2014 Mitsubishi Outlander: First Drive

March 22, 2013
Can Mitsubishi still prove itself relevant in the U.S.? With the quirky Endeavor long gone, the flamboyant Eclipse coupes and convertibles now discontinued, the last Galant mid-size sedans carrying clearance stickers—and no replacement on the horizon for the Evolution sport sedan—you could argue that the brand is giving up on us.

Not so, officials insist. Led by the new 2014 Outlander that will begin arriving later this spring (and followed later this year by a new subcompact based on the Mirage), Mitsubishi at last has fresh product for the showroom.

And Mitsubishi isn’t messing around this time with niche appeal. In short—and in what smacks somewhat of a last-ditch strategy to pump its sales back up—the Outlander drives and feels, in many ways, as if the previous generation hadn’t existed.

That bears some explanation: With the last-generation Outlander, this crossover took a step toward the sporty side. But quite a lot of road harshness came with its sharp handling and good body control; and it was one of the heavier models in the class. And a lot of people simply didn’t get what we considered some of its better features, like the useful clamshell tailgate.

Still the Outlander, no longer the outlier?

The new Outlander is positioned more directly against strong sellers like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Subaru Forester. And it matches those vehicles in most respects, while beating them in features for the money.

The fundamentals look and sound like what you get throughout most of this class: There’s a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a CVT (Outlander ES or SE), or a 3.0-liter V-6 and a six-speed automatic (Outlander GT), and power is delivered through either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. And with an overall length of about 183 inches, the new Outlander is right in the middle of the compact-SUV market—with most of those models recently updated.

Out on the high-desert roads of central Oregon, near Bend, we recently had the chance to put several versions of the 2014 Outlander to the test, and we found that spanning from the Outlander ES up to the Outlander GT V-6, there’s quite a difference in how this vehicle carries itself down the road. The ES four-cylinder that we spent the most time with was much more tossable and light-feeling—softly sprung yet agile, and a bit charming in the way that Japanese vehicles used to be.

The Outlander GT V-6 model no longer feels like a performance-tuned version. While Mitsubishi has cut up to 220 pounds from some versions of the Outlander, here especially the softer springs and in general more body motion signal that this is a model with more power but not the kind of performance chops as before. Yet big steering-wheel paddle-shifters do hint that this is the model for enthusiasts.

Base engine fits right in, but V-6 is underwhelming

Compared to the four-cylinder models, we don’t really see the GT as satisfying, or sensible. From the driver’s standpoint, it’s noticeably more nose-heavy, with a heavier steering feel (officials say the gear and even boost level is the same), and more awkward body motions in tight corners. There’s a lot of body lean in either of these versions, but in either case it’s a better handler than the CR-V; you can slingshot out of tight corners with plenty of confidence in the four-cylinder models.

While the V-6 sounds great when you’re wringing it out; it doesn’t feel that much stronger, and our anecdotal, seat-of-the-pants acceleration check pointed to it being a half-second better to 60, at best. There’s a nearly 300-pound difference between the two, and it makes just 224 horsepower and 215 pound-feet of torque and doesn’t churn out all that much torque at low revs. Takeoffs are quick only because of the six-speed automatic’s much lower first-gear ratio. And in addition to its lack of potency, premium fuel is recommended. Skip it.

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