough road. The firm suspension control that delivers good handling on dirt at speed comes undone around town where the firm Pajero is terse over sharp bumps.
Pajero has a sophisticated part-time/full-time 4WD system while some competitors are still floundering with basic part-time systems.
And unlike the truck-like separate chassis of Prado, the Pajero has a car-like monocoque body (but then so did the 1980 Lada Niva) and all-independent suspension.
The Pajero shines off-road, even though traditionalists will point in dismay to its independent suspension that lacks wheel travel compared to rival’s live axles, reducing under-body clearance when suspension is compressed.
The Pajero makes up for the lack of travel with its excellent traction.
The biggest problem off-road is the Pajero’s departure angle, where it can get caught up dropping off a rock shelf or earth mound.
Big news for those who wish to tow with the Pajero is the increased towing capacity, up from 2500kg to 3000kg. In theory, that would free up a considerable number of towing options, as many larger, tandem axle caravans when loaded up weigh in the region of the Pajero’s new capacity.
But the devil is in the detail. The towball download – the maximum proportion of weight that can be legally loaded on to the Pajero’s towball – is reduced from the previous limit of 250kg at 2500kg to 180kg if you tow anything weighing 2501kg to 3000kg.
The problem is that while some horse floats and trailer boats will carry most of their weight over the trailer axles, most traditional Aussie caravans, especially in this weight segment, are set up to carry 10 to 15 per cent of their weight on the towball. So if a 2800kg caravan has10 per cent of its weight on the towball (280kg) then it won’t be towed legally by a NT Pajero.
In essence, while the Pajero’s suspension set-up, off-road ability, cavernous interior and smart looks will win over many, the truth is that today most SUV buyers do not want a real 4WD anymore, and are quite happy with a lighter, more car-like SUV.
But if you do want to go off-road and like a vehicle to retain agile dynamics when touring the country and a diesel to have strong performance while doing so – no matter the cost in economy or noise – then the Pajero is the SUV market’s best compromise.
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