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First drive: Outlander adds to compact frenzy

Out and about: As compact 4WDs go, the Outlander is among the most controlled and solid to drive.

Mitsubishi hopes to share the spoils in the compact 4WD market with Outlander

6 Feb 2003

ITS name may suggest it is a bit of a loner, but Mitsubishi is hoping the new Outlander compact all-wheel drive wagon will make a lot of friends once it goes on sale in February.

The Outlander is pitched at the hottest part of the burgeoning 4WD market, where 1000 or more Honda CR-Vs and Toyota RAV4s routinely hit the streets every month, and the Subaru Forester and Nissan X-Trail are not far behind.

Overall, compact sales lifted more than 40 per cent in 2002 compared to the previous year, according to the official VFACTS sales figures. That means as more vehicles are launched into the segment, more people are buying. The spoils are getting larger rather than being split into smaller piles.

So, understandably, everybody wants in. And to be technically accurate, Mitsubishi was already represented by the Pajero iO.

But the iO was not what people buying compact ATWs wanted. Its separate chassis and low range meant it was probably best in category off-road, but when no-one buying these cars actually wants to get seriously dirty, that's pretty much irrelevant. Besides, it looked small and boxy.

No, according to Mitsubishi research, compact ATW buyers are far more interested in style, comfort, safety, price, size, economy and flexibility. Four-wheel drive ability does not rate.

In fact, Mitsubishi does not even want us to call Outlander a four-wheel drive. It prefers it be referred to as an all-wheel drive. Pity the badge on the back of the car says 4WD.

So it is out with the iO and in with the Outlander. The new contender measures up right in the heart of the class as you can see from the chart below against CR-V and co with one exception - kerb weight. At 1545kg it is by far the heaviest, as much as 250kg heavier than the RAV4 and still 70kg more than the CR-V. Mitsubishi Australia says there is no one reason for this.

"You just can't point to any one thing and say there's 120kg in that," said Mitsubishi Australia special projects manager Rob Chadwick.

"All these things add up. There's some in specification items, there's some in the transmission, there's some in reinforcements in the body, there's some in the size of the vehicle." A five-seat, five-door wagon only, the Outlander first appeared in Japan in mid-2001 as the more conservatively styled Airtrek. The single bar grille and hooked nose we get is actually from the US model Outlander, launched there last year, but combined with the European model's interior. So there's a bit of mix and matching.

The name was also the subject of some rejigging. Mitsubishi Australia had wanted Airtrek, but a dispute in the US with bicycle company Trek meant most export markets got Outlander whether they liked it or not.

Outlander is based around a new car-like monocoque architecture with simple MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear.

It has a viscous-coupling unit that transparently moves drive around among the four wheels and is powered by a 2.4-litre single overhead camshaft 16-valve four-cylinder engine that produces 100kW at 5000rpm and 205Nm at 2500rpm. Those figures are respectively the weakest and second-weakest amongst the leading contenders.

It is a familiar engine because we get it in the Nimbus people-mover and it was the engine in the four-cylinder Magna until that car was discontinued in 1999. The transmission is a unique new four-speed design but uses Mitsubishi's familiar adapative INVECS II software, complete with a sports mode.

Auto transmission is all you can get with Outlander, which makes the pricing particularly interesting.

Outlander comes in two variants, the LS for $31,990 and the XLS for $37,490. The base model's pricing makes it the cheapest auto version among the leading compacts you can buy. You'll pay the same money for a CR-V or X-Trail with manual transmission. The Forester manual is $1000 cheaper and the RAV4 Edge $2000 cheaper - but the latter comes without air-conditioning, which is a $2155 option.

The Outlander achieves this price without being a stripper. The LS includes dual airbags, air-conditioning, cruise control, lap-sash seatbelts all-round with pre-tensioners and force limiters up-front, power windows, mirrors and rear tailgate lock, remote central locking and an in-dash single CD combined with a four-speaker sound system.

