Times have been tough for Mitsubishi Motors. In spite of a growing industry, the company's sales fell 27 percent last year to 57,790 units. That's only a couple thousand more than how many F-150s Ford moves — in a single month. And since the once-respected Galant and Eclipse badges have faded into obscurity, the only bright spots for the three-diamond brand is the pocket-rocket Lancer Evolution and the crossover styled after it, the Outlander Sport. But can the company succeed beyond the Evo? Mitsubishi hopes so with the 2014 Outlander.
In person, the new Outlander's profile is awkward; with its bulbous front overhang and pudgy body hanging over the diminutive wheels and tires, it has all the sex appeal of a muffin-topped plumber. Granted, enthusiasts have never cooed over the crossover sheet metal of a Toyota RAV4, but this looks outdated before it hits dealers' lots. The interior fares better with soft-touch dash and piano-black accents, though the faux-wood (optional for SE trims and standard on GT) is as convincing as what you'd find in a Chevy Aveo.
Aside from the material gripes, the Outlander has an easy to use, no-nonsense cabin, an increasingly rare trait these days with automakers adopting gimmicky, button-less center consoles. Although similar in wheelbase and length to the Outlander Sport, it feels more spacious — and you can even cram two kids in the two third-row seats, a feature absent from the Ford Escape, RAV4 or Honda CR-V.
Mitsubishi also hopes to differentiate itself from the competition with a suite of high-tech features, including a Volvo-esque collision detection system that's a boon for parents buying a car for their texting teens. Unlike Honda's overly sensitive collision avoidance system, which annoyingly beeps when even going quick into the corners, the Outlander intervenes by braking at the last possible moment, ensuring it won't ever get in the way with normal driving. (It also didn't fail the test even once during the press trip, unlike Volvo's fiasco). Plus, it can be overridden with a quick steering input or when flooring it, so there's still have the option of evading trouble altogether.
One touted feature that doesn't impress, however, is the Outlander's adoption of the all-wheel-drive system (S-AWC) from the Lancer Evolution. It has none of the manic character of the Evo, and feels less athletic than a Mazda CX-5. Not to mention, it also lacks the chassis and suspension refinement of the CR-V over high-frequency bumps. That said, the AWD is surprisingly capable of off-roading through dusty, rut-filled hills, with the main downside being the relatively low ground clearance up front. It works well with the steering, which is neither too quick nor slow but lacks feedback on the open road.
There are two powertrain options: a 3.0-liter V-6 paired with a six-speed automatic and a 2.4-liter inline four with CVT. The V-6 suffers from sluggish throttle response and sloshy gear changes, making it as fun to floor as an old Buick. Oddly enough, the base 2.4-liter, 166-hp engine with the CVT is the more engaging to drive of the two; weighing in at only 3,274 lbs with front-wheel-drive, it feels like one of the more nimble crossovers on the market. And unlike many CVTs, whose revs drone up and down like a slurring drunken sailor, the rpm climbs steadily (while dipping slightly at 5,000), making it feel more like a snappy paddle-shifting automatic. Fuel economy is competitive but not exemplary; in AWD form it loses out to the Subaru Forester (24/29 mpg city/highway mpg versus Subaru's 24/31).
When comparing to other crossovers, the Outlander feels lost somewhere in the middle of the pack. Whether it can compete with its main seven-seat competitor — the Hyundai Santa Fe — will come down to price, which Mitsubishi estimates will start at $20,000. It's no game changer, and Mitsubishi probably knows it, given its humble sales target of 15,000 units a year. Hence, it may take the stateside release of a promised plug-in hybrid for the Outlander to find its rightful place in the CUV crowd.