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  • Snow Blind: 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander vs. 2003 Subaru Forester

Snow Blind: 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander vs. 2003 Subaru Forester

When water turns to ice and snow, what does all-wheel drive really get you?

John Kiewicz
Jul 15, 2003
Photographers: John Kiewicz
Snow. It's an atmospheric anomaly in Los Angeles and something our So Cal-based editors see little of. Yet, for every reader who actually takes his sport/utility to the desert for some heavy-duty rock crawling, there are dozens who routinely drive on snow, slush, mud, or wet roads.

That's why manufacturers are placing more emphasis on offering full-time all-wheel-drive systems. While some SUVs may not have the low-range transfer case required for heavy trailwork, AWD adds traction that helps them go a few more places, potentially increasing the safety margin of doing so, whatever the weather. With apologies to Audi, an ever-growing number of today's newest sport/utilities and crossovers are about all-roading, as opposed to off-roading. Two new, affordable players in this growing subset of the SUV universe are Subaru's updated Forester and Mitsubishi's new-for-'03 Outlander. We chose one of each and went in search of tractional challenges--and got more than we bargained for.
At 9000-feet elevation, Mammoth Mountain--in the heart of the Sierra Nevada range--is a Mecca for skiers, with an average of 385 inches of snow each year. As luck would have it, meteorologists predicted arctic air from Alaska would collide with a Pacific warm front, bringing the snow level down to 4500 feet just as we prepared to hit the road. But we were well armed.
The new kid on the AWD crossover block, Mitsubishi's Outlander delivers a solid value hit to the segment. Our LS tester came with all the essentials, but without many frills. Basing at $19,297, it carried a grand's worth of options: the convenience package (including cargo cover, keyless entry, roof rails, and floormats) and appearance group (16-inch alloy wheels and rear privacy glass). With destination fees, the tab came to an easy-to-take $20,877.
2003 Mitsubishi Outlander front Interior View
After over 25 years of producing four-wheel-drive vehicles, Subaru knows a thing or two about getting its customers to the grocery store and back when there's a foot of snow on the ground. Our Forester 2.5 XS came loaded with cold-weather goodies that aren't even options on the Outlander: AM/FM/weatherband/cassette/six-disc CD in-dash changer, outside- temperature gauge, dual-mode heated front seats, front/rear-window wiper/de-icer, and dual power heated exterior mirrors. With a base price of $22,895 and an extra $1300 for the automatic transmission, plus destination charges, the Subaru costs nearly $3500 more than the Mitsu.
The Mitsubishi's 2.4-liter/140-horsepower inline-four doesn't make the Outlander a rocketship, but it isn't anemic either. Power delivery is adequate and linear throughout the band. Peak torque occurs low in the rev range (2500 rpm), but there isn't much passing power above 60 mph, as the engine starts wheezing. The standard-issue four-speed manumatic offers a good compromise between conventional slushbox and manual-gear rowing, and we found it easier to manage grades when we were in control of the cog changes. In full auto mode, it tends to hunt like Elmer Fudd: shooting erratically into gear and whenever you least expected it.
2003  Mitsubishi  Outlander top  Engine  View
  |   The Outlander's 2.4-liter engine can't match the Forester's passing power. The manumatic transmission, however, makes driving on twisty roads fun.
The Forester has a slight displacement advantage, a few more lb-ft of torque, and a whole lot more ponies underhood. At 2.5 liters and 165 horsepower, the Forester provides ample tug--though it packs only 9.0 lb-ft more torque than the Mitsu. Unlike the Outlander, which runs out of steam early in the game, the Forester keeps pulling through the upper rev band. Our well-calibrated Butt-O-Meter confirmed the numbers from the test track: The Subaru posted a 9.8-second time to 60 mph and a 17.3-second/77.8-mph run through the quarter mile. We could've used an egg timer to clock the Mitsubishi's 12.4 pull to 60 and 18.6/72.7 quarter-mile run.
