The Mitsubishi Outlander is a tidy and versatile sport utility vehicle that offers a choice of a thrifty four-cylinder engine or a responsive V6, two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, five or seven-passenger seating, an affordable price, and an appealing list of standard and optional features, all wrapped up in an attractive and modern shape.
The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is standard on Outlander ES and SE models, which are EPA-rated 20/25 mpg City/Highway. The four-cylinder engine is matched with a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, designed to offer good fuel economy and operating smoothness. The Outlander XLS is standard with a 220-horsepower V6, which is matched to a six-speed automatic with a sport-shift feature, and a sophisticated four-wheel-drive system.
The Outlander can seat up to seven passengers when equipped with a fold-down, compact third-row seat. All models come with a full complement of occupant safety features. The Outlander features an electronic skid and traction control system and a modern four-wheel independent suspension. Its available four-wheel-drive system is designed more to be pavement-friendly than backwoods-capable.
The Outlander can be equipped to be quite luxurious, boasting automatic climate control, leather-trimmed seats, a rear-seat entertainment system with a nine-inch LCD screen and wireless remote and headphones. A GPS navigation system featuring a seven-inch touch-screen is available with a hard disk for speedy data retrieval and recorded audio tracks. Formula 1-style magnesium shift paddles mounted on the steering column allow the driver to shift manually, while a keyless ignition system eliminates the need to fuss with keys.
All Outlanders are available with front-wheel drive (2WD) or all-wheel drive (4WD). The four-cylinder version is rated to tow 1500 pounds; the V6 is tow-rated at 2000 pounds with 2WD, and 3500 pounds with 4WD because the 4WD models come with a bigger radiator.
For 2009, a third row, giving seven-passenger seating capacity, is optionally available with the four-cylinder SE model, the factory-optional navigation system on the XLS six-cylinder model now includes a rear-view camera and the hard-disc drive capacity is increased from 30 GB to 40 GB. Other changes for 2009 include some new features and trim details. The LS V6 model has been dropped.
Competitive performance, fuel economy, and interior space along with aggressive pricing make the Mitsubishi Outlander a compelling SUV.
The Outlander is a four-door SUV capable of seating five or seven. Up front is an understated, traditionally shaped grille opening with the three-diamond Mitsubishi trademark floating on thin, horizontal bars. The lower portion of the front bumper opens into a large air intake above a skid plate-looking under-panel. Headlight covers blend cleanly into the surrounding fascia and fenders.
The side view shows a sleek, rounded shape with deeply creased fender blisters that outline circular wheel wells, which are better filled by the 18-inch wheels than by the 16-inchers. The side glass tapers toward the back end, playing to the wedge look and ending in a substantial, sharply angular D-pillar. Front and rear bumpers flow seamlessly into their respective quarter panels. Easy-to-grip door handles sit atop full-round indents.
The rear has a unified look. The liftgate reaches all the way down to the top of the bumper, which functions also as a small, fold-down tailgate designed to support up to 440 pounds — so no worries sitting on it at tailgate parties. A nice feature of the little tailgate is that it forms a small barrier at the back of the cargo bay, so that when you open the main liftgate your cantaloupe doesn't coming rolling out onto the ground, which has happened to us with other SUVs.
The sides of the Outlander bend inward toward the top, adding a distinctively aero-look to an otherwise mostly boxy shape when viewed from behind. Many of the seams and lines draw the eye to the Mitsubishi trademark centered in the lift gate. The spoiler topping the backlight extends directly from the roof.
Inside, the Outlander looks and feels upscale, quiet, and mature, with tasteful metallic trim and tighter integration of controls and fixtures. The front seats have deep bottom cushions that give good thigh support. Side bolsters do their job without being overly confining. Lumbar and height adjustment offer sufficient range to accommodate almost every body shape and dimension. The Outlander competes with the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-7, and Toyota RAV4. Compared with those vehicles, the front seats of the Outlander offer headroom that's firmly in the upper half of the class and comparable legroom, though hip room is relatively tight.
