2003 Mitsubishi Montero
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by Greg Wilson

Sportier than your average SUV

Though well-established in 170 countries and winner of numerous Paris-to-Dakar rallies (in competition form), the Mitsubishi Montero is a newcomer to Canada, and needs a brief explanatory overview. The Montero is Mitsubishi’s biggest, top-of-the-line SUV (not to be confused with the smaller Montero Sport) and has three rows of seats – but it’s not a full-size SUV. It’s about the same length as a mid-size Ford Explorer or a Honda Pilot, but wider than the Explorer and narrower than the Pilot. It’s also in the same $40,000 to $50,000 price range as other mid-sized SUVs like the Explorer, Pilot, 4Runner, Trailblazer, and Durango.

Standard features like a 215 horsepower 3.8 litre V6 engine, 5-speed automatic transmission with manual mode, a sophisticated four-wheel-drive system, unit body design, fully independent suspension, healthy 16 inch tires, and four wheel disc brakes, make the Montero sportier than typical mid-size SUVs. Its styling too is more aggressive: note the Montero’s fender bulges in the hood; protruding rear fenders; bold, blunt,nose; long roof and shaded side windows; and extensive use of body cladding around the fenders and sides.

In Canada, 2003 Monteros are offered in two trim levels, XLS ($41,987) and Limited ($48,507). XLS models have all the above equipment plus standard front and side airbags, air conditioning, 140-watt AM/FM stereo CD player, power windows with power reserve, power door locks, heated power side mirrors, height-adjustable steering column, two-speed variable intermittent wipers, 16 inch alloy wheels, and a full-size alloy spare wheel and tire.

The Limited model, this week’s test vehicle, adds a 315-watt Mitsubishi/Infinity AM/FM/CD audio system with 7 speakers, automatic front climate control, rear air conditioning and heating, an oversized power moonroof, front fog lights, heated 14-way power front seats, illuminated side steps, and Mitsubishi’s Active Skid Traction Control System (M-ASTC).

My test car also had the optional dash-mounted colour LCD screen which displays a compass, date and time, km-to-empty, and outside temperature. With this option, the as-tested price of my vehicle came to $48,946.

Roomy for five, but not seven

The Montero’s cabin is very roomy for five people, but third row passengers will find legroom cramped. Because it’s fairly wide, front passengers have plenty of elbow room, and there’s enough room for three rear adult passengers. Headroom and legroom are plentiful for both first and second row passengers – and a nice feature is reclining second row seatbacks. As well, second row passengers have their own heater controls and air vents (Limited models), twin cupholders, and a covered storage bin.

A cleverly-designed third-row seat disappears into a well in the cargo floor when not in use. When it’s in the upright position, the storage well adds to what would otherwise be limited cargo area behind the seat. Alternatively, the third-row seat can be removed completely, leaving the deep storage well and rear cargo area for carrying cargo.

2003 Mitsubishi Montero
Click image to enlarge

The luxurious interior of the Limited model includes heated leather seats with power driver’s seat and front passengers seat, attractive wood trim on the dash and steering wheel, metallic accents on the console and doors, and an attractive, if busy, dash design.

My test vehicle came with the optional colour display near the top of the centre stack which includes a compass readout, a digital clock, date and time, miles to empty, and outside temperature. I found all of these features quite useful, and the display easy to read because of the bright colours and large lettering.

2003 Mitsubishi Montero
Click image to enlarge

The optional 315-watt Mitsubishi/Infinity AM/FM/CD audio system with 7 speakers is awesome – it has an excellent range with clear, distortion-free sound that surrounds you like a concert hall. The Montero Limited also includes automatic climate control for front passengers and rear seat manual fan and temperature controls for second row passengers. The rear controls are handy for quickly heating up or cooling down the rear passenger area when the vehicle has been sitting outside for many hours.

Without the third-row seat in place, the cargo area is roomy – almost three feet long and 1016 mm (40 in.) wide between the wheelhousings. One or both of the rear split seats can be ‘tumbled’ over to increase cargo area substantially, but there’s a trick to getting them to move back into position – press on the black strut release underneath the seat cushion. The cargo area is carpeted and includes a 12 volt powerpoint in the trunk for coolers and accessories.

The Montero’s rear cargo door opens sideways towards the curb, and though it’s not difficult to open, the door is wide and bulky with a full-size spare tire on the back. When open, it blocks access to the sidewalk and it can’t be opened completely if there is a another vehicle parked close behind. On the plus side, the cargo opening is tall and wide for loading large objects.

Driving Impressions

2003 Mitsubishi Montero
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The Montero has plenty of ground clearance and tall P265/60R-16 inch tires, so the step-up height is higher than a car or minivan. You can use the step bar to help get in to the driver’s seat, but I found it just as easy to launch myself over it.

The driver’s outward visibility is enhanced by the Montero’s tall ‘greenhouse’ cabin – vision to the rear is only slightly obstructed by the spare tire mounted on the rear cargo door. An intermittent wiper on the rear window really helps visibility by clearing away grime, dust, rain, snow and ice that accumulates on the vertical service.

The 2003 Montero has a 3.8 litre SOHC 24 valve V6 engine, delivering 215 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 248 lbs.-ft of torque at 3,250 rpm. It’s punchy off the line, and has good mid-range passing power as well. New for 2003 are electronic ‘throttle-by-wire’ controls that reportedly improve engine response and work in concert with the vehicle’s new electronic anti-skid system.

