Mitsubishi? They still make those? Why yes, yes they do, as any Evo fan will be more than happy to tell you. The Japanese automaker has been hiding in plain sight in the U.S. market for years and is sending up flare named the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport to remind us that the brand is still here and it's plenty capable of making good cars.
Don't they already make an Outlander? Right again, and that's the idea behind Mitsubishi's branding strategy in the U.S. Just as the "Lancer family" ranges from a $14,000 people mover to a $42,000 performance machine, so too will the "Outlander family" cover a range of SUVs and crossovers meeting a variety of needs. Where the Outlander is a seven-passenger SUV serving larger families and more serious haulers, the Outlander Sport is five-seat crossover targeted at first-time buyers who want style with their utility.
Despite the riff on the Outlander name, the Outlander Sport is Mitsubishi's first all-new nameplate in six years. Even so, it does share more than a name with its older, larger sibling. The basic platform is the same in both vehicles and they share identical wheelbases. The Outlander's All Wheel Control system has been re-tuned for the Outlander Sport, but the same components are there, as is the same MacPherson Strut front and multi-link rear suspension, which has also been re-tuned. Above the frame, though, the only carryovers you'll find are the door mirrors, steering wheel and a few other interior bits.
So while the ingredients may be similar, the recipe produces a far different vehicle. The Outlander Sport is 14.6 inches shorter in length than the Outlander, 1.2 inches narrower and 1.9 inches shorter in height. The more compact dimensions and trick features like plastic front fenders make the little rig some 400 pounds lighter than the Outlander and its just 100 pounds heavier than a Lancer sedan.
It's a good thing, too, because the Outlander Sport's 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing doesn't sound especially impressive on paper, what with its 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. Weighing a hundred pounds less, or in some cases several hundred pounds less, than the competitive set, though, is a major advantage. On the road, the little four feels surprisingly peppy and while it won't win any drag races, it should stay on pace with its competitors. Much of that is thanks to a wide powerband, with full torque available from 2200 RPM to redline, as well as smart gearing choices.
Base ES models will put power to the front wheels through either a five-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission. The five-speed, though it may sound outdated, works fine in the real world and is very easy to drive. A light, easy-to-use clutch pedal is matched by a light, fairly precise shifter that rows easily through the gears. While comfortable and effortless to operate, the shifter's throws are quite long as the shifter itself is tall, conjuring up memories of old manual transmission trucks. Of course, those old rear-wheel drive workhorses didn't torque steer, which the front-wheel drive Outlander Sport does just a bit when you stand on it.
The real surprise is the CVT, which doesn't come across as the penalty you would expect but rather as a very competent transmission. On the street, it feels every bit as quick as the manual. It's also quick to react to changing road conditions and should you slot it into manual mode, it does a six-speed auto impression good enough to fool even jaded auto journalists into believing it actually has gears.
If the two-wheel drive ES has a shortcoming, though, it's in the handling department. Our pre-production ride exhibited quite a bit of body roll on turn-in and didn't feel planted at higher speeds. A switch over to a pre-production SE model with Mitsubishi's fantastic All Wheel Control all-wheel drive quickly cured those problems. The CVT-only SE is available in two-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, and the latter is definitely worth the price if you plan on any spirited driving. Body roll is better controlled and the vehicle feels much more connected to the road at freeway speeds, making the Outlander Sport quite comfortable and effortless to drive.
Moreover, the AWC system also gives you options. When running to the store, leave it in 2WD and you'll reap the fuel economy benefits, estimated at up to 31 mpg highway. If you're looking for more traction and control say in inclement weather, click it over to 4WD Auto. If sporty driving is what you're after (and maximum fuel economy isn't), drop it in 4WD Lock and the system can shift up to 70 percent of the power to the rear or 80 percent to the front as conditions warrant.
Regardless of model, Mitsubishi's all-new electric power steering system came across as a good first attempt. The steering is quick and without dead space on center, but feels a bit artificial and not particularly connected to the road. The new regenerative brakes were more impressive, with great bite initially and able to haul the vehicle to a stop quickly, all while doubling as a battery charging system to minimize alternator drag on the engine under normal driving.
While all the under-hood wizardry is nice, what will impress prospective buyers most is the noticeable improvement in Mitsubishi's interior work. Road and wind noise are acceptable and on-par for the class, not to mention two decibels quieter than a standard Outlander at 30 mph. While still rather conservative in design, which Mitsubishi attributes to an emphasis on the driver and simple, easy-to-use controls, the Outlander Sport's interior is surprisingly spacious and replete with quality materials and comfortable seats. Neither front- or rear-seat passengers will want for headroom, even if they're all over six-feet tall. Legroom is likewise impressive both front and rear, as is shoulder room. What's most impressive, though, is that with all this passenger space, Mitsubishi still found enough room for a decent-sized cargo area, one that by visual approximation is nearly as large as the Volkswagen Tiguan's 23.8 cubic-feet with the seats up (Mitsubishi hasn't provided official cargo area specs as of yet). If you need more, the rear seats split 60/40 and fold nearly flat.
You won't hurt for features and gadgets, either. Base models will come with cruise control, air conditioning, power everything, keyless entry, a 140-watt, four-speaker stereo with USB inputs, Mitsubishi's first telescoping steering wheel and the company's new Fuse voice control and Bluetooth hands-free technology, which offers many of the same features as Ford's impressive Sync system. Every Outlander Sport will also come standard with a full-color multi-function display between the gauges.
Trick options include a navigation system with free live traffic updates for life, a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate nine-speaker stereo with a 10-inch subwoofer in the back (which doesn't take up much cargo space) and satellite radio, push-button starting, a panoramic moonroof with power shade and LED "mood lighting" visible at night, heated front seats and S-HID headlights, with the "S" standing for Superwide and denoting the fact that the headlights cast an 80-degree swath of light across the road, 12 degrees wider than a Lexus LS.
By now, you're thinking that while all these features are great, they're going to come at a staggering price. Not so, says Mitsubishi. Though not finalized, Mitsubishi says the Outlander Sport will start under $19,000 with fancier SE models starting at $22,000. The real surprise, though, is that a fully-loaded Outlander Sport will top out at just $26,000, roughly $2,000 or so more than a base Tiguan.
In fact, that starting price undercuts most of the segment, including the Tiguan, the Honda CR-V, the Subaru Forester and the Hyundai Tucson, and puts it right on-par with the estimated starting prices of the new Nissan Juke and Kia Sportage. More importantly, the Outlander Sport doesn't suffer for its price, as subsequent drives of a Tiguan and Tucson reveal the little Mitsubishi has easily matched its competition. That's very good for a vehicle competing in a segment expected to double in size by 2013. Is it enough to slay the competition and make Mitsubishi a major contender in the U.S. market again? We'll just have to throw it in a comparison and find out.
| 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport |
| Base price || $19,000 (est) |
| Vehicle layout || Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV |
| Engine || 2.0L/148-hp/145-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4 |
| Transmissions || 5-speed manual, continuously variable auto |
| Curb weight || 3100 lb (mfr) |
| Wheelbase || 105.1 in |
| Length x width x height || 169.1 x 69.7 x 64.2 in |
| 0-60 mph || 8.5 sec (MT est) |
| On sale in U.S. || October 2010 |