TUCSON, Ariz. — Like the state it’s a part of, Tucson, located in the southeastern corner of the Grand Canyon State, wears many faces and has many distinct personalities. The region has attracted New Age visionaries and is home to old Spanish missions; there are miles of majestic caves to meander and the unsightly pilings of copper, silver and gold mines; it appears barren and devoid of habitation and, at the same time, boasts a landscaped urban sprawl.
But, mostly, its two distinctions are the marked contrast between its lowland desert and highland mountains. Each is rich with natural beauty and compliments the other.
It was here that Mitsubishi brought its latest version of the Montero to give auto writers a chance to experience this full-sized SUV’s many faces and distinct personalities. After its unveiling at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, Mitsubishi officially launched its third-generation Montero in Tucson, where its on-road handling improvements and off-road capability upgrades could be evaluated in close proximity and in beautiful surroundings.
Frankly, we won't shed any tears as the current model leaves showrooms this spring.
It hails back to another era, when sport-utes were used by only a handful of trekkers and off-roaders motored in far-off corners of the globe. In such duty, it performed flawlessly, negotiating the roughest terrain and enduring the most demanding conditions — and it has the Paris-Dakar rally victories to prove it.
The times have changed, of course, and some of the outgoing Montero's notorious strengths have become weaknesses in the current suburban SUV paradigm. The field-worthy body-on-frame architecture, for example, was unrefined and cumbersome through corners, while the tall profile and slab sides made even minor crosswinds a little too exciting.
More room, less tall
Mitsubishi's greatest challenge with this newest truck was to retain Montero's core strengths while adding the refinement and road manners expected by mainstream American drivers. Some automakers have simply watered down their SUV offerings or stayed away from the heavy-duty market altogether, a profitable and rational strategy and one Mitsubishi refused to adopt. We're happy to say that the no-compromise attitude has paid off: the new Montero is every bit as tough as before and also immeasurably easier to live with. As Land Rover and Jeep have so successfully shown with the Discovery and the Grand Cherokee, the Montero meets with equal aplomb the needs of Beverly Hills and Baja (or Detroit and Dakar.)
2001 Mitsubishi Montero
2001 Mitsubishi Montero interior
First, Mitsu's engineers scrapped the ladder frame and set their supercomputers to work on an all-new unibody structure. Now the side panels of the Montero are made in a single stamping (as opposed to eight on the outgoing model) and all panels are laser-welded and chemically bonded for a rigid, lightweight, and vibration-free body. Along with three times the torsional stiffness of the Y2K truck and the readily apparent advances in refinement, Mitsubishi claims increased crashworthiness as well.
Styling has gone from ‘80s edge to New Edge, and the already-spacious Montero has grown considerably. Wheelbase and overall length are up more than two inches, and while gains were made in front and rear headroom, overall height is down 1.7 inches. Most importantly, the four-inch gain in width cures this Japanese SUV of its previous high-seas ride manners.
Under the one-piece body/frame is an all-new suspension. Mitsubishi was one of the first utility manufacturers to prove that independent front suspension has a place in rugged conditions, and this Asian automaker has now ditched live axles entirely for independent suspension all around. The advantage of independent suspension is most apparent on the road, where ride quality and handling are surprisingly good for an SUV. Nonetheless the 2001 Montero rides with more ground clearance, more wheel travel, and even lower step-in height than the already-respectable second-generation model. Critical as well to Montero's deft on-pavement performance is the new rack-and-pinion steering gear, which delivers more direct response than the previous steering box. Parking lot acrobatics are easier, too, thanks to a reduced turning circle.
2001 Mitsubishi Montero
Under the hood is the familiar 3.5-liter V-6. Rated at 200 horsepower and 235 lb-ft of torque, the motor is more than sufficient around town and does its job smoothly, although it’s not blazingly quick. In the previous model, 0-60 times hovered just over ten seconds — and the new truck is 111 lb heavier.
2001 Mitsubishi Montero engine
Now two transmissions will be offered, both automatic. The four-speed carries over from the outgoing model but gains some computer wizardry for smoother, better-timed shifts. Debuting on the top-spec Montero Limited is a new five-speed autobox with what Mitsubishi calls Sportronic quasi-manual shifting. Typically we just leave these things in Drive and yearn for a real manual transmission, but in an SUV the system seems to make more sense as it allows the driver to hold a particular gear for slippery conditions or towing. (On that note, towing specs are not yet available but we expect the 2001 Montero to haul 5000 lb as before. Both transmissions benefit from standard oil coolers, as well.)
Braking is strong and secure, thanks to vented discs at all four corners. New this year is a multi-mode ABS that provides the typical anti-lock properties on pavement without interfering with off-road driving, as ABS sometimes can. Electronic brake force distribution and a new electro-hydraulic power assist (replacing the large vacuum diaphragm behind the master cylinder) work together for linear response and good pedal feel.
Four-wheel-drive comes in two flavors. The Limited ships with the Active Trac system, which allows the driver to choose between rear drive, full-time all-wheel-drive, high- and low-range 4WD with locked center differential. If we have one "You sold out to the yuppies" gripe it concerns the new shifter: it now operates the transfer case electronically, removing the positive feel and quick action of the old manual system. Montero XLS comes with an outback-proven shift-on-the-fly 4WD and low range. Both versions include a limited-slip rear differential and a 2WD mode for maximum fuel economy.
Inside, there's considerably more room than in the 2000 model. Seating for seven is made possible by a clever third-row seat which now folds completely into the floor and leaves the load area flat and broad. It can also be removed for maximum cargo room. M