Mitsubishi Outlander competes with other compact SUVs

Friday, August 20, 2004

Mitsubishi Outlander competes with other compact SUV models

SUV, AWD, ABS, MIVEC, EBD, RISE, RPM, MSRP, MPG and WOW! There are enough acronyms in today's automotive jargon to drive a Scrabble junkie bonkers. Do you know what they all mean? Read about this week's test vehicle, a 2004 Mitsubishi Outlander XLS special-use vehicle with all-wheel-drive and anti-lock braking system, and you will.

With eye-catching, aggressive front-end styling that reminds me of a Pontiac, a distinctive rear end sporting clear lenses over red taillights, and macho roof rails resembling a Nissan Xterra, this midsize vehicle is far from inconspicuous in a sea of SUVs. Good-looking is the first compliment I'll give it.

The second is drivability. The Outlander is a unibody design built on the Mitsubishi Lancer sedan platform. The MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link, trailing arm rear are modified, and standard tires are upgraded to 16-inchers. So, the Outlander rides and drives like a heavy-duty car. The ride is supple, body motions are well-controlled, extra sound deadening provides a quiet experience and the power rack-and-pinion steering was precise and confidence inspiring.

Introduced for the 2003 model year, the Outlander was designed to be a versatile five-door vehicle, offering front-wheel and AWD versions in the "compact" SUV category. That's a very crowded class, with strong competition from Japan, Korea and the U.S. Like other entry crossovers, the Outlander is powered by a 4-cylinder engine and carries a manufacturer's suggested retail price in the teens. My test vehicle listed for a reasonable $22,944. This year's model has been upgraded with a more powerful 4-cylinder engine producing a robust 160 horsepower thanks to the new MIVEC (Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing and lift Electronic Control) engine that translates into enough get-go to pin you back into your contoured seat.

Speaking of seats, they're excellent, and I appreciated the Outlander's interesting, well-equipped interior, with soft materials where they are supposed to be. There's carpeting in the versatile cargo compartment, so things placed back there don't tend to rattle or slide around. Knobs and buttons had a good feel, and even the big roof rack didn't produce wind noise. Yakima makes cross bars and a full range of nifty cargo accessories, so perhaps when they're installed there might be a little howling from above. But Mitsubishi adds noise-canceling foam to the Outlander's window pillars and uses sound-deadening asphalt in the floor, so it shouldn't be a big problem.

The Outlander can accommodate five passengers, and all have three-point safety belts. Those backseat passengers will be close, but large door windows that go down nearly all the way, and see-through front-seat headrests provide an open feeling. With just four aboard, the nifty fold-down armrest/cupholder in the back seat comes into play, and riders will appreciate the adjustable seat backs that partially recline for long trip comfort. Of course, the front seats recline completely, and feature adjustable height and lumbar for the driver. Legroom was adequate in both the front and rear. My test vehicle had a power moon roof that is included in the AWD option. It took away some of the front-seat headroom, but it was still more than adequate for my 5-foot-10-inch frame. The Outlander's 24.4 cubic feet of cargo space is about equal to what you find in a Pontiac Vibe. But because the Outlander is longer than the Vibe, the Outlander has more maximum cargo room -- 60.3 cubic feet compared to 57.2 cubic feet in the Vibe, according to manufacturer specs -- once the rear seats are folded flat. This compares with 72 cubic feet in the Honda CR-V.

Only an automatic transmission is offered in the Outlander, which should not be a problem for 98 percent of drivers. The other 2 percent will have to be satisfied with the excellent selectronic transmission that offers clutchless selection of gears. Simply shift into drive, then pull the shifter over into the manual notch to control the shift points as desired. It works great either way -- the transmission is smooth and quick to downshift when you tromp on the gas. When you hit the brakes you'll appreciate the electronic brakeforce distribution. The acceleration is good as the AWD version weighs only 3,461 pounds, thanks to the unibody construction which features Refined Impact Safety Evolution that provides strategically placed reinforcements and energy-absorbing crumple zones. In government crash tests, the Outlander received four out of five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in a frontal collision. Side-impact tests resulted in a five-star rating for front passenger protection and a four-star rating for rear passengers. In frontal offset tests conducted by the IIHS, the Outlander received an overall rating of "good" (its highest). It received a "poor" rating (the lowest) from the IIHS for side-impact protection on models without side airbags.

Despite its outlandish list of acronyms, the Outlander is a great little SUV that shouldn't cost you an AAAL (arm and a leg) to own. It is what Mitsubishi calls one of the "best-backed cars in the world," thanks to a newly announced warranty and maintenance program. The 3-year/ 45,000-mile free scheduled maintenance program, a 5-year/60,00- mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain limited warranty should bring in LONCs (lots of new customers).

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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