"Outlander" suggests something extravagant, something different. The actual Mitsubishi Outlander has become more of an antonym of that definition. Since its introduction in 2001, the Outlander has fit neatly into the compact-crossover segment, and this year it continues the trend. Mitsubishi shuffles the trim levels for 2009, axing the V-6 LS and offering topline options standard on the four-cylinder SE. It offers 18-in. wheels, a Rockford Fosgate audio system, and keyless locks and ignition standard. A folding third-row seat from the topline XLS is a $500 option.
While the third-row packaging is clever -- the seats fold flat into the floor without compromising cargo space -- the downside is sitting back there becomes a knees-to-chin affair for normal-size adults. Not surprisingly, in the owner's manual, Mitsubishi says the seat is designed for those no taller than 5 ft 2 in. Best left for emergency use only or for the under-10 set, then.
The SE trimmed-out Outlander we tested mates a 2.4L inline-four to a continuously variable transmission. Four-wheel drive and the 18-in. wheels help saddle the four-banger's 168 hp and 167 lb-ft with 3670 lb of mass, yet the crossover's acceleration remains adequate. The engine is quiet, too, becoming audible only under hard acceleration.
The Outlander's CVT is pleasant on the highway, proving quiet and responsive. It exhibits a bit of the motorboat sensation on city streets, where engine revs rise without a perceptible change in acceleration. Fortunately, drivers can select a manual mode that locks the transmission into an artificial six-speed and row the gears with the magnesium paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
Those shifters -- along with the steering wheel, HVAC controls, and overall design -- will provide a sense of dj vu to anyone who has driven a Lancer Evolution. The 650-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with the 10-in. subwoofer is standard on the SE, but lacks an auxiliary input for digital music devices. And disregard the telephone buttons on the steering wheel. Bluetooth is a $250 option, one that our tester came without, yet the buttons remained.