Mitsubishi's Montero Sport is by most accounts a perfectly fine sport-utility vehicle - and yet it's so very much like the competition that it doesn't stand out in any way. If you were blindfolded and taken for a ride in the Toyota 4-Runner, Nissan Pathfinder, Isuzu Rodeo and the Montero, you probably couldn't tell the difference. Maybe that's one reason American-made sport-utilities dominate the market. The typical Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer or GMC Jimmy feels more rugged. All three have lustier engines and roomier interiors. Performance, handling Montero Sport has a gem of an engine, a 200-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6. Performance is strong at all speeds. This engine should make city slickers happy: It runs extremely smoothly and very quietly. It's very carlike. ES and LS models can be bought with a five-speed manual transmission. But the top-of-the-line Limited comes only with a four-speed automatic transmission. This gearbox delivers velvety shifts. Our test vehicle was a two-wheel drive model, so I didn't venture off-road. Instead, I drove the Montero Sport where most off-road vehicles in America are driven: to the grocery store, to work and back, to the hardware store and on other nontaxing tasks. Of course, it excelled. For most folks, sport-utilities are really no more than heavy-duty station wagons. But I don't like the Montero's double wishbone front suspension system. It was noisy, and it felt loose when driving over small bumps. I heard some kind of rattling noise coming from the left front wheel. However, the Montero handled just fine. For a tall vehicle, it corners easily and remains stable. And when I drove it over a bumpy dirt road with a washboard surface, the vehicle held steady and remained easy to control. The tight and precise power steering system makes driving the 4,000-pound vehicle quite easy. The steering wheel turns with an added bit of resistance, but the Montero responds quickly and predictably. And a complete circle takes just 41 feet. I had no trouble making U-turns and easing the Montero into parking spaces. The front disc/rear drum anti-lock brakes are strong and work well. Fit and finish The Montero Sport Limited is a midsize luxury sport-utility, but it's a bit smaller than a Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited or an Oldsmobile Bravada. The Montero would be better able to compete with domestic sport-utilities if its interior were about 3 inches wider. Still, for a decent price, it comes packed with luxury features. There is no doubt the Montero is comfortable and well-made. The leather seats are superb - firm but comfortable, and the leather upholstery looks spiffy. The rear seats fold flat, which means the Montero can hold plenty of cargo, such as camping gear, boxes, golf bags or whatever else. The seats fold down quickly and easily; you don't have to wrestle with them as you do on some other off-road vehicles. The tailgate opens up, and that makes loading and unloading easy. Just about every electronic gadget you can think of is standard in the Limited. The list includes a powerful stereo with cassette and CD player, cruise control, sunroof, remote control door locks and built-in alarm system. Generally, the Montero Sport's interior is a nice place to be. The dash is simple and easy to use. Though the instruments are the typical analog gauges, they are pleasingly styled and easy to read. One minor gripe: There really wasn't a place to store sunglasses and keys and other sundries. The space just below the emergency brake is concave, so keys and things slide around when you are driving, and that's annoying. The map pockets in the doors are just wide enough to hold maps and papers. Our test vehicle was built well, looked nice and performed flawlessly. But its lack of character made it boring to drive. Next year, the Montero is due for an overhaul. It gets the better independent rear suspension system usedo n Japanese ma rket models. Let's also hope it gets a little bigger. Right now the Montero Sport doesn't outvalue or outperform any of its domestic competitors. 1999 Mitsubishi Montero Sport Limited Base price: $30,639. Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes and side-impact protection. Price as tested: $31,094. EPA rating: 17 mpg city/20 mpg highway. Incentives: None. Truett's tip: The Montero Sport needs a better suspension system and a bigger interior, but it has a great engine.
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