I certainly don't envy the auto marketers at this particular point in time. And what a time it is, what with the books just closed on the second year in a row of record vehicle sales. That's right, we bought 17.4 million new cars and trucks in 2000, almost half a million more than in the record year before. Even wishful thinkers are willing to concede that it may be some time before we scale these heights again. So what to do in the meantime?
Right off the bat, Mitsubishi-men have an answer: mix 'n' match. Take their popular Montero Sport sport-utility vehicle, for example. If an SUV inventory glut were staring you in the face, you too would be expected to make the most out of what you've already got.
So for 2001, Mitsubishi is offering a curious blend of "affordability" and "pizzazz" in the form of its new Montero Sport 3.5XS. In translation, that means the mid-level LS-version Montero Sport stuffed with Mitsu's higher-displacement, bigger-horsepower V-6 engine previously reserved for the top-of-the-line Limited model. At $27,157 as tested, the two-wheel-drive version of the 3.5XS is meant to offer maximum punch at a minimized price—an admirable goal in these challenging times, but the result is hardly a knockout.
As SUVs go, I suppose 27 grand is in the lower-middle price range—but that leaves aside the issue of whether simple body-on-ladder-frame trucks can actually justify such prices for very much longer. What's perplexing about the 3.5XS's "affordability" is the logic behind its mix of amenities.
Sure, the standard CD stereo, keyless entry, and fog lamps are nice and sporty. But should these come at the expense of safety gear like anti-lock brakes, side or head airbags, and traction control, which are unavailable even as options? It's one thing to mix and match, but it's another matter altogether to get one's priorities mixed up.
2001 Mitsubishi Montero Sport
As for the sporty punch of Mitsubishi's 3.5-liter V-6 in this special XS version, well, it's hardly excessive at just 197 horsepower. It's a great motor, mind you, and its 24-valve, single-overhead-cam architecture is quite effective at pumping out the necessary torque to give this 3800-lb beastie a kick in the pants. A number of collateral factors, however, conspire to quell one's appetite for barnstorming the back roads—or backwoods trails, for that matter—behind the wheel of a 3.5XS.
The less expensive two-wheel-drive version I drove retained the same nosebleed-level ride height of 8.7 inches as the 4WD version. This kind of inattention to center of gravity—particularly in a model hardly intended for serious off-road use—promptly deters racing around on twisty roads.
the stability of the 3.5XS is assured. Psychologically speaking, it feels
uncomfortably tipsy, and the feeling is hardly enhanced by Mitsubishi's
selection of soft, cushy spring rates meant to comfort highway driving. Chalk it
all up to another illogical mix-and-mismatch: A highway-minded 3.5XS perched
atop an off-road suspension is an unfortunate compromise in search of a
There is one constituency willing to be found, if Mitsubishi's marketers will consent to tinker with their message a bit. Given its stalwart rear-drive layout, grunty engine torque, and 5000-lb tow rating, the 3.5XS can make an outstanding choice for the toys-on-trailers crowd.
In this light, the vehicle displays quite a different, and appealing, complexion. Suddenly, a vehicle that isn't exactly sporty becomes a real, companionable sport. It can tow a moderate-sized boat, or a brace of jet skis, or a rack of motorcycles. And it can chauffeur in fairly spacious comfort up to four of the driver's chums to join in an adventure.
The Montero Sport is amply roomy for up to three backseat adults. The generous 43.4 cubic feet of cargo space with all seats in use should be sufficient for most occupants' playthings. But if you value gear beyond camaraderie, you can nearly double stowage to 79.3 cubes by folding the 60/40 split rear bench.
2001 Mitsubishi Montero Sport
My own impression is that this newest parts-shelf version of Mitsubishi's Montero Sport suffers simultaneously from both a split personality and a missing endorsement. In the former case, its off-road stance, two-tone body trim, and macho wheel flares belie the over-comfy suspension tuning that's better suited for the highway than the trail. I can guarantee that your first inkling this babe is overdressed for the party will dawn the moment you bang your calf on the tube-style side rails that are either too high or not low enough to serve as mounting steps into the cab.
How much better it would be if the 3.5XS's ride height—for the 2WD version, at least—were reduced to a more benign five or six inches for highway and city travel. Besides endorsing the SUV's credentials as a utilitarian hauler and puller, the lowered suspension geometry might even improve a bit on the embarrassing mileage rating of 17 miles per gallon city, 21 highway. There are bigger V-8s that produce numbers as good as or better than these.
But of course, tinkering overmuch with the existing bits runs counter to the mix-and-match philosophy that Mitsubishi is wanting to exploit. In an SUV market so gorged with new and imminent products, it's increasingly difficult for any one manufacturer to find anything new and unique to offer.
What's more, all indications are that it will soon be increasingly difficult to sustain high profits for SUVs' truck-derived designs, which are relatively low-cost and low-tech in comparison with cars. Alert to this double bind, Mitsubishi may be trying to respond by offering its 3.5XS as more with less. Some will call this a preemptive strike against the uncertain future. I'm inclined to think of it as the beginning of the end of SUV preeminence.
Mitsubishi Montero Sport 3.5XS
Price as tested: $27,157
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 197 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 181.1 in x 69.9 in x 63.3 in
Wheelbase: 107.3 in
Curb weight: 3835 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 17/21 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, side-impact door beams
Major standard equipment: HVAC, AM/FM/CD stereo, fog lights, keyless entry, power windows/locks/mirrors, tube-style side steps
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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