Twin-dial instrumentation is supposedly inspired by aircraft design, the gear lever sits in-dash and the flexibility of the interior is enhanced by a 60:40 split-fold second seat row and the front passenger seat can also be folded flat to enable items up to 2.4m long to be loaded. But the rear seats do not move fore-aft like some of the Outlander's rivals, nor do they tumble forward.

Upgrade to the XLS and the 16-inch steel wheels with covers are traded in for alloys. Front foglights, roof rails, body coloured exterior attachments and clear tail-lights help pick it apart from the LS - handy because there's no badging on the car to help you in that regards.

Inside there are side airbags, white faced instrumentation and clock, leather wrapped steering wheel and gearshift, a sunroof, in-dash six-stacker CD with six-speaker audio, height adjustable see-through headrests, a security blind and larger rear spoiler.

Mechanically, the XLS adds ABS with EBD as standard. The LS can option that, the side airbags, the six-stacker and the white-faced instruments in a pack for $2500.

Mitsubishi is claiming the Outlander's side airbags and transmission with adaptive ability - that is it changes its shift points to suit your driving style - are unique in class. On the downside, it is also the only one with rear drum brakes.

Mitsubishi is shooting for 550 sales per month split evenly between the two variants, but that's a ballpark figure only.

The way compact ATW sales are going, there is definitely the opportunity for more. Recounting the Nissan experience is salutary. It forecast 500 sales per month for X-Trail at launch and 12 months on is routinely doubling that.

No doubt Mitsubishi will be looking for the same sort of result.

Mitsubishi Outlander LS auto: $31,990
Mitsubishi Outlander XLS auto: $37,490


THE Outlander has been the subject of some local development work by Mitsubishi Australia's rapidly expanding engineering team, including re-tuning the suspension for more body control.

That's compared to the Japanese set-up, which concentrates more on slower-speed compliance, and the plush US ride.

And they've done a good job. As compact 4WDs go, the Outlander is among the most controlled and solid to drive.

It steers accurately, sits quite flat and has an impressive level of grip before descending into the inevitable front wheel sliding understeer.

And off-road - or at least on forestry tracks - it also behaved well. There was plenty of grip and control on gravel roads and more than adequate ground clearance for a trip to the beach or snow.

Yet it also rides very competently, only the harshest road imperfections drawing out winces from passengers.

Allied to this is an excellent level of noise damping. Cruising at highway speeds or on gritty dirt roads the Outlander is very impressively quiet, and thanks to big front seats, very comfortable.

Rear seat passengers are not quite so well looked after. They sit upright but quite low, meaning much of their forward visibility will be blocked by the front seat passengers.

So far, pretty good. But there is a downer and that's the engine. While an earnest trier, it struggles against the Outlander's weight, particularly when down low in the rev range. Once up and running higher in the rpm range and preferably on flat ground, it is better but never stunning.

It battles up hills and can make overtaking a head-scratching challenge. The story might be different with a manual gearbox or an engine with more power and torque. But neither are available at the moment which means X-Trail and CR-V with their lively, revvy engines have a decided advantage for now.

Mitsubishi claimed no performance or fuel consumption figures for Outlander at launch. We can understand why. We suspect they would not have been flattering.

Apart from that significant concern, we'd like more flexibility and more storage.

The door pockets are just too small and the rear compartment seems a tad constricted, while the instrumentation and dash presentation, in the XLS in particular, seems a bit naff.

The styling? From all angles bar the front it is a typical member of the compact wagon breed and quite well resolved. So what about the front? Well, it grows on you, maybe.

Overall, Outlander is a more than competent addition to the compact all-wheel drive battlefield. Now it is just a case of finding out how friendly it is.

How they compare:

Width1750mm1780mm1755mm1765mm 1735mm
Power100kW @5000rpm118kW @6000rpm110kW @6000rpm132kW @6000rpm112kW @5600rpm
Torque205Nm @2500rpm220Nm @3600rpm192Nm @4000rpm245Nm @4000rpm223Nm @3600rpm
Kerb weight1545kg1475kg1293kg1440kg 1372kg

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