The Mitsubishi Outlander Sport is a new model intended for younger buyers and smaller families. It's built on the existing Outlander chassis with the same wheelbase, but it's 14.6 inches shorter overall. Most of that is lost cargo space plus a few inches to rear seat legroom.
The 2011 Outlander Sport uses the Mitsubishi 2.0-liter engine that's in the base Lancer, and suffers somewhat because of it. Acceleration is okay, but there's little room to relax at the throttle. The excellent and efficient 2.4-liter engine that's in the Outlander and most Lancers (as well as the Jeep Patriot) was left on the shelf, mostly because the 2.0-liter gets about 2 more miles per gallon. Mitsubishi wanted to hit that magic number of 30 mpg, and in fact it achieved an EPA-estimated 25/31 mpg City/Highway.
We got 27.2 mpg averaging 46 mph during a one-hour run on a two-lane highway in Mexico in the front-wheel-drive Outlander Sport with manual transmission, and 19.7 mpg on the return, driving an all-wheel-drive Sport with CVT and flooring the throttle a few times to pass trucks.
There's a choice of two transmissions, either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a 6-step CVT with paddle shifting, and both are excellent. If you like a manual you'll be happy with this one, or if you prefer an automatic the continuously variable transmission works well, although in many situations you have to shift it yourself or, as with most CVTs in low-powered cars, it feels lame, like it's dragging the car down.
The Outlander Sport doesn't merely reflect the latest Mitsubishi design, it cookie-cuts it. It's a Lancer front half with a downsized Outlander SUV back half. It's a good-looking vehicle, and very clean. The fish face snout takes some getting used to, but that's easy. It rears its snout with particular zeal in the darker colors. Some will never like it, but it is bold and distinctive. Those who like it will call it a shark nose. Others may compare it to a largemouth bass.
It's priced attractively, though options such as all-wheel-drive, super-premium sound system with doors designed around the speakers, and navigation will drive the price up. It offers a full complement of safety equipment.
From an aesthetic standpoint the interior is not exceptional, but it has everything, including a standard hands-free system that links phone, USB attachment, iPod and optional navigation. Leather is not available, but the fabric seats are good, and supportive. The rear 60/40 seat folds flat, and includes a center folding armrest with cupholders and a pass-through to the cargo space behind the rear seats. There's adequate rear seat legroom for a compact crossover, and excellent cargo space when the rear seat is folded flat.
The ride is okay for a compact crossover. You can feel the suspension keeping those undulating bumps away from your butt, however speed bumps break through. Around corners, especially at casual speeds, the steering wheel seems to have a sly little mind of its own, and the shark nose of the Sport wants to inch off in places you don't want it to. When you drive faster, it listens better.
Mitsubishi Outlander Sport ES ($18,495); SE ($22,995)
Addressing the styling, Mitsubishi press materials say the Outlander Sport adds a dash of spice to an otherwise very humdrum segment. We can smile at the cheek of the statement, but we can't argue with it. If you want a small crossover SUV that doesn't get lost in the sea of sameness, the Outlander Sport might be your baby.
It's almost all in the nose. It looks like the hotrod Mitsubishi Evolution, as does the Lancer. The front styling is inspired by jet fighter air intakes, according to Mitsubishi.
But it's not just about looks. The Outlander Sport spent hours in the wind tunnel, to achieve a low coefficient of drag of 0.33. It's not just the front end, but also things under and over the car, for example the muffler and the roof rails, that have been tweaked to improve aerodynamics.
Almost all of the exterior is body colored, which enhances the clean design. A thin shiny ring around the black screen grille is about the only chrome. The headlamps are a sleek trapezoid. The rocker panels are discreet, not slapped-on cladding like so many cars with an uncaring design. A character line sweeps back and up from front wheels to taillights, creating a wedge.
The window outline is graceful, with tinted glass and black pillars enhancing the shape, tapered at the back. This shape follows the roofline, which slopes away to the modest spoiler over the rear glass. The combination LED taillamps again show styling effort, horizontal angles moving from the fenders into the liftgate that bears a tidy shiny Mitsubishi tri-diamond badge.
