The new wave of Japanese compact SUVs all look surprisingly similar. Compare the profile of the new Outlander with the RAV4 and you'll have a hard time figuring out which is which. The Outlander has a few interesting design elements, like fender flares and jewel-like taillights. None of the looks, though, are knock-'em dead, especially not the 16-inch wheels on my LS tester. The top-of-the-line XLS trim comes with standard 18-inch wheels. It seems every new Japanese SUV — besides the Mazda CX-7 — is playing it safe in the design department these days, and the Outlander follows the pack.
Here's where the Outlander takes a step back from the competition. Besides the super-soft odor-repellent seat fabric, everything inside looks and feels cheap to the touch, mostly thanks to the plastic used. Korean manufacturers are rapidly catching up to the frontrunners (Toyota and Honda) in the import market, and Mitsubishi is not stepping up its interior quality with the rest.
The design itself is attractive, with amber lighting on the gauges and stereo. Unfortunately, that lighting on the sound system disappears in even moderate sunlight. Other companies with similar-colored displays — like Mazda and BMW — somehow manage to keep their information visible in those situations.
The ergonomics are also so-so. The center armrest is too small and too far rearward, despite its sliding top. My test vehicle had an upgraded stereo — a chest-thumping number — yet the dials that controlled it were minuscule and hard to locate without diverting too much attention from the road. Usually, a set of steering-wheel buttons helps, but the Outlander's were too easy to confuse; I adjusted the station instead of the volume — and vice versa — almost every time.
The best elements of the interior were the comfortable seats and that soft fabric. Mitsubishi says it's made to repel odor, but we didn't have enough time with the vehicle to introduce any harmful aromas to test it out.
Going & Stopping
Besides the price, the best part of the Outlander is its 220-horsepower V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission. Launches from a stop are immediate, and power comes in a steady stream. Cruising at high speeds (the Outlander seems to feel more at home at 75 mph than at 65) is effortless, and the engine barely registers a strain under 80 mph. Merging onto the highway and passing other motorists is unusually enjoyable for this type of vehicle.
The automatic transmission is almost as smooth as the new CR-V's, while the engine provides considerably more power. The combination is far superior to the RAV4 despite the Toyota's higher horsepower figure, and the Outlander is a better highway companion overall. There are optional paddles shifters, but my test vehicle only had an auto-stick feature, which ruined an otherwise superb automatic. After a few tests I never went back to it.
Around town, I quickly became a fan of the steady braking as well. The CR-V probably bests it in this department, but the Outlander is no slouch. I found myself taking note of the Outlander's stopping ability time and again during a week of constant stop-and-go driving in downtown Chicago. This is an attribute that would make the Outlander very easy to live with on a day-to-day basis.
Ride & Handling
Again, this compact SUV shines when it comes to performance. Mitsubishi designed the new Outlander with an aluminum roof, and the light metal gives it a lower center of gravity, allowing it to handle more like a car. That's one attribute shoppers increasingly request in SUVs. Indeed, the Outlander handles steeply banked highway onramps with superb control and minimal body lean, giving the driver a sense of confidence not found in many SUVs — compact, car-based or otherwise.
The ride was also car-like. Bumps were softly muted and road noise was minimal. Wind noise is noticeable at highway speeds, but it seemed to be generated by the large side-view mirrors, not the main body's aerodynamics. It didn't intrude on the cabin enough to disturb conversation.
Available with an optional manual four-wheel-drive system, the Outlander is one of the more affordable four-wheel-drive SUVs on the market. A large dial sits between the two front seats, and a quick turn activates either four-wheel drive or four-wheel-drive lock for slow going.
The Outlander has a cargo area of 36.2 cubic feet, or 72.6 cubic feet with the rear seats folded forward. It has an optional third-row seat, but it's a not-so-useful novelty thanks to its miniscule size and tough set-up. I doubt many buyers will opt for it. Instead, active folks will enjoy the tall space in back for bikes and other gear, as well as a nifty rear liftgate that has an extension for easy loading.
The rear seats fold forward, like the new CR-V, but unlike the Honda they do so with the touch of one handle, not by using two separate straps. This easy system is much preferred, but not as nifty as the RAV4's handles, which are accessible from the cargo area and the backseat.
There are five cupholders for the front passengers and four for the rear. That means you can go on a long road trip without having to stop for more drinks. (Of course, you may have to stop for other reasons first.) The cargo compartments are nothing to write home about, but I've found that most new cars come with so much storage I would never be able to fill them with useful objects.
The new Outlander comes with a variety of standard safety features, including antilock brakes, traction control, a tire pressure monitoring system and side curtain airbags.
Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Service nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has tested the new model. The previous generation earned IIHS' highest rating in the frontal test, Good, but the lowest result, Poor, for the driver in the side-impact test. That test was conducted without the then-optional side airbags, which are now standard. Even without those airbags, the rear passenger received top results in the same side-impact test. The redesigned Outlander has significant structural and feature changes, and I expect higher ratings for the new model.
There aren't a lot of standard features to rave about here. There is a rear heater floor vent, but in 30-degree weather the Outlander took a while to warm up. The rear seats recline and slide forward and back for more legroom. My tester came with three 12-volt jacks, including one in the cargo area. The base ES only comes with one of these jacks; it seems like kind of a silly upgrade. The Outlander should just come standard with all three or split the difference with two.
Far and away, the best part of my test Outlander was the $1,740 Sun and Sound option package, which included a power sunroof and 650-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, an auxiliary jack for MP3 players and satellite radio. The system sacrificed clarity for power and bass thump, but for rock, rap or any other music that sounds better the louder it gets, this will be a winning choice.
Outlander in the Market
I'm not sure how the Outlander will fare in the competitive compact SUV market. If Mitsubishi plays it up as an affordable and utility-laden four-wheel-drive vehicle, to combat more expensive offerings from Subaru, Honda and Toyota, it could do very well, though the company won't be able to say it beats them on any point outside of value and perhaps performance. The Outlander will most likely be the choice of new buyers not already loyal to a brand like Toyota or Honda, and who are looking to save some cash while still getting a lot of vehicle.
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