By Chris Haak
Mitsubishi has been having a tough couple of years in the US market. Last year, when the overall light-vehicle market was down 21 percent, the three-diamond company’s sales tanked more than twice as fast as the overall market, with a 45 percent drop. This year, when the rising tide is supposed to be lifting all the boats, Mitsubishi’s US sales are basically flat.
There are two bright spots in Mitsubishi’s sales figures, though: the Lancer compact sedan and the Outlander compact crossover. Not coincidentally, those two models are Mitsubishi’s freshest ones, and the company’s most competent, most normally-styled vehicles. While the aging Eclipse on pace to sell just 5,000 units in 2010, and the fleet queen Galant sedan selling at just about double that pace (and far from the pace of the sales-leading Camry), it seems that Mitsubishi needs to refresh its lineup to have any hope of increasing sales from their depressed levels back to the heady days of zero percent financing loans with no money down to unqualified buyers early in the last decade.
We’ve reviewed 2008 FWD and 2009 AWD Outlanders (here and here, respectively), but those were both the lower-spec four-cylinder trim with CVTs. We liked the packaging and generally liked the looks in those older ones, but were somewhat put off by the CVT transaxle and by the proliferation of polymers in the interior. Literally everything that wasn’t a shift knob or steering wheel was hard plastic.
Mitsubishi’s Lancer is a credible entry in the C-segment, with an aggressive design that features a double-height grille, and also has the performance chops of the turbocharged Ralliart model, and the giant-slaying Lancer Evolution, or Evo. Hoping to capture a bit of that Evo magic as the Outlander enters mid-life, the company added a new GT model with some of the Evo’s trick go-fast parts, threw in a new Evo-like nose on the entire lineup. I’m not completely sold on the Outlander’s new schnoz, but at least it updates the Outlander to fall more in line with the rest of Mitsubishi’s lineup.
You’ll find some of the Outlander GT’s nicest upgrades in the interior. Where we previously found hard plastic and course cloth seats in lower-spec models, the dash is now covered in padded leather-like vinyl with contrasting stitching. The seats are supportive and also boast leather seating surfaces and white stitching that contrast with their charcoal leather/vinyl makeup. Though the hard plastic undoubtedly resides just underneath the vinyl covering on the dash and a millimeter of foam padding, the stitched dash covering creates a great first impression.
Interior room in the first two rows is reasonable, even for a tall (6-foot-4) driver like myself. The driving position is comfortable, and my test vehicle’s navigation system was a nice touch in a fairly-inexpensive vehicle. I’m not a huge fan of the navigation interface that Mitsubishi provides, which requires some hard pushes on the touchscreen display and doesn’t always take the most intuitive path through the menu system. However, I was able to use it effectively without having to crack open the owner’s manual, which is perhaps the true test of its usability.
Mitsubishi has a partnership with Rockford Fosgate, and this means that the Outlander GT’s 710-watt sound system was loud and bass-filled. It doesn’t have the enveloping sound of a Bose system, or the clarity of a Mark Levinson one, but it could probably break windows if let to its own devices (and if the “punch” option is activated via the touchscreen).
Beyond the first two rows, you will find what appears to be a miniature version of a real seat. The composition of this completely unpadded seat is interesting; it’s literally cloth stretched across a rigid frame to allow seating for seven in a pinch, as well as a flat load floor behind the second row when the third-row seat is unused. More importantly, it allows Mitsubishi to market the Outlander as a seven-seater, perhaps fooling buyers who look only at the spec sheet and not actually sitting in that third row into believing that it’s actually a credible seat. The Geneva Conventions prohibit long stints in the third row even for the most hardened terrorists.
The Outlander secondary controls are easy to operate, though the ventilation controls are positioned fairly low and are somewhat hard to reach. One goody added from the Evo’s parts bin is the S-AWC (which stands for Super All Wheel Control) electronic differential control. Operated via a knob in front of the shift lever, the S-AWC knob has settings for Tarmac, Snow, and Lock. While it’s an intriguing bit of technology, I did not have the opportunity to change its setting for snow in June, nor did I take the Outlander GT off the paved road. S-AWC is an active front center differential that controls power, braking, and stability control for each wheel individually. When the differential is locked, a stuck Outlander can get out of tricky situations, but otherwise, its electronic systems seamlessly manage forward and lateral momentum in a way similar to Acura’s also-hyperbolically named Super Handling All Wheel Drive (SH-AWD).
While the powertrain had been somewhat disappointing in prior Outlanders I’ve driven, that was not the case in the Outlander GT. The newly-revised 3.0 liter all-aluminum V6 produces 230 horsepower and 25 lb-ft of torque. While down somewhat compared to the likes of the Toyota RAV4 V6(whose 3.5 liter V6 produces almost 40 more horsepower), the Mitsubishi mill makes some great sounds and likes to be revved. Outlanders equipped with the V6 also ditch the CVT for a conventional paddle-shifted six-speed automatic, and the transaxle and engine make a good pair. Downshifts are quick, the magnesium paddles fall nicely to hand, and the Outlander’s perceived speed is faster than its quantitative speed. The RAV4 V6 is the straight-line performance benchmark of this class, with a mid-six second 0-60 mph time, but the Outlander is only about a second behind its rival, and would likely slaughter the mushy RAV4 when the roads turned curvy.
Fuel economy for the Outlander GT is estimated at 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway; I observed about 20 miles per gallon in mixed driving, which is about what I’d expect to see. Add one mpg for each city and highway for the FWD V6 in lower-spec Outlanders, and the four-cylinder models are rated at 21 city and 25/27 highway (AWD/FWD).
Pricing is pretty aggressive for what you get. With the base FWD four cylinder Outlander starting around $20,000, my loaded test vehicle topped out at $32,990 including destination. The MSRP with destination would be $29,990 without the $3,000 premium navigation and leather package, but everything else is standard. By everything, I mean HID headlamps, AWD, V6, automatic, 710-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with Bluetooth, six airbags, keyless entry and pushbutton start, rear privacy glass, power moonroof, leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, and more.
The Outlander was always one of my favorite compact crossovers from an appearance and packaging standpoint, with only its CVT, underpowered four cylinder, and hard plastic interior getting in the way of it being a very good vehicle. With the Outlander GT, Mitsubishi has resolved all three of those issues and built a very credible competitor to the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 (and the Subaru Forester), while topping the competition in style and roadholding.