The wheelcovers on the stock steel 16-inch wheels on the ES aren't ugly, which is about all you can say about any steel wheels, while the 18-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels are beautiful, and add a lot. They're optional on the ES, standard on the SE.
One nice original feature is the plastic front fenders. You can't tell they're not sheetmetal, but go ahead and punch them; they flex in and pop right back out. So forget about parking-lot fender benders, that's a relief. The fenders still scratch, and who can say yet about matching touch-ups or fading, but we think they must be the non-sheetmetal of the future. They're 6.5 pounds lighter than sheetmetal, and nowadays carmakers are looking everywhere to save weight to improve fuel economy.
If the exterior is distinctive, the interior is about as average as they come, from an aesthetic standpoint. We don't want to sell the interior short, because there's a lot of excellent standard stuff, but scanning our notes, we find no highs or lows. It's just there. To put a positive spin on it, you might say there's nothing that will bug you. That's saying something, given the annoying technology on so many cars nowadays.
At least we didn't find any inconveniences, in about four hours of driving the Outlander Sport and trying things out. You might find it, when you try to fit your mega milkshake into a cupholder, or your Great Dane into the cargo space behind the back seat, or when you want an electronic capability that doesn't exist. Although the standard handsfree link system, called FUSE, does plenty, with voice command of phone, USB attachment, iPod, and optional navigation.
These other basic things are there for you: a soft plastic pebble-texture dashboard; an instrument panel with your standard chrome-ringed (SE) or better-looking silver-ringed (ES) tach and speedo that are easy enough to read; a color display with useful information located between the tach and speedo with a scroll button on the dash that you have to reach for but at least it's easy; supportive and reasonably sporty if not cool-looking fabric seats (leather not available), with a higher quality fabric in the SE; tilt/telescopic steering wheel with cruise and audio controls; an attractive center stack with the usual buttons and dials that are easy to operate; doors with decent pockets and good grab handles; two cupholders conveniently located behind a good gated shift lever (CVT) and great shift lever (manual), and a dial that selects FWD, AWD and low range (SE); a deep small console under your left elbow between the front seats (sliding in the SE); an AM/FM/CD/MP3 with a thin digital display (SE).
Come to think of it, trying to read that display with the Mexican sun shining through the optional panoramic glass roof might bug you. The roof, by the way, has LED lighting around it, which we weren't able to view but it might have looked great, framing the Mexican stars. And, while we're talking after-dark equipment, Mitsubishi says that their Super-HID headlamps are 35 percent brighter than most HID lights, and cast a beam 12 degrees wider than the luxury Lexus LS460. They're standard on the SE.
If you're a fan of pushbutton starters (and chrome rings around the instruments), the SE is the model for you. Or if you want the desirable SE equipment (Super-HID headlamps, beautiful 18-inch alloy wheels) but pushbutton starters bug you, that's life. Pushbutton starters have advantages but we think they have distinct disadvantages that often rear their heads at distinctly inconvenient real life moments. So we prefer traditional key starters.
While we're contradicting ourselves about highs and lows, the paddles that shift the CVT rate both a high and a low. High because they're magnesium alloy, so they don't get hot to the touch of your fingers (for example in that Mexican sun); and low because they're all over the place behind your hands, being bigger than necessary.
The Outlander Sport is 2 decibels quieter than the Outlander at cruising speeds, with different tires and sound deadening material added to the floor and headliner.
In the back seat there's 36.3 inches of legroom, which Mitsubishi, showing wild optimism, declares is ample for all passengers. That's only a half-inch less than the full-size Outlander with the optional third row, but more than 3 inches less than the five-seat Outlander. We'd say 36 inches is about what you might expect from a vehicle this size, but not exactly ample. At least not here in the American West.
The rear seat is a 60/40 that folds flat, and has a fold-down armrest with cupholders when a third passenger isn't in the middle. The armrest contains a pass-through hole to carry long thin things like javelins. There are adjustable headrests for all passengers.
