2008 Mitsubishi Outlander SE Review

Are beauty and brains enough?

By David Surace
Photos by Kelly Surace

06.10.2008

Mitsubishi Motor North America will be disappointed to learn that I don’t actually listen to the stereo a whole lot when I’m driving. It could be that I’m a two-fisted control freak who’s afraid of distraction; it could be that I want to just unplug and enjoy the drive. Either way, for some odd reason I leave the thing off unless I absolutely have to have it on, for passengers’ sake or to hear important traffic information.

So why should that bother the fine folks at Mitsubishi? Because the Outlander SE that they lent me for a week is an awesomely powerful and versatile hi-fi audio/video system, cleverly disguised as a mere crossover SUV.

And right now, as of paragraph three, I can tell you without question the 650-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system punches FAR above its weight, and you should go out and buy an Outlander right now if a big stereo for small coin is your priority.

But what about the car? The stereo came with a car, right?

You could say that, yes. The Outlander is a mid-size crossover, riding on the same platform that underpins the Mitsubishi Lancer, Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass/Patriot. It’s also sold in Europe as the Peugeot 4007 and Citroen C-Crosser (with huge French noses, of course). This SE model that I tested is new for 2008; it’s a clever way to package some high-end features (that massive sound system, keyless start, a sunroof, paddle shifters, some unique chrome trim) with a smaller engine, a 168 hp, 2.4 liter inline-4, mated to a continuously variable transmission. I always liked this kind of packaging; I’ve never been power-hungry, and I like the idea of more feature content at a lower sticker price (in the case of my tester, $25,240 after destination fee).


She sure is pretty, too. I got plenty of compliments and questions about this vehicle from co-workers and family while I had it. I’m tempted to argue this current generation Outlander is the most handsome vehicle Mitsubishi sells today, with a level of restraint and panache that belongs on more expensive vehicles (and hel-lo, the rest of the Mitsu lineup). There are sharp creases and cut-lines that use ambient light and shadow to draw your eye in a constant sweep over the vehicle. The flanks are simple and unadorned, and look great whether clean or dirty. And quite frankly, of all the model variants in the Outlander lineup, these 18″ wheels that are specific to the SE seem to fill the outsized wheel arches the best. The SE also gets special chrome trim pieces for the doorhandles and runningboards.

I want to give a shout-out to one particular feature: the back end opens in clamshell fashion, with a normal-sized hatch that comes up, and a small, stubby “tailgate” which can support up to 400 lbs. It comes down almost below the bumper line, and brings the load height right down to the floor of the cargo area. There’s only one other vehicle I’ve seen with this feature: the $36,210 Volvo XC90. EDIT: Oops, one other vehicle has it as well, the $18,980 Honda Element.

So there’s a lot to like about this vehicle from the outside. It’s when you get inside that that premium look and feel starts to fall apart. Actually it’s the moment you let go of the exterior door handle, and hear a loud, hollow “pong” reverberate through the door. And then, to adjust your seat, you have to yank and tug at flimsy plastic pieces which bend well past the seat’s ratchet-points. And then there’s the steering wheel, wrapped with a slippery, almost grain-less leather.


Oh, I could go on. So I will: hard plastic everywhere, 2nd row seats which make a tremendous crash-bang when folded, a sunroof that whirrs and buzzes like an industrial sewing machine, knobs and controls that clackity-clack.

This is not to say that any of these things were poorly put together; in fact everything lined up and fit very tightly. These are just the side effects of building a vehicle with such high equipment levels and neat technical features at such a low price point; the money had to come from somewhere.

Aside from all that, the place you notice it the most is the sound deadening material, or rather the lack thereof. Outside sounds, engine noise and road rumble easily permeate the cabin, almost as if you’d left the windows down.

I know some people who are really bothered by these kinds of things, and if you are such a person, this might be a deal-breaker for you. There happens to be a way around it, however. Remember that sound system?

650 watts doesn’t sound like such a large number, and lots of cars nowadays have subwoofers taking up space in the back, but this Rockford Fosgate system in the Outlander is simply beyond reproach. Almost the entire spectrum of music is well represented by this system, from a capella to zydeco. Heck, most deep-voiced talk radio personalities will wobble your inner bits. Even at moderate volume, this system completely eclipses the noise issues I mentioned previously, even without the use of any fancy noise-cancellation technology.

My tester also came equipped with the navigation system, which aside from telling you where to go, also serves as the doorway to myriad customization options and settings, from lights and doorlock functions to individual speaker settings and sound fields. It is also attached to a 30GB hard drive which can rip and store tracks from your CDs through a neat and tidy system called MusicServer. Every time you stick in a CD, it pulls the tracks straight to the hard drive, whereby you can make playlists or organize your music by category or artist or album.


This being a press-fleet vehicle, I got to experience some of the more interesting musical choices from the other journalists who had it before me: one apparently went with kids’ songs; one liked James Taylor; one joker even loaded an audio press-kit from Maserati.

Before and after the Outlander graced my driveway I was not a fan of loud music in the car. During the week I had it, however, my weird taste in Euro-techno-pop was producing minor seismic disturbances all over East Baton Rouge Parish.