We expected the Outlander to take longer to stop (with an extra 325 pounds to haul around, rear drum brakes, and no ABS assist); 10 feet more isn't bad. Chief-tester Chris Walton noted there wasn't much feedback through the brake pedal--you just have to listen for squealing tires. The Forester braked straight and true, with a bit of nosedive, standard ABS with electronic brake-force distribution grinding it to a stop.
Photo 2/3
The Forester snaked through our slalom-cone test with a 61.3-mph pass to beat the Mitsubishi's 59.9. If you think Subaru's crown resides on its AWD system, it's more complex than that. Both systems utilize a viscous-coupling system that splits torque 50/50 until slip is detected. Tires are nearly identical Yokohama Geolandars: the Outlander wearing 225/60R16 G035s and the Forester with the more aggressive 215/60R16 G90 treads. The subtle difference in tires, combined with a stiffer suspension, allowed the Forester to overtake the Outlander.
Back on the road, the clouds gathered quickly as we sped up Highway 395, cutting along the spine of the Sierras. We stopped in the town of Lone Pine for a photo shoot in the Alabama Hills (filming location for old Hollywood Westerns). The following morning, we were greeted with sub-zero temperatures and an ever-darkening sky. "Snow's gonna hit soon," the innkeeper growled as we checked out. "You can feel it in the air."
As a retreat from nature's wrath, the Forester's interior is warm and inviting, with dual front heated seats and a climate-control system that'll deep-fry chicken at the North Pole. The interior design is unremarkable but user-friendly. We're impressed with the quality of the materials, fit, and finish. Our only complaint: The cabin feels over-texturized with three different grain patterns crafted into the interior, some randomly placed.
2003 Subaru Forester engine View
  |   While the Subaru's 2.5-liter F-4 provides sporty performance, we can't wait to sample the new 210-horsepower turbocharged version, due late this year.
The Mitsubishi's interior befits a $20K car--plastics are on the slick side, the seats are soft (What? You want lumbar support?), secondary switchgear doesn't operate as smoothly as we'd like (especially the climate controls), and a few annoying squeaks and rattles show up riding on rough pavement. There's nothing terrible about the cabin of the Outlander, but, for another few grand, the Forester is a substantial step up.
That same sense of "not quite there" also translates to the Outlander's handling. The chassis shows little flex during emergency lane-change maneuvers, but significant body roll leads us to believe the Outlander would benefit from beefier anti-roll bars. Stiffer springs and firmer struts would quell the wallowing over dips and uneven pavement. Steering is a tad slow on turn in, but highly responsive to input. Nearly all these nits disappear in the snow, as the Mitsu delivers a compliant ride over snow-packed roads and floats over the small berms left by the plows. Our biggest gripe is in the steering-isolation department: Road irregularities are transmitted directly through the wheel to the driver, on- or off-road.
Photo 3/3
As we crossed the 6700-foot-elevation level, Mother Nature teased us with rain and light sleet, which was forming a slick crust on the highway. Pulling into the Mammoth Mountain Chalets' parking lot, photographer Kiewicz surveyed the landscape: Three feet of packed snow covered the trails to the A-frame chalets, and more white stuff was starting to fall. Kiwi asked the manager if we could drive on the network of trails for photos, and he replied, "Sure, and I have a Snow Cat to pull you out when you get stuck!" Such comfort.
On packed powder, it's clear the Subaru engineers spent a lot of time tuning the Forester's suspension for weather-abused roads. It provides a pleasant ride, yet the suspension fully communicates to the driver what's happening underfoot. It glides over ruts and rough surfaces with no hint of bump steer; and the chassis has just the right amount of compliance to make driving in snow fun. Initial turn in is crisp, but there's a bit too much isolation between the rack and the road. There's a continuity with the Forester that's not often seen in this class of vehicle, a balance between chassis, suspension, and powertrain that feels right under most driving conditions.
Neither of these hearty wagons had much problem negotiating the snow-covered trails close to the chalets, with AWD clawing them up hills and into small valleys. On packed powder, they were about equal, but, in the soft stuff, the Mitsubishi spun its tires, while the Forester kept plowing along.
