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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By Kelsey Mays
February 27, 2009
Halfway through this review, I realized I was convincing myself — one paragraph at a time — that I actually don't like the Mitsubishi Outlander, so I had to reverse course. See, the utilitarian in me wanted to give the crossover a thumbs-up. It's strong on all the practical fronts a family-minded shopper ought to weigh: cargo and seating versatility, reliability, safety, gas mileage and overall value. But so are a number of prominent competitors, and it's when you compare the Outlander with those vehicles that you realize you're left with a car that's far less refined than it ought to be. As a utility vehicle, the Outlander gets the job done. As something you and your family can enjoy day in and day out, it may not be the best choice.
The five- or seven-seat Outlander comes in front- or all-wheel drive (click here to compare it with the 2008 Outlander). Trim levels include the four-cylinder ES and SE, and the V-6 XLE. Last year's LS trim is gone. I drove an all-wheel-drive SE, but I've also driven a V-6 version, a couple years back. Not Too Quick The four-cylinder provides adequate, if noisy, power. A continuously variable automatic transmission is standard; it's not the quickest responder around town, taking its time to gin up the proper revs for sprightly acceleration. On the highway, though, it seems to find 4,000 or 5,000 rpm — where passing power is, well, passable — without too much delay. Dropping my test car's all-wheel drive and optional third-row seat would shave a couple hundred pounds, which is likely enough weight to improve get-up-and-go noticeably. For a 168-horsepower engine, I can't ask for much more.
I can, however, ask for more from the optional 220-hp V-6. It's stronger, to be sure, but it doesn't transform the Outlander into the sort of vivacious performer that the RAV4's V-6 and the Subaru Forester's turbocharged four-cylinder do. The best punch comes at higher engine speeds, which is when the Outlander hustles. Starting out, however, there are few signs of the extra power. Part of that is due to the transmission that's mated to the V-6: a six-speed automatic that isn't much more responsive than the CVT. Upshifts come quickly, but kickdown takes time. Hit the gas pedal coming out of a corner, and you might find the transmission has you in too high a gear, leaving little power to get back up to speed. Both transmissions include a manual mode — the CVT, though technically gearless, simulates six ratios — so it is possible to micromanage your gear selection.
However you slice it, Mitsubishi doesn't have an onramp-charger in the Outlander, which wouldn't be a problem if there were an accompanying gas mileage benefit, but there isn't. The EPA gives it a combined estimate of 20 mpg with front-wheel drive and a V-6. That's a tick behind the same configurations for the RAV4 (22 mpg) and Ford Escape (21 mpg), so unless you intend to tow — the V-6 raises maximum trailer capacity to 3,500 pounds, from 1,500 pounds with the four-cylinder — go with the four. It gives up some oomph but gets 22 mpg overall with either driveline, a rating that comes closer to matching competing four-cylinder models. But Still Fun Green-light power isn't the only ingredient in driving fun — just test a car like the non-turbo Mini Cooper or even Mitsubishi's base Lancer. The Outlander is fun in the same kind of way: The steering wheel requires medium effort to turn at low speeds but yields impressive turn-in precision on curvier stretches, and the nose goes right where you point it, with no vague intermediary motions. On the highway, however, the wheel loosens up and feels a bit too twitchy when pointed straight ahead.
Body roll is well-controlled for a crossover, and the four-wheel-discantilock brakes exhibit a linear, carlike response. The prior-generation Forester comes to mind as comparably agile; its softer successor falls a bit short.
Even with the SE's 18-inch wheels (versus 16-inchers in the ES), wind and road noise remain controlled at highway speeds. The suspension, however, lacks composure. All three trim levels share the same tuning, and it chatters a lot over potholes and expansion joints. It doesn't do a great job isolating the bad stuff, with noticeable reverberation after major bumps. There are worse examples in this crowd — the RAV4's optional sport-tuned suspension comes to mind — and the Outlander's setup never feels uncomfortably brittle, but it could stand to attend finishing school. Cabin Quality So could the cabin. Well-appointed interiors aren't a Mitsubishi hallmark, but the Outlander feels like one of the brand's shoddier efforts. Dashboard plastics are hard to the touch and have a texture that would have looked trendy about five years ago. Numerous controls, from the window switches to the A/C dials, impart the tinny quality that's characteristic of entry-level cars. The doors slam with a hollow echo, and their armrests are marginally cushioned. The dash panels are uneven in many areas. Most crossovers in this class have woven headliners and upholstered, well-padded sun visors. Mitsubishi has roughish mouse fur up top, and the visors feel like cardboard.
