Mitsubishi's idea, last year, of previewing its Outlander Sport by making it the first model ever that could be remotely test driven, live—via a virtual system that promised way more than a tilt-and-pan virtual showroom tour—was the first of its kind. And it's definitely one of the coolest launch ideas of this past year.
The messaging, in a way, prepared us for an unexciting yet tech-laden vehicle; it sounded like the kind of marketing gimmickry that's applied to vehicles that aren't much fun to drive.
In both respects, that's not the case. The Outlander Sport doesn't boast much (if any) more onboard tech extras than most other vehicles in its class, but thankfully it's not at all bland from behind the wheel. For a 'tall small' whatchamacalit, the Outlander Sport shows surprising athleticism, with the excellent steering that we've come to expect in all of Mitsubishi's smaller vehicles.
More than a hatchback, or not quite a hefty crossover?
It makes sense when you consider that the Outlander Sport is, according to Mitsubishi, a lighter, shorter version of the Outlander crossover vehicle—about a foot shorter but the same in wheelbase, with nearly the same overall width and height. But to us, it drives quite differently. A lot of the heft is gone from the experience, replaced by better responsiveness, and it feels a lot more like the Lancer sedan, which also shares some underpinnings. Its 3,100-pounds weight and excellent steering contribute to the light-and-nimble feel, no doubt, and drives a class smaller than most compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, or even the Kia Sportage—but it also doesn't feel as anesthetized as the Scion xD or xB in their standard tune.
Styling-wise, the Outlander Sport looks more like a tall hatch, and not at all much like a utility vehicle, especially from front angles. The blunt, sharklike front end looks just as good here as it does in the Outlander and Lancer family, and from pretty much any angle in front, it looks very nicely proportioned. The sheetmetal has a bit more excitement than that of Mitsubishi's other vehicles, with a gradually rising beltline crease that serves to interrupt the otherwise slab-sided look. From the back, the Outlander Sport can look a little more bulbous and chunky, and we wished the designers would have given it a less anonymous tail to match the bold front.
The 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport comes with either a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) or a five-speed manual gearbox, with a 148-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine for all versions. Based on our recent driving experience with the Lancer GTS, as well as other Mitsubishis with a manual transmission, the stick will probably provide more driving satisfaction. The majority of buyers will probably go for the CVT, which is what our test car had; and in moderate, suburban-style driving, the Outlander Sport does just fine with the combination—neither sluggish nor overtly quick.
CVT is fine, but we'd pick the stick
But like many CVT boxes in four-cylinder applications, it can get a little buzzy and boomy sometimes, especially when in rapid stop-and-go driving, passing, when accelerating into high-speed traffic, or anything that brings revs around 4,000 rpm or beyond. The other issue is that even when you lock in one of the gears with the steering-wheel paddle-shifters, the Outlander Sport still has that loosey-goosey slushbox feel. On the positive side, its top gear ratio is nice and tall, keeping revs under 2,500 rpm at 75 mph.
The CVT keeps consumption in check, too. EPA fuel economy ratings for the Outlander Sport are 24 mpg city, 29 highway, and over about 120 miles we managed to hit 24 mpg in a mix of driving, with most of it urban and suburban short trips.
Sporty, space-efficient interior design
The design of the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport interior is pretty sweet; from the inside, it doesn't feel much smaller than smaller compact crossovers, like the Sportage. Front seats feel fairly snug for my rather thin frame—which means they'll be too tight for larger occupants—but they have a fair amount of mid-back support, which is unusual in inexpensive vehicles, and the coarse cloth upholstery feels grippy and durable. In back, the seating position is quite firm and upright—and it's only passable for two adults across—but it's a perfectly good package, overall, for four adults going across town for an event or away for a few hours.
The back seats are split 60/40; there's a nice, low cargo floor, and the larger seatback includes a separate, slightly higher-up trunk p[ass-through that would be good for multiple sets of skis. Built into the same enclosure is a fold-down, padded armrest with two cupholders built in.
We really like the way the Outlander Sport is lit inside, too. Although it's red lighting, there's a lot of attention to detail, and the very large moonroof is even lit around the rim—a subtle touch that you might notice when parked but not when driving.
The downsides are essentially the same as what haunt the entire Lancer and Outlander family: an interior that's a bit too drab and plasticky and, yes, way too much road noise inside. Just a little more noise insulation (or perhaps softer-sidewall tires) would go a long way; you hear a lot of road noise pretty much as long as the vehicle is rolling.
Road noise is an issue...but the price is right
That said, we're really impressed with the Outlander Sport's combination of responsiveness and ride quality. The suspension does a great job of absorbing minor road shocks; so it's surprising that when you load up the suspension a bit more in cornering that it feels as good as it does. Unfortunately, the Outlander Sport doesn't get the more sophisticated Super All-Wheel Control (S-AWC) all-wheel-drive system that's in the Lancer Evolution family and the top-of-the-line Outlander GT, but you'd only miss that in rally-car-style driving or in conditions like slushy winter roads.
Interior controls are much like those of the Lancer family, which is to say they're very straightforward and feel good...in a non-luxurious sense. Sound system controls are mounted high, while climate controls—including a full auto mode—are mounted below. There's a little more soft touch here—mainly in the form of a layer of padded material that's been added to the dash—but it's still not even remotely an upscale look or feel.
The bottom-line sticker of our test Outlander Sport SE AWD was just $25,575, and that included the $1,800 Premium Package that brings the panoramic sunroof, Rockford Fosgate premium audio with subwoofer, Sirius satellite radio, a 6-CD changer, and black roof rails. Standard equipment is already impressive, with the SE including automatic climate control, heated front seats and mirrors, the FUSE Bluetooth hands-free system, and a good set of steering-wheel control for audio functions. Safety kit includes the expected stability control, anti-lock brakes, and side and side-curtain bags, and the Outlander Sport also comes with front knee bags.
If you can look past the Outlander Sport's boomy interior and just-adequate powertrain performance, the Outlander Sport stands out as quite a deal—especially for the base front-wheel-drive model, at $19,275 including destination.
The virtual test drive might have been a gimmick, but Mitsubishi had nothing to cover up here; take one out for a drive and you'll find this to be one of the best takes on 'tall small' yet.