Unhampered by tradition or culture and driven by an aggressive, focused imagination, Mitsubishi has now unleashed the beast from within its Montero. Ever since the Montero nameplate debuted here in '82, Mitsubishi's SUV has looked strangely similar to the box in which it was delivered. But despite its stodgy styling, the Montero sometimes forged new ground with advanced drivetrain and chassis technology. It was as dependable as a 10-year-old bloodhound, yet hardly any more exciting.

Late this spring, Mitsubishi will introduce its third-generation Montero, and, in terms of styling, it certainly will not be confused with any other sport/utility vehicle. At a time when many SUVs blend in with the crowd because they share styling cues with their high-selling pickup brothers, the Montero has no such loyalty. It was boxy from the beginning simply because of traditional Japanese utilitarian values. Now the Montero has broken away from its straight-line, squared-off ancestry to develop a decidedly more hip personality.

Our first drive of the new Montero recently came in Japan, where it's already on the market badged as the Pajero. One cannot overlook the aggressive fenders and wheel arches that seem the vehicle's focal point, not just afterthoughts like other bolt-on wheel flares. The rear side glass is shaped by the beltline that's kicked up by the trailing edges of the rear arches. Other notable styling touches include cat's-eye headlamps and armor-style chrome around the taillamps.

Paradoxically, the more aggressive-looking new Montero is not designed to be an off-road demon. Gone is the basic-but-tough body-on-frame construction in favor of a more sophisticated monocoque design supported by a new four-wheel-independent suspension. Coil-over-shocks have replaced the torsion bars up front, and the rear is a decidedly upscale double-wishbone/coil-spring arrangement. On Mitsubishi's proving grounds, we found the ride to be pleasingly supple, with negligible (for an SUV) body roll in the turns. Off-road, the Montero soaks up smaller obstacles more pleasantly than before, yet can still maneuver over the big moguls with surprising efficiency.

In Japan, the Pajero is powered by either a 3.2-liter diesel or a 3.5-liter gas-direct-injection (GDI) six-cylinder engine. Neither will be available to U.S. buyers, since the diesel market isn't profitable and the sulfur content in our gasoline is too high for direct-injection technology. Instead, the 200-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 will carry over from current Montero line, putting the new-generation vehicle at a performance disadvantage to such V-8-powered SUVs as the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Inside, the 2001 Montero is more spacious, and comfort and convenience items have been approved, including a hideaway/removable third seat. The dashboard has also been redesigned to include a large multifunctional display monitor.

Mitsubishi is still finalizing the American version, which won't have exactly the same content as the home edition. Besides the GDI engine, we won't see the cute two-door model or some of the vibrant colors that highlight the Japanese model's styling. Still, with the new Montero's edgy styling, and promised good value (similar to the current model's $32,000-$36,000 range), it should appeal to a wider variety of SUV buyers.

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