Two high points: the navigation system and the steering wheel, which is dressed in high-rent leather and precise audio/cruise controls in higher trim levels (and optional on the ES). The nav system — optional on any trim — looks dated, but functionality is a home run. Alongside the touch-screen are physical shortcut buttons to zoom in and out, as well as a joystick to scroll the map — far more convenient than smudging up the screen as you finger-drag the cursor around. There are also plenty of street labels, which is far superior to systems that leave you guessing exactly when Ogden Avenue might be coming up. Want to find a route on highways with carpool lanes only, or see all the satellite radio stations in a certain music category listed on one screen? Check and check. There are systems that look twice as good and work half as well as this one. Cabin Quantity The front seats afford ample legroom and headroom, with more prominent side bolsters than you'd expect in a small crossover. They won't pinch you in, but they offer decent lateral support should you decide to take back roads home. The second-row seats offer good thigh support and adult-size legroom, but anyone taller than 6 feet may find headroom tight in moonroof-equipped models. Without the moonroof, backseat passengers gain nearly an inch of space.
The optional third row accommodates two passengers, but Mitsubishi says it's for people 5-foot-3 and shorter. The seat collapses completely into the floor, but it's a laborious process. Without the seat, there's a shallow storage well behind the second row.
Some may greatly appreciate Mitsubishi's swing-down tailgate — check out the pictures to see it — as it yields a low cargo load height that's easy on the back. Others may find it less useful, but at worst it doesn't hamper anything. The second-row seats fold and tumble forward like the CR-V's; it's an old-school, heavy process I wouldn't entrust to children. Simpler fold-down seats would be better. At least these automatically lock in the tumbled position, while Honda's tumbling second row requires B-pillar tethers to secure.
With the third row stowed there's an impressive 36.2 cubic feet of cargo space. Considering the outward size required for such capacity, the crossover's 34.8-foot turning circle is outstanding.
Turning circle (ft.)
34.8 - 36.8
5 or 7
5 or 7
Cargo behind 2nd row (cu. ft.)
Cargo behind 1st row (cu. ft.)
*Excludes Escape Hybrid. **Two-row model; 37.2 cubic feet in three-row models with third row folded. Source: Automaker data for 2009 models.
Reliability, Safety & Pricing The strongest case for the Outlander is its track record. Front, side and rear crash-test scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have been exemplary, helping make the Outlander an IIHS Top Safety Pick. (Full safety details can be viewed on this page.) Reliability scores from Consumer Reports have been better than average. That doesn't give Mitsubishi a competitive advantage in this class, though. The Escape, CR-V, RAV4 and Rogue are all IIHS Top Safety Picks, and reliability scores for all four are generally as good, if not better, than the Outlander's.
Prices start at $20,380 for an unadorned front-wheel-drive Outlander ES. Standard features include the usual power accessories, A/C, remote entry and cruise control. An auxiliary input jack for MP3 players is optional. Fully loaded, the Outlander has heated leather seats, a power driver's seat, a moonroof, Rockford Fosgate audio and a navigation system with a backup camera. All-wheel drive runs $1,400, and a loaded XLS tops out around $31,000. Worth noting is Mitsubishi's warranty — 10 years/100,000 miles for the powertrain, five years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper — which is among the segment's best. Outlander in the Market Practicality notwithstanding, the Outlander is just too rough around the edges. Competitors have their annoyances — the CR-V has ride quality issues, the RAV4 has an infernal sideways-swinging tailgate — but the Outlander's are manifold. Drive the Rogue or CR-V, and you'll agree that a $25,000 crossover should not feel overtly cheap. The Outlander still does.