On the freeway, the engine is very quiet, doing just 2200 rpm at 100 km/h and 2500 rpm at 120 km/h. There is surprisingly little tire or wind noise.

Premium fuel is recommended, but the engine will run on Regular fuel with slightly decreased horsepower. The Montero gets 16.1 l/100 km (18 mpg) in the city and 11.5 l/100 km (25 mpg) on the highway – that’s about the same as a Ford Explorer, but not as good as the Honda Pilot. Note, the Montero’s fuel filler release lever is an unusual place: under the dash just to the left of the centre console.

2003 Mitsubishi Montero
Click image to enlarge

Both the Montero XLS and Limited come with a standard five-speed automatic transmission iwth ‘Sportronic’ sequential shifting capability. The transmission can be shifted manually by moving the lever into a gate on the right side, and pushing forward to change up, and back to change down. I found shifts to be quick and responsive, but its real value may be in holding the transmission in gear while traversing steep and difficult terrain. In Sportroni mode, the driver can rev the engine right to redline without allowing the transmission to upshift. If the driver does not upshift, the fuel cutoff will intervene, but the transmission will remains in the selected gear. The only time Sportronic will override the driver’s command is when it is not downshifted to first gear when stopping. In that case, the transmission will automatically select first gear.

The Montero features a four-wheel-drive system that allows the driver to choose rear-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive high range with a locked centre differential, and four-wheel-drive low range with a locked centre differential. As well, a new electronic system makes it easier to switch from 2WD to 4WD. For example, to engage ‘Four High’, you push down on the smaller floor shift lever next to the transmission lever, and push gently – it’s very easy although there is a noticeable ‘thunk’ from somewhere under the floorpan.

2WD can be used for most dry pavement situations, and by not activating 4WD, you’ll get better fuel economy. All-wheel-drive mode is best for winter conditions when weather and road conditions are variable or slippery. The Montero’s centre viscous coupling implements a 33/67 front/rear power split – with less power flowing to the front wheels, the vehicle is less likely to understeer when accelerating out of a turn. 4WD High with a locked centre differential (a 50/50 front/rear torque split) is meant for loose surfaces only when traction is very poor; and 4WD Low Range is meant for truly adverse off-road conditions. The Montero driver certainly has his/her choices.

Mitsubishi replaced the previous mechanical limited slip differentials that had been available as option packages before, with a new Active Skid and Traction Control system. This computer-controlled traction system retards engine power and uses braking at individual wheels to regain traction and stability if the vehicle goes into a spin.

While driving the Montero, I was surprised at its agility and control. In particular, the speed-sensing, variable power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering was quick and responsive, and the Montero’s independent suspension (double wishbone front, multi-link plus coil springs rear) proved good at handling bumpy, potholed roads. There wasn’t much lean in the corners, and minimal dive and pitch under braking, and cornering. However, there was considerable ‘booming’ from the suspension over rough roads that turned the cabin into an echo chamber, depending on the speed and road surface. This was my most serious complaint about the Montero.

With four wheel disc brakes, electronic front-to-rear brake distribution based on load, and standard four-channel anti-lock brakes (ABS), the Montero exhibited excellent braking behaviour and short stopping distances. Mitsubishi’s MultiMode ABS varies braking performance to accommodate different surfaces, such as hard pavement when in 2WD and loose surfaces in 4WD.

The Montero makes a great foul-weather vehicle. Its high ground clearance, big tires, all-wheel-drive with low range and locking centre differential, computerized traction and anti-skid control, and great visibility add up to a great off-pavement vehicle. Only a shorter wheelbase and a shorter rear overhang would make this a better off-roader.

Still, I spent most of my time driving on paved roads, and enjoyed its power, luxury, good visibility and quiet cabin. Only the harmonic vibrations when travelling on rough surfaces or gravel were cause for complaint.

Competitor overview

The Montero is more agile and dynamic than vehicles like the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Trailblazer, but not as powerful or refined as the Honda Pilot, and Toyota 4Runner. The Montero’s distinctive styling certainly has presence, and it’s an exciting vehicle compared to many of its more conservative mid-sized competitors. In fact, its design is getting on in years, but since Canadians haven’t been exposed to the Montero until now, it looks refreshingly different.


A more exciting, fun-to-drive SUV than many of its mid-sized competitors, the well-equipped Montero is roomy for five, if not seven, is extremely versatile on and off the pavement, but suffers from vibrations over certain surfaces.

Technical Data:

Base price (XLS) $41,987
Base price (Limited) $48,507
Options $439 (LCD Information screen)
Price as tested $48,946
Type 4-door, 7 passenger mid-size SUV
Layout transverse front engine/RWD/AWD/PT 4WD
Engine 3.8 litre V6, SOHC, 24 valves
Horsepower 215 @ 5500 rpm
Torque 248 lb-ft @ 3250 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic w/manual mode
Curb weight N/A
Wheelbase 2780 mm (109.4 in.)
Length 4830 mm (190.1 in.)
Width 1895 mm ( 74.6 in.)
Height 1815 mm ( 71.5 in.)
Ground Clearance 219 mm (8.6 in.)
Cargo Volume 2730/2597 Litres (96.4 cu. ft./91.7 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 16.1 l/100 km (18 mpg)
  Hwy: 11.5 l/100 km (25 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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