Besides the notion of expanded-use capability from a terrain standpoint, most people buy sport/utilities to haul stuff. With 60.3 cubic feet of available space, the Forester bests the Outlander by almost four cubic feet. The load lift is higher on the Mitsubishi than on the Subaru, and the taillamp design pinches the opening, making it difficult to load large appliances. While Forester owners will find loading cargo an easy deal, the wheelwells protrude into the cabin farther than we'd prefer.
Clouds and snow swirled around us, as all hell broke loose: Visibility dropped to just over a car length. We were snow-blind. Now, we were thankful for all-wheel drive, and, even at 20 mph, the road was super-slick with snow rapidly piling up. Heading south on 395, Kiewicz unexpectedly changed lanes in the Subaru, and an instant later, the Outlander changed lanes, too--without any steering input! Only one answer: black ice. Okay, now it was time to go home.
At its as-tested price of $20,877, the Outlander is money well spent for a compact AWD wagon. It provides reasonable, if not stirring, performance, and the manumatic transmission is first rate. Mitsubishi's AWD system will be up to most, if not the most extreme, nasty road-surface challenges you throw it at. It's comfy, rides well, and holds an acceptable amount of cargo for its size. But it ends up striking us as average, not exemplary.
It's only when you step into the Forester that you get a sense of what lies just one rung up the ladder. For the additional $3500, you get a machine that outaccelerates/brakes/handles/hauls/tows the Outlander. Overall equipment levels are higher. Those few extra payments for the Forester are easily justified, and it's our pick of this particular AWD litter.
{{{2003 Mitsubishi Outlander}}} {{{LS}}}{{{2003 Subaru Forester}}} 2.5 XS
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layoutFront engine, awdFront engine, awd
Engine typeI-4 iron block, alum headF-4, alum block and heads
Valve gearSOHC, 4 valves/cylSOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement, ci/cc143.4 / 2351149.9 / 2457
Max horsepower @ rpm140 @ {{{5000}}}165 @ 5600
Max torque @ rpm157 @ 2500166 @ {{{4000}}}
Transmission4-speed automatic4-speed automatic
Suspension, front; rearMacPherson struts, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll barMacPherson struts, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes, front; rear10.9-in vented disc; 9.0-in drum11.4-in vented disc; 10.3-in solid disc, ABS
Wheels16 x 6.0 cast alum16 x 6.5 cast alum
Tires225/60R16 97H {{{M}}}+S Yokohama Geolandar215/60R16 94H M+S Yokohama Geolandar
Traction controlNoneNone
DIMENSIONS
Body style4-door, 5 pass4-door, 5 pass
Wheelbase, in103.399.4
Length, in179.1175.2
Width, in68.968.1
Height, in66.3{{{62}}}.6
Turning circle, ft37.434.8
Legroom, f/r, in42.3 / 35.543.6 / 33.7
Shoulder room, f/r, in56.1 / 54.453.5 / 53.6
Headroom, f/r, in38.9 / 38.239.8 / 39.8
Curb weight, lb34613135
Towing capacity, lb15002000
Cargo capacity, cu ft60.364.1
Fuel capacity, gal15.715.9
TEST DATA
0-60 mph12.49.8
1/4 mile, sec @ mph18.6 @ 72.717.3 @ 77.81
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft144134
{{{600}}}-ft slalom, mph59.961.3
{{{200}}}-ft skidpad, g0.750.74
Top-gear rpm @ 60 mph25002400
CONSUMER INFO
On sale in U.S.CurrentlyCurrently
Base price$19,297$22,895
Price as tested$20,877$24,220
AirbagsDual frontDual front, front-side
Basic warranty3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty5 yrs/60,000 miles5 yrs/60,000 miles
Roadside assistance3 yrs/36,000 miles3 yrs/36,000 miles
Recommended fuelUnleaded regularUnleaded regular
EPA mpg, city/hwy20/2521/26
Range, miles, city/hwy314/393418/517
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Behind the Scenes: Snow Blind
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