We're celebrating the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species this year, but I'm not sure that his research applies to crossover vehicles. The 2010 Mitsubishi Outlander is the latest evolution of the Three Diamond's compact CUV, and it is the best yet. But is it fit to survive? The 2010 Mitsubishi Outlander will arrive with base prices from $21,580 to $29,990, a 5 year/60,000 mile basic warranty, a 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates from 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway to 21 city/27 highway. Let's drive.
It's only fitting that we have Darwin in mind when we discuss a Mitsubishi. After all, the company's flagship vehicle is the Evolution, a scary fast pocket rocket of a sedan. Outlander has benefitted from intelligent design since it debuted in the US as a 2003 model. The 2010 edition represents a pretty major facelift, the vehicle's first since 2007.
Right up front, the big change is a new, open mouth grille that reminds me of the Audi corporate grille. Mitsubishi brags in its press materials about the "jet fighter" grille that also graces the Lancer Evolution. If I were Mitsubishi, I'd be careful about drawing aircraft comparisons in the United States -- you don't want to remind Americans too much about the Mitsubishi A6M Zero that was flown by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service during World War II, a plane that was a significant player in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Just my two cents, Mitsubishi. I'm sure nobody else remembers.
Trekking around the Outlander reveals new headlamps, LED turn signals integrated into the side mirrors, and awesome-looking LED taillamps. Base ES models get 16" steel wheels; SE, XLS and GT models get 18" aluminum alloy hoops. Around back, a very useful horizontally split tailgate delivers a very low lift-in height and a flip down portion that will support up to 440 lbs. Very handy -- my only concern is that the bumper flips down with the tailgate. I'm worried that a few parking lot misadventures will affect the tailgate's operation. Mitsubishi assured me that the structure could withstand low-speed taps.
In the Driver’s Seat
Inside, Outlander has picked up some DNA from luxury vehicles, but still displays some vestiges of its past. Mitsubishi is rightly proud of its high-end electronics. All but the base ES models can be equipped with a 710-watt Rockford-Fosgate system with 9 speakers (including a 10" subwoofer), digital sound processing and other high tech features. Add Navigation, and you get a 40 GB hard drive that can also act as a music server. Nav includes real-time traffic and a reverse view camera system (which I would definitely order, considering how I feel about the vulnerable tailgate). Available iPod integration via USB is nicely executed, and BlueTooth 2.0 is the icing on the cake. Outlander's 7" nav screen is right where it should be, high on the center stack.
I was impressed with the comfort level and fit and finish of most of the interior of the Outlander, especially when equipped with the optional leather seating surfaces for the front two rows. Outlander can be ordered with a third row of seats -- which were described in a presentation as "emergency seats." They are more like slings than seats, literally cloth hammocks hung on a frame. Anyone over 60 lbs and 4' tall will be cramped and uncomfortable, even on a short ride. At 6'2" with size 14 feet, I couldn't sit back there on a bet.
A couple of small complaints -- a steering wheel that adjusts for angle but does not telescope, and a front center console armrest that does not lock into position, but slides freely fore and aft. Minor quibbles, but items you must confront every time you drive.
On the Road
Due to Darwin's work, most of us accept that organisms must adapt or perish. Mitsubishi's powerplants continue to evolve, and two variations appear in Outlander. ES and SE models get a 2.4 liter inline 4-cylinder with double-overhead cams and a continuously variable transmission (CVT), with a choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive. XLS and GT models get a 3.0 liter V6 with a single overhead cam, and a trick 6-speed automatic transmission that pops into neutral whenever the engine is at idle, then back into drive (automatically) when the throttle is engaged, as a fuel-saving adaptation. The I4 produces 168 hp and 167 lb-ft of torque; the V6 produces a modest 230 hp and 215 lb-ft of torque and requires premium unleaded fuel.
On the launch event that I attended, Mitsubishi was showcasing the top-of-the-line GT, which is the only Outlander available with Super-All Wheel Control (S-AWC). S-AWC is a system that employs an active front differential and an electronically-controlled center differential, distributing power to the front left and right wheels, and to the front and rear wheels, depending on situational demands. I got a chance to test the system in sugary sand off-road for a few minutes, back-to-back with a 2009 Outlander that had a more conventional all-wheel drive system. There was a noticeable improvement in control and handling with the new system -- though I must admit, both systems were a hoot and a half.
Darwinism doesn't make any value judgments. It doesn't state that the best survive -- it's survival of the fittest. For Darwinism to apply to crossover vehicles, we've got to remember that other factors, beyond vehicle performance, luxury and quality, will come into play. Mitsubishi's marketing muscle will have to be brought to bear on behalf of Outlander. Its dealer network will have to become engaged. The good will that Mitsubishi has built up with its excellent Evolution and Ralliart Lancers will have to provide some reflected glow on Outlander, collecting tuner car guys as they and their families outgrow compact cars and need something cool to drive with the whole brood aboard. If all of these factors can align, Outlander has a good chance.
But there's a lot of competition in the compact crossover market right now. The big dogs are the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4. Add in the Ford Edge, the Mazda CX-7, the Volkswagen Tiguan, the Subaru Outback, the Kia Sorento and the Chevrolet Equinox, and things are not looking great for a niche contender like Outlander to find space in the marketplace.
Who knows? Maybe Mitsubishi can find the crossover equivalent of the Galapagos Islands, a market segment where Outlander can thrive and continue to evolve under its own terms. Maybe that market segment is current