No matter which powertrain you get, there’s an Eco Mode switch that when engaged, cycles the air conditioning compressor more conservatively, to save energy, and makes accelerator tip-in less aggressive. We didn’t sense all that much of a difference between modes, and it was just a bit easier to take off gently and smoothly in Eco.
Capable all-wheel-drive; tight, quiet cabin
In an all-wheel drive model, we clambered up a steep, dusty, and somewhat rock-strewn trail almost effortlessly, thanks to a system that incorporates an electronic differential that manages power left-to-right in front, combined with electronically controlled distribution front-to-rear. You’ll want to take that trail in normal mode, however, as in Eco Mode the four-wheel drive system runs in a front-wheel drive mode until slip is actually detected.
Mitsubishi claims to have significantly improved refinement, with better isolation of engine vibration, and some changes to suspension geometry that it says reduce unsprung weight. There’s also more insulation in the dash, floor, and headliner. So even with the four-cylinder—and on the coarse rural road surfaces in Oregon—this is a surprisingly quiet, tight-feeling vehicle.
And it’s not from the driver’s seat, but in practicality and packaging, where the Outlander has some very significant advantages over the competition. The Outlander has one significant—very significant, depending on how you plan to use this vehicle—advantage: it offers third-row seating, to fit up to seven. Front seats are a bit better and more supportive than what’s typical, and the second row has enough headroom and legroom for taller adults—even this 6’-6” editor. Only you won’t ever forget that this is a compact, as the third-row seat is only good as a backup plan for kids, and getting in and out is pretty much out of bounds for adults. Large-shouldered adults won’t be able to get comfortable three-across in the second row either.
Seat-folding involves many more steps than you’d expect—including lifting and flipping forward the lower cushion, removing the second-row headrests, clicking an unlock lever, and then releasing the seatbacks to flip those forward. Yet the effort is definitely rewarded; the Outlander has a lower cargo floor than other vehicles in this class, and it’s nice and flat (and 13 inches longer than the outgoing Outlander, Mitsubishi says). Plus, you get good underfloor storage, and bins at the side of the cargo area for smaller items.
We’ve left styling almost for last, as it will no doubt be the biggest disappointment to some. A company official noted that the brand wants to be known for function and simplicity in interiors—and it gets that much right—but what’s sorely missing from the new Outlander’s cabin design is flair. Give the automaker credit for going a bit against the grain. Mitsubishi says that the new front-end appearance is the way it is for aerodynamics (coefficient of drag is a low 0.33), and to set a new, efficiency-minded look; but compared to the aggressive, memorable ‘shark-nose’ front end of the previous generation, it strikes us as bland.
Other standout active-safety features that you won’t find in most other affordable compact crossovers include Adaptive Cruise Control (with three distance settings), Lane Departure Warning, and a Forward Collision Mitigation that will, at lower speeds, first signal that an obstacle or other vehicle is ahead and then brake the vehicle fully to a stop.
A bargain if you shop by features... and aren't hung up on the brand
Official pricing won’t be released until the 2013 New York Auto Show, but Mitsubishi has hinted that pricing may actually drop on some of the 2014 Outlander models, versus 2013 (when they started at $22,695). Base ES models don’t include Bluetooth or alloy wheels, but if you can look past that they include automatic climate control, keyless entry, and a six-speaker, 140-watt audio system, among other things. ES models add push-button start, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, and a touch-screen system with the FUSE HandsFreeLink system and a rearview camera—and an interface that’s superior to what’s offered in most other rivals. With the V-6 GT you can get leather, a sunroof, and the power tailgate.
Overall, whether you look at the Outlander or the Mirage that’s soon anticipated in the U.S., Mitsubishi appears to be taking a position in the market that’s closer to what Kia and Hyundai occupied some years ago—high value, with bland but inoffensive styling and least-common-denominator driving dynamics. To those who know Mitsubishi’s past product glory and technical prowess, it’s a little disappointing.
If you start by cross-checking prices and features, and what matters is that you have an affordable, safe family vehicle with a new-car warranty, the Outlander is that. If shoppers can look past both the bland exterior and the Mitsubishi badge—and those are significant hurdles—what they’ll find is a decent, pleasant-driving, very competitive crossover that hits the mark in many ways. Especially value.