There's 21.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, and 49.5 cubic feet with the rear seat folded flat. That's great space for most needs, although a family with two kids on a weekend to the beach might not have enough room for all their stuff. The premium package of options includes roofrails, but actual crossbars that make the rails useful will have to come from the aftermarket.
The cargo floormat is reversible, either carpeted or rubber, and the temporary spare is conveniently stored under the cargo floor.
The 5-speed manual transmission with the Outlander Sport ES is really good, and makes the car fun to drive. If you don't mind doing the work yourself, you'll get a bit more performance. Mitsubishi expects no more than 5 percent of their buyers to choose the ES with a 5-speed.
But you can't get all-wheel drive with the ES, and you can't get a 5-speed with the SE, so there's no Outlander Sport that can feel like a little rugged zippy 4x4 with a stick. When Mitsubishi calls it a crossover, they mean it. The Outlander Sport lives in between.
The acceleration with the 2.0-liter engine is decent. But with just 148 horsepower and 143 foot-pounds of torque, there's no room to spare. If you want to pass on a two-lane, you have to pay attention and be ready, and a running start will sure help to keep you safe by minimizing time in the oncoming lane.
When you couple that engine with the CVT, you've got the convenience of not having to work a gearbox, but you've also got something that feels like it's dragging you down, in Drive mode. In Manual mode there are 6 steps to the CVT, and it responds quickly, so you can work the paddles and get some snap back. But there's that word work again. Still, it's only your brain and your fingers working, not your arm and leg.
The 2.4-liter engine would go a long way toward solving this shortcoming, with only about 2 mpg as a price to pay. But besides wanting to crack the 30-mpg highway barrier, Mitsubishi feared that if the Outlander Sport had the 2.4-liter, it would steal sales from the larger Outlander, rather than from compact competitors.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 25/31 mpg City/Highway for Outlander Sport 2WD, 24/29 mpg for 4WD. On our runs in the city and on two-lanes we got 27.2 mpg in the 2WD ES, and 19.7 mpg in the AWD SE. Because of the way the all-wheel-drive system works, the actual power to the wheels, on dry pavement, should have been no different. So we can't explain such a wide margin, because it was over the same route in the opposite direction, and we only drove slightly harder in the SE, which corners a bit better. According to the federal government, the difference on the highway should have been about 2 mpg not 7.
The ride is satisfactory while not quite feeling smooth on bumpy surfaces, especially speed bumps that are everywhere in Mexico and catch you by surprise, and which jolt you in the Outlander Sport. Over the undulations, you can feel the suspension taking you up and down, without being harsh. Relative to other compact crossovers, the ride should be good because the Sport is the same wheelbase as the midsize Outlander, although it's also about 400 pounds lighter, so the Outlander is a bit smoother.
The steering feels like there are dead spots all over. We had to make frequent corrections to keep the car pointed totally precise. The faster we drove the less of an issue it was; which sounds ironic but, from a dynamics sense, isn't really. Drivers who are less sensitive to these things or who aren't watching for them may never notice, but their hands and the shark-nose of the car will. The Sport uses electric power steering, and that's something new for Mitsubishi. Many manufacturers are switching from hydraulic power steering to electric power steering to reduce engine drag and save fuel, and we often have issues with the feel of electric steering.
The all-wheel-drive system is electrical, not hydraulic, and moves the torque from front to rear but not left to right. A dial on the console sets either FWD, AWD, or Lock. AWD goes from 80 front and 20 rear on dry pavement to as much as 30 front and 70 rear when the tires start slipping.
We drove our AWD SE over some Mexican dirt roads and it handled well, and we had no worries about getting stuck when we ventured onto the beach to watch the kiteboarders.
The all-new Mitsubishi Outlander Sport is a worthy contender in the compact crossover segment and has an attractive base price. Its styling is clean and distinctive and the cabin is quiet and has full utility, with sturdy fabric seats. The ride is good and handling fine around town. The 2.0-liter engine with 6-step CVT with manual mode gets good mileage, but it could use some more oomph.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com following his test drives of Outlander Sport models near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.