In March 2000, Germany's DaimlerChrysler, heady with ambition, paid $2.1 billion to acquire a 37 percent share of Japan's Mitsubishi Motors. It was a gambit to use Mitsubishi to gain access to Asian and other global car markets. It failed. Mitsubishi had quality problems and, despite the popularity of a few cars such as its Eclipse, a certain lack of automotive imagination. Its sales plummeted in Japan and abroad. It lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
When DaimlerChrysler called it quits, selling the very last of its Mitsubishi shares in November 2005, the New York Times praised the Germans for walking away from a partnership that was "an embarrassment and a financial drain." Other media reacted similarly. Corporate obituary writers were put on standby to chronicle the expected demise of Mitsubishi Motors in North America.
But, judging from Mitsubishi's latest product efforts, notably its Outlander crossover sport utility/wagon, completely redone for 2007, getting dumped by DaimlerChrysler was more of a blessing than it was a bust.
Like a wronged spouse determined to prove self-worth and make a new and better life, Mitsubishi, as evidenced by the impeccable quality and excellent execution of its second-generation Outlander, has come back fighting.
And if you enjoy romantic tales in which an ill-treated lover gets sweet revenge, there's a good one here. Mitsubishi's new Outlander was co-developed with DaimlerChrysler using the same platform that supports DaimlerChrysler's new Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass vehicles.
I've driven all of those models -- Caliber, Compass, Outlander.
The new Outlander is so far superior to the DaimlerChrysler versions, it is difficult to believe they have, or have ever had, anything in common.
The Outlander rides and handles remarkably better than its platform siblings. Whereas the Caliber and Compass, either in front-wheel drive or all-wheel-drive format, feel weighty and uncertain, the Outlander, in both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, feels tight, agile and wonderfully enjoyable to drive.
Whereas the vehicle interiors of the Caliber and Compass are insufferably cheap, plastic and bereft of almost anything passionately likable, the Outlander's interiors -- from the base ES model to the luxury/sport XLS version -- are exquisitely crafted. Mitsubishi even spent extra money on tooling to get a look-rich, feel-rich grain in its dashboard vinyl.
And whereas the Caliber and the Compass are woefully lacking in "wow" factors, the new Outlander is loaded with them, including a lower flap-fold tailgate that can ease the loading of heavy cargo or serve as a sturdy seat for heavy humans.
From the look of things, Mitsubishi was looking way beyond the Caliber and Compass in bringing its Outlander up to competitive snuff. Although it is substantially less expensive, the 2007 Outlander is a worthy rival of the top-notch Acura RDX and Mazda CX-7 compact crossover utility vehicles. That makes the new Outlander, expected to be priced from about $19,000 for the base ES up to $26,000 for the top-of-the-line XLS, one heck of a good value.
All 2007 Outlander models -- ES, LS and XLS -- come with a 220-horsepower V-6 engine. All have a six-speed automatic transmission that also can be shifted manually. The XLS has steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters -- common on high-end Mercedes-Benz and BMW cars -- for operating the transmission in manual mode.
What we have here is a great family hauler, a very nice automotive package -- this time wrapped in attractive sheet metal, including an aluminum roof panel that saves weight and reduces the Outlander's center of gravity, making it more stable on the road.
If the joy of getting even is as real as the pain of getting dumped, Mitsubishi should be feeling pretty good about its new Outlander. It's a winner. Score one for Mitsubishi.
Nuts & Bolts 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander
Complaint: Complaints by some critics that the new Outlander is "underpowered" with its 220-horsepower V-6 are silly. They apparently own oil wells or they are so rich they can afford to waste gasoline in a bigger engine.
Ride, acceleration and handling: The Outlander is superior to the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass in all three categories. In fact, the Outlander compares favorably to the highly rated Acura RDX and Mazda CX-7.
Head-turning quotient: Mitsubishi thankfully has jettisoned its bulge-nosed front end in favor of a much more likable styling cue, a friendly grille of modest aperture bracketed by smartly angled headlamps. Overall vehicle design is tight and consistent, unlike its predecessor's unhappy collection of afterthoughts.
Body style/layout: The 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander is a compact, car-based, unitized-body crossover utility vehicle (combination sport-utility, minivan, station wagon) with four side doors and a rear hatch system having a lower flap-fold tailgate. It has front-wheel drive for better fuel economy in low-snow and no-snow regions and all-wheel drive for snowy regions.
Engine/transmission: All 2007 Outlanders come with a 3.0-liter V-6 engine that develops 220 horsepower at 6,250 revolutions per minute and 204 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. The engine is mated to Mitsubishi's six-speed "Sportronic" automatic transmission, which also can be shifted manually. No Outlander four-cylinder engine is available at this writing, but one is likely to be introduced soon.
Capacities: The 2007 Outlander seats up to seven, depending on the seating configuration. Maximum cargo capacity is 72.6 cubic feet, 12.3 cubic feet more than its predecessor. The new model can tow up to 3,500 pounds. The fuel tank holds 16.6 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.
Mileage: The front-wheel-drive Outlander gets 20 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, compared with 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway for the all-wheel-drive model.
Safety: Standard equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front/solid rear), four-wheel antilock protection with electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, side air bags, head-protection pillars and tire-pressure monitoring.
Price: It goes on sale in the United States in November. Prices have not been set. Corporate and industry sources expect them to be $19,000 to $26,000.
Purse-strings note: The Outlander is a hands-down winner, especially if it goes on sale within the expected price range. Mitsubishi is back in the U.S.A.