Mitsubishi Outlander car reviews

Review Notes: Mitsubishi Outlander
Personality Looks like an SUV, feels like a wagon
Above Average: Available AWD
Needs Work In: Performance under pressure

Take a Mitsubishi Lancer, an exemplary but underpublicized compact car, make it tall, and change the styling inside and out, and you have most of a Mitsubishi Outlander. If that formula sounds familiar, it's because you've seen it with the original Chrysler minivans, the Honda CR-V, and numerous "hybrid SUVs." Still, one can argue that how you get there is irrelevant; it's the end result that counts.

The styling of the Outlander is clearly SUV, inside and out, with styling that sets it apart from the cars it's based on. From every angle, the Outlander looks as though it is ready to go off-road, though it's clearly not designed for that. Inside, it has a clean instrument panel with a nicely done center clock, giving a very favorable impression in line with the SUV theme.

The engine is a 140 horsepower four-cylinder, which generates good power at higher engine speeds, making sprints both fun and fast. A smooth-shifting four-speed automatic seems to read the driver's mind in the city and under mild acceleration, but when pushed hard on the highway tends to upshift prematurely; for those who like additional control, a manual override system is in place. Better designed than many, it requires a simple bump of the stick to the right to enter manual mode, then a push up or down to shift; as with most, it won't let you stall or destroy the engine, and will shift by itself when needed even in manual mode. Gas mileage is good for an SUV, poor for a car of similar size, at about 21 city, 26 highway (less with all wheel drive). The engine is quiet and polite, but outside, the exhaust is tuned for the kazoo noise beloved by many Honda-driving youths. The quiet interior remains so at higher speeds, and strong sound insulation keeps outside noises outside.

In keeping with the "SUV style," all wheel drive is available, but without the low range needed for actual off-roading. For most drivers, the all wheel drive will provide 100% of their driving needs, since it works well in snow and rain, without the "suddenly huge turning radius" in automatic part-time four wheel drive systems. However, the tight steering that feels so good around town makes the Outlander feel twitchy on the highway, where it also seems susceptible to wind gusts.

Handling is a surprisingly mixed bag. Overall, in moderate driving, the Outlander excels, but when pushed it does not react as well, with a great deal of torque steer (loss of traction at the front wheels when under acceleration) and a tendency to bounce and lean on sharp turns. It does well with fast but smooth turns on even pavement, especially when the road is tilted correctly, but the height of the car shows when the road is tilted the wrong way, or when you try sudden turns. We found the tires to lose traction easily in wet weather (two wheel drive version), but that might be fixed with an albeit pricey change of tires. The Outlander, in general, is not for those who push their cars to the limit, particularly given the lack of standard antilock brakes.

Interior space is not bad, but like most vehicles with an SUV form factor, the available space is not used especially well. Compared with the Lexus RX330, the Outlander is quite efficient, but compared with the average minivan or station wagon, it could do better. There is plenty of room for four passengers and five would probably coexist without complaint, and there is a sizable cargo area in back. The front seats both fold all the way back, and all the seats fold over to increase cargo room, with a 20/30 split in the back seat so you can still seat three people while carrying that ladder. The Outlander is not too high off the ground, making loading the hatch comfortable. Indeed, those considering the Lexus may want to consider simply getting an Outlander (and maybe a Lancer for casual use as well - they'd still have change left over after buying both) instead, since the form factor is similar - but the Outlander is easier to get in and out of, and to load up. (We must admit we doubt whether Lexus RX330 prospects are reading this, but if they are, we'd like 20% of the money you save!)

Visibility is quite good inside, without any fashion-based limitations in the rear quarters; the large rear view mirrors both fold in. The powerful headlights are helpful at night, while comfortable light-green backlighting in the white-on-black instruments helps in both twilight and darkness, without being distracting. The gauges are clear and easy to read, with the center-mounted clock adding a great deal of elegance to an imaginative interior design. Other clever features include the totally adjustable, totally closable, round vents, which move a great deal of air very quietly; the dual-level armrest/storage area; the rear cupholders, which hold different sized cups easily, and fold down from the middle of the back seat, much to the delight of little kids; and the visor mirror covers, which are slotted to hold turnpike tickets (on both sides). Somewhat less clever is the use of hard plastic for the many storage compartments (one directly beneath the stereo presumably meant to hold a CD changer on upper models), the front cupholders, and the overloaded right-hand stalk, which contains the front and rear wipers and washers. We do appreciate having a rear wiper/washer, and wish they were available on sedans as well. Despite lots of small and large storage bins, including front map pockets, there are no coin holders or cushioned trays aside from the cup holders.

The stereo has good sound when under way, but the bass can't really be turned down sufficiently, and it relies on multiple presses of a single audio button to go through bass, treble, balance, and fade, distracting the driver (it's the same system Toyota uses). Otherwise, the stereo is easy to use and figure out. The climate control is a model of simplicity and ease, with a separate a/c button and the ability to set the vents between two settings (e.g. between bi-level and heat), to tailor the venting to the driver's preferences. Dedicated demisters seem to work quite well. Two separately adjustable dome lights provide good lighting throughout the car.

Those who are buying an SUV for extra safety may be disappointed with the Outlander's features, as side airbags and ABS are both optional and limited to the more expensive XLS model. (Actually, those buying an SUV for safety are in the wrong place, since minivans are statistically far safer, and the Pacifica minivan has SUV styling and five-star safety ratings). Pricing may be a bit steep for many buyers with base models starting around $18,000 and working up to $24,000, given that the Jeep Liberty and PT Cruiser, for example, start at around $16,000, and are often discounted. Most buyers would probably be far happier with Mitsubishi's own Lancer or, in a closer price range, the surprisingly nice Galant.

The Outlander is a fine vehicle for those who want the styling of an SUV with the footprint of a car, and who primarily drive below superhighway speeds. There are some strong competitors in this category, of which the best may be the Subaru Forester (review due late October 2003) and the Jeep Liberty (see current review), which is comfortable, less expensive, and can go off-road. You may want to give them all a test drive.