Thanks in part to the 168hp 2.4 liter four-pot with MIVEC variable valve timing under the hood, these geologic activities were engaged at a slow and steady pace. This is a good engine, on the large side for a four-cylinder, but the 167 lb-ft of torque on tap is just adequate for pulling around all 3400 lbs of Outlander plus one portly writer and a few friends. Notice I said “thanks in part”; the other part you can thank for that is the continuously variable transmission, or CVT, that is the sole powertrain option for this engine.

CVTs have gotten better over the years, and this is one of the more driveable examples I’ve ever sampled, but it’s still an unsettling feeling for those who are used to instant acceleration with light dabs of the gas pedal. You must extend your right leg almost halfway into the stiff pedal travel and wait, wait, wait to build up speed.

Thankfully, Mitsubishi has seen fit to mitigate this problem somewhat by including a set of magnesium (yes, real magnesium) paddle-shifters behind the wheel, that access six programmed “gear ratios” (they’re not really gears, because the transmission is a set of pulleys). You can either tug a paddle to activate some brief playtime with the “gears”, or yank the shifter over to the left to lock it in Manual mode. An enormous and easy-to-read number appears in place of the “D” icon in the information display to show which gear you’re in, much like an endurance racer or rally car.

Whereas in Drive mode, the CVT keeps the engine simmering at its lowest possible revs all the time, in Manual mode you can zing the tach needle up past 3600 rpm, to a magical place where our friend MIVEC changes the valve timing and cam profile to extract a little more zest from the engine. Unlike most manu-matics, the response time for gear selection with SportShift is nearly instantaneous, and it doesn’t second-guess your decision unless you’re deliberately trying to be silly, at which point it will demurely “ding” instead of bouncing the engine off of redline. (Sequential shift? Ha! More like inconsequential shift.) In any case, I don’t know that it’s actually faster, but it’s a heck of a lot more satisfying. I find that its best use is to downshift while slowing down to induce noticeable engine braking, thereby inducing your wife to fuss at you.

The problem with playing paddle-jockey in MIVEC-land is that it REALLY hurts your fuel mileage–I could barely crack an average of 16 mpg on my first tank of fuel, which consternated me so much that I simply avoided the paddles after my fill-up to see if the situation would improve. My chastity paid off, slightly: 19 mpg on the second tank, in my usual loop of downtown driving and light interstate travel. I think with a little more time (and a lot more restraint) I could’ve eventually hit the EPA bogeys on the sticker, which are 20 mpg city / 25 mpg highway.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, even for someone like me who can still have fun with an “adequately” powered vehicle like this. The irony is that the prim and proper driving style I had to adopt in order to keep from going bankrupt at the pump is totally at odds with the sporting nature of the chassis, steering and suspension. Fun fact: the roof panel in the Outlander is made of aluminum, to push the center of gravity further down in the vehicle. Mitsubishi has been using this same feature in the much-vaunted Lancer Evolution for the same effect.

Despite the marketing schtick, you can feel a little Evo in everything else, too, because the Outlander is completely stuck to the road, whether attacking a flat 90-degree corner or taking a set in the twisties. Probably the best comparison for the steering is a late 90’s BMW 3-series: responsive, high-effort, and a little springy. You simply point the Outlander where you want it, stick your foot deep in the throttle, then let the wheel slide quickly past your fingers and return to center. Rinse, lather, repeat; just be near a gas station when you do it.

One last thing to go over: this being a crossover, each model of the Outlander is available in either 2WD or AWD format, my tester being the latter. The system is all tied into one simple knob located behind the shifter (don’t worry, I thought it was iDrive too) with notches for 2WD (to save gas), 4WD (which transfers at least 15% of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels, and can ramp up to 60% if things get slippy up front), and LOCK (which doesn’t actually lock anything but it does send even more torque to the back wheels, this time on a full-time basis). As with the paddles, you play with this dial at the penalty of gas mileage.

There’s a heck of a lot to recommend this vehicle, but only for the right person. As with all things beautiful AND smart, you can’t have both without some serious character flaws. I don’t know that there’s a specific personality type that fits the Outlander, but it pushes many buttons for many people, some positive and some negative. If lush materials and cave-like quiet are your thing, the Outlander will irritate you like an itchy sweater. If you bow at the altar of fuel efficiency, the Outlander will thumb its handsomely chiseled nose at you.

But if you read all the way down the page, and you still want a gorgeous crossover with a lot of gadgets for not much money, and these things still please you more than its annoyances displease you, then by all means go out and buy one. While you’re at it, feel free to introduce your local seismologist to the latest from the Wiggles.

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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3 Comments

  1. Yeah, I’m not sold. It’s not that I think it’s a piece of junk, but I just can’t see a compelling reason to buy it over one of it’s many excellent competitors. Good review, though, very informative.

  2. The French crossovers from this Mitsubishi original you mention in this article are doing very well in Europe. They’re fairly popular.

  3. It’s not just Europe, Mitsubishi does very well all over the world with their SUV-type vehicles. They make a great mall SUV and a great small truck and the rest of world snap them up.

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