2011 MitsMitsubishi upsized its little Outlander SUV in 2007, and has continued to tweak it with updated styling inside and out that may or may not be an improvement. The question remains: Exactly what is the Outlander? It's too big to be a small SUV, too small to compete with the better mid-size SUVs.

The original 2003-era Outlander aimed to compete with smaller SUVs such as the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V. Five years later the company added three inches to the Outlander, gave it a V-6 engine and squeezed in a third-row seat. This moved it past the Ford Escape-type sports utility vehicles, into the same territory occupied by the larger Mitsubishi Endeavor.

Having two vehicles that close in size and function would seem to be confusing for the customer. But Mitsubishi has stuck with it for five years, so it must be working for them. But the Outlander GT test vehicle's mission remains unclear. It was loaded with useful equipment, including all-wheel-drive and a spunky 230-horsepower V-6 engine. Priced reasonably at $30,275, it included a $1,700 option package that added a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system, Sirius satellite radio and a power sunroof.

It also had a fold-up third-row seat that is heavy, complicated and useless for adults. You can likely buy a basic Endeavor for the price of this Outlander and with a bigger V-6 and a useful third-row seat.

To further confuse things within the Mitsubuishi SUV lineup, for 2011 we get the all-new Outlander Sport, a smaller version of the Outlander that has much in common with that 2003 Outlander — a 2-liter, 148-horsepower four-cylinder engine, and seating for five. The Outlander Sport is considered a separate vehicle from the Outlander. Go figure.

But that's Mitsubishi's concern, not mine. The Outlander remains the company's most popular SUV, and to help keep it moving out the door, Mitsubishi lowered the starting price of this top-of-the-line GT model to $27,795, about $1,700 less than last year.

The Outlander lineup is comprehensive: There's the base ES model, starting at $21,995, which has five seats and a 2.4-liter, 168-horsepower four-cylinder that seems kind of small for a vehicle weighing 3,400 pounds. Next in line is the slightly more deluxe SE model, then the XLS, and the GT, tested here. The standard Outlander is front-wheel-drive, with all-wheel-drive optional on the SE, standard on the GT. The Outlander, though, is a "crossover" SUV, based on a car platform, so while it is capable of leisurely, unchallenging off-roading, the all-wheel-drive system is really designed for improved traction in bad weather, not rock-climbing.

Inside, the Outlander GT is roomy up front, with almost a minivan feel — the windshield is long and sloping, leaving a huge dashboard beneath it. Indeed, from the outside, the front of the Outlander resembles the doomed GM minivan lineup that included the Chevrolet Uplander, Saturn Relay and Buick Terraza, a look no one would intentionally duplicate. The rest of the Outlander's body styling is sharp-edged but more conventional.

Rear seats are fine, but that third-row seat is from the dark ages. Any adult willing to sit back there must be on the way to Oompa-Loompa auditions.

On the road, the Outlander GT is sure-footed and smooth-riding. The V-6 is matched well to the six-speed automatic transmission. Fuel mileage is rated at 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway, and unfortunately Mitsubishi recommends premium fuel.

Feature-for-feature — assuming you don't need a third-row seat, or don't mind the Outlander's limitations — the GT offers a lot for the money compared to the competition. You'd be wise, though, to check out the smaller Outlander Sport if your don't need a third-row seat, or the larger Endeavor if you really do. Mitsubishi's SUVs should cover the needs of the majority of consumers — it may be a challenge, though, figuring out which one suits you.


2011 Mitsubishi Outlander GT

Base price: $27,795

Price as tested: $30,275

EPA rating: 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway

Engine: 3-liter, 230-horsepower V-6

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Length: 183.7 inches

Wheelbase: 105.1 inches

Parting shot: Solid, slightly odd-looking SUV with seven-passenger capacity, assuming two of them are no more than four feet tall.