The second-row seats are contoured more like bench seats than buckets. Second-row legroom is among the best in the class. The XLS offers reclining rear seatbacks and the second row slides 3.2 inches fore-and-aft. Headroom and hip room for second-row passengers is below average for the class. The second-row seats are split 60/40 for versatility with cargo and passengers.
Access to the third-row seat is surprisingly easy for a sport utility of this size. The second-row seat folds flat and then rocks forward against the back of the front seat, opening an expansive path to the rearmost seat; there's even a small courtesy light on the second-row seat bottom that illuminates the floor when the seat bottom is released. Once back there, though, the third-row seats are not comfortable for adults. The seat bottom and seat back are mere inches in thickness, and the seat sits so close to the floor that adult occupants' knees come to about shoulder height. The Outlander's third-row seat comes up short against the RAV4 by a couple of inches in every direction. And the RAV4 seat is really a seat, with cushions instead of pads.
Collapsing the third-row seat into the cargo floor is relatively easy, requiring little more than pulling a couple straps and pushing where noted. Not so retrieving it. Even with the short tailgate, getting to a couple of the requisite straps and then leveraging the seat up out of the floor and locking it into place makes for some awkward stretches and strains. Still, for kids or short jaunts, the Outlander fulfills its purpose as a seven-passenger vehicle.
In cargo room, the Outlander bests all the competition save the CR-V and RAV4, and it loses to those two only slightly. Outlander's short tailgate incorporates a feature we've noticed only on high-end SUVs, a flap that folds down when the gate is open to bridge the gap over the gate's hinges. Thus, not only is there a short tailgate that eases loading and unloading cargo, but also it's a lot easier sliding awkward and heavy boxes into and out of the back. This adds to the Outlander's practicality when moving stuff around.
Cubby storage is respectable. A bi-level glove box fills the top and bottom of the right side of the dash. All four doors have bottle holders, the front ones sharing space with maps and the like. The front console has four cup holders, the second-row fold-down center another two. Even the third-row seat has cubbies on the side. Atop the storage compartment in the center console is a padded cover that adjusts fore and aft a couple inches.
Sight lines from the driver's seat are good most ways around. The front corners are in view, easing parking and maneuvers in close quarters. The robust D-pillars restrict the over-the-shoulder view, however. The dropped-down screen obscures the rearward view when the kids are using the rear-seat entertainment system, but this is common with most of these systems.
The fabric upholstery that comes standard feels durable, the optional leather in the XLS is pliant. The fit and finish in the cabin impressed us. Easy-to-use knobs and buttons manage temperature and other functions. Buttons stacked along the sides of the LCD monitor provide basic access to the navigation system. A major plus with the navigation system is that it and the sound system have separate on/off buttons. Many such systems in other vehicles do not. The tachometer and speedometer are appreciably large with clear markings, but are so deeply recessed that reading them with a glance is difficult unless you're precisely aligned with their surrounding tunnels.
The stereo that comes standard delivers better-than-average sounds. The speed-compensated volume and equalization help mask the low-level road noise and wind rustle from around the outside mirrors. The up-level, Rockford-Fosgate stereo, with 650 watts and eight speakers and a 10-inch subwoofer, converts the Outlander into a rolling boom box, but with more clarity in the treble notes than is common in such systems.
The Outlander ES and SE models come with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine based on the same dual-overhead-cam architecture as the 2.0-liter engine that powers the latest Lancer. And that's a good thing. The 2.4-liter Outlander engine delivers 168 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 167 pound-feet of torque at 4100. It gets an EPA-rated 20/25 mpg City/Highway, 2WD or 4WD.
The four-cylinder comes with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic. (Instead of a fixed set of gear ratios, a CVT relies on a pulley system that provides infinitely variable ratios, a true shift-less transmission.) The floor-mounted control lever permits the driver to select modes labeled P-R-N-D-DS; where the first four are the familiar Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive. DS in this case mimics the operation of other sporty auto-manual shifters by providing manual operation through six pre-selected ratios. Order the SE, and you can zip up and down through the ratios via shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel; ES pilots will have to make do with the floor lever.
