Here comes another so-called "crossover" vehicle -- part station wagon, part SUV, part smooth-cruising sedan.
But today's test car, the 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander, arrives at a starting price just above $20,000, looking quite luxurious, and handling like a small, tight car.
Crossovers are supposed to make you feel like you are in an SUV, but have the road feel of a subtle highway cruiser, not a bruising truck.
That's not to say that a driver doesn't feel its rigid construction on the road. You should because that kind of feel leads to proper handling. Straight ahead on the highway, the Outlander behaved like a road-ready rocket (if 220 horsepower still warrants the "rocket" label). But it did leap ahead and hold its speed with ease.
The 204 lb.-ft. of torque, though seemingly a bit low, was plenty to tug it forward when pulling out to pass, kicking in appreciably at about 2,000 rpms.
Moving into and out of lanes meant encountering the body's rigidity. Body roll was minimal -- no small feat for a vehicle that looks to sit fairly high and give the driver an SUV-like gaze of the highway ahead. That was true in fast entrances on highway ramps, and in tough cornering on back country roads. The price paid was a bit of butt-felt shudder when roads turned to dirt and washboard pounding replaced smooth highway cruising. But you can't have it both ways, so you live with the shudders on those rare occasions.
The Outlander is powered by an all-aluminum V-6 that is remarkably quiet and subtly powerful. It is the only engine that comes with this vehicle, but it is likely the one you would choose even if four- or eight-cylinder versions were available.
We had an all-wheel-drive model (two-wheel drive is another option) and managed about 22 miles per gallon -- not great, but good enough for a commodious "small" SUV.
The engine is linked to a six-speed transmission that offers a manual mode. I left it in automatic most of the time and it let the engine run up on revs before upshifting, downshifting appropriately when I eased off on the gas. For hard cornering I used the manual option so that a lower gear than the automatic would have selected was available. I'm sure this option would be of great use in snow or mud.
The manual shifts are done with paddles on the wheel -- Formula One racing technology extends to cost-effective crossovers -- and though the shifts were a bit sluggish compared to the auto/manual options on sports cars I have driven, they put me where I wanted to be in plenty of time. I'm not asking a small crossover to be a Porsche with Tiptronic.
The test car came with a third row that is more suited for young children or luggage than adults, but that is to be expected in a car obviously aimed more at the smaller crossover market. The third row, which folds flat, is a useful accommodation in a pinch (and pinch is the word here), but should not be considered an option for seating for adults or for long trips. Consider folding it flat beneath the cargo deck and opening up lots of space for luggage and gear.
Inside, large knobs control basic functions, even the left-right click from two- to four-wheel drive. Multi function control buttons adorn the three-spoke steering wheel, left and right, while gauges that look like they have grown aluminum eyebrows jut from the dash.
The seats are firm and flat, not as heavily bolstered as those in more expensive autos, but plenty comfortable.
Outside, the look is graceful, yet muscular, with a jutting lower fascia that features a large, webbed intake vent twixt "skid panel" and upper bumper, bulging projections above the wheels, and rocker panel ribbing.
It all makes for an attractive package, one that will certainly make folks ask: "What are you driving?" That happened to me several times.
The booming crossover market has opened the gate to many competitors who have been left out of the SUV/pickup truck/luxury sedan market in recent years.
With the Outlander, Mitsubishi is now part of that market.
Royal Ford can be reached at email@example.com.
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