Story and photos
by Laurance Yap
I don’t know about you, but I find it endlessly amusing playing six degrees of separation with sport-utility names. Every time a new sport-ute hits the market, the mind wanders, trying to figure out where the inspiration for its name came from, and from what models it hopes some success will rub off. Among the more commonly-referenced names (for acronyms like CR-V and RAV4 are no fun at all) are those with an outdoorsy context Explorer, Discovery, Freelander, Expedition, Navigator, and Forester are amongst the most popular.
And indeed this new Mitsubishi Outlander plays the same game. It’s a fairly simple solution, this time, its name is an innocuous combination of the Land Rover Freelander (connotations of authentic outdoorsiness; go-anywhere ability; and, um, olde-worlde charm?) and Subaru’s Outback (practical wagonish design; tall but not too tall; great to drive on the road but not so wonderful off it). The question is, does the package live up to the expectations set up by the name?
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Well, yes and no. The Outlander actually plays a pretty convincing Outback. Despite the tall ride height and the elevated driving position, it’s an easy, car-like thing to drive, with nicely-weighted steering, fine brakes (with good stopping power but a soft pedal), and handling liveliness that belies its bulky-looking exterior. There’s lots of grip from the Yokohama Geolandar tires, and Outlander is surprisingly nimble and light on its feet, except for a boat-like turning radius.
Another game of six degrees will explain why: the Outlander is based on the Lancer sedan platform, which itself is the foundation for the roadbound terror called the Lancer Evolution, a rally-bred special pumping 300 horsepower through all four wheels and tearing up gravel and tarmac all over the world. Given that Outlander is powered by but a 140-horsepower four-cylinder (there’s a Japanese version with the Evo engine called the Airtrek Turbo R), it’s not surprising that its chassis feels unstressed.
That engine, and its attendant standard four-speed automatic transmission, is probably the Outlander’s metaphorical weakest link. While it’s adequately powerful around town, with a lot of low-end torque for quick blasts from stoplight to stoplight, the engine feels breathless and wheezy at highway speeds.
The automatic is decently responsive, and does its best with quick (if occasionally bangy) downshifts, but there’s only so much it can do; while it’s easy to maintain 120 km/h or so, there’s little left in reserve for passing, meaning you’ll likely just stay in your lane and wait – maybe not such a bad thing, but surely frustrating for Type-A personalities that will buy the Outlander because it has a determined-looking, menacing nose.
Nevertheless, in most driving situations the Outlander provides adequate performance, and it’s an enjoyable car to drive, with a light-on-its-feet feel that’s only let down by slightly slow steering and a massive turning circle. Besides, you’re more likely to be seduced by the virtues of its comfortable, roomy, and flexible interior. My XLS-trimmed tester had excellent seats covered in hard leather, but the standard cloth items are better, softer, and more supportive. The headrests are hollowed out so you can see through them, and visibility out the sides and to the rear is very good.
The cargo area is large and fairly easy to access – though the bumper is pretty high – and expands by pulling a couple of levers to flop the seats forward; so configured, the Outlander will swallow surprisingly huge holes. The back seat has enough headroom and legroom for larger-than-average adults. Small storage spaces, from a deep console bin to big cupholders and a pocket under the radio, are abundant, though the map pockets in the doors are tiny and can barely hold a good-sized car magazine.
Lest we forget, the Outlander’s exterior is a pretty attractive thing, too. Especially painted in silver, it manages to look elegant and aggressive at the same time with its chiseled lines, tinted glass, and nice detailing like the aftermarket-look tail lights and the big, easy-grip door handles. I’m not used to what amounts to a fairly normal small SUV attracting quite so much attention – neat advertising or not. It’s a very attractively priced small SUV as well, starting at just $26,757 including all the desirable features like automatic transmission, air conditioning, and all the power accessories. A fully-loaded XLS with leather and sunroof barely breaks the $30,000 barrier – not bad when you consider that a fully-loaded Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V can go for $2000 more, with less equipment and less style.