The V6 boasts comparable fuel economy as the four-cylinder on the highway. The V6 gets an EPA-estimated 17/23 mpg with 4WD, and it rates 24 mpg on the highway with 2WD.
The 3.0-liter, single-overhead-cam V6, like the four-cylinder, features four valves per cylinder with MIVEC valve-timing control, plus two-stage variable induction for strong power at a wider range of engine speeds. In most states the V6 rates 220 horsepower at 6250 rpm, dropping to 213 in states where the Outlander V6 is sold as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV). (A window decal will tell you if the Outlander on your dealer's lot is a PZEV.) We doubt you'd notice the difference, especially given that, either way, the V6 rates 204 pound-feet of torque. It's torque, not horsepower, that you feel more in everyday driving, propelling you away from traffic lights and smartly up hills.
We found the V6 smooth and powerful and the six-speed automatic that comes with it manages the delivery of that power with finesse. Throttle tip-in from a stand-still is a bit sensitive, requiring some tempering of the right foot for smooth starts. Under hard acceleration, there's a trace of torque steer, a phenomenon common on front wheel-drive vehicles, where the steering wheel pulls to one side or the other under hard acceleration. The engine and transmission computer mapping seems focused more on gas mileage than silky gear changes and optimal power delivery. This is most apparent at moderate road speeds in the higher gears and under light loading, when what feels like torque-converter lockup holds the engine at relatively low rpm. Likewise, kickdowns for passing or for merging onto freeways are relatively languid.
At speed, the Outlander handles freeway and even extra-legal speeds with ease. Initially, careful attention to the speedometer is vital to avoiding roadside discussions with the authorities. The ample torque from the V6 engine reduces the need for downshifting on upgrades.
The steering is responsive and offers good feedback. The ride is comfortable and well managed and it's stable on the highway. The disc brakes have dual-piston calipers in front and single-piston calipers in back for firm pedal feel and sure stopping, backed by ABS and Electronic Brake-force Distribution for stable braking in an emergency. The Outlander has an aluminum roof, which is 11 pounds lighter than an equivalent steel roof, and this drops the Outlander's center of gravity almost half an inch. A lower center of gravity makes for a vehicle that leans less in corners and is less likely to roll over. The result is a confident Outlander, with crisp turn-in and relatively flat tracking through curves. In sportiness, it's competitive with the class.
The four-wheel-drive system features three selections controlled by a single knob mounted in the center console just aft of the shift lever. One setting, the most fuel-efficient, engages the front wheels only. Another setting is 4WD Auto, which apportions power front-to-rear according to speed differences between front and rear wheels, but with some power (up 40 percent) always going to the rear wheels for more balanced handling. The third setting is 4WD Lock, which is actually a misnomer, as it doesn't truly lock front/rear power distribution in the same manner as with a true four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle. What it does is give the rear wheels preference in power distribution, directing as much as 60 percent their way under full throttle on dry pavement. This is the more fun, more agile setting. It thoroughly suppresses any front-wheel drive contortions yet provides front-wheel traction when needed, but all the while responding to power and steering inputs more like rear-wheel drive. The 4WD system adds about 140 pounds of weight, some of it in the form of unsprung mass, which deadens suspension response somewhat over rippled or broken pavement. Road noise is more evident in the 4WD models.
The navigation system features Diamond Lane Guidance, an industry-first development that includes HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane information along with the usual directions. Using HOV lanes, where permissible and accessible, can help reduce driving times. The navigation system with music server is available as a factory option only on XLS but can be added to any other model (at slightly higher cost) as an accessory.
The Mitsubishi Outlander offers four-cylinder and V6 engines and sophisticated four-wheel-drive technology. The cabin is comfortable, spacious and user-friendly, with available state-of-the-art entertainment and navigation systems. Top-notch occupant safety equipment and crash avoidance features are standard across the line.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Northern Virginia. John Katz in Pennsylvania reported on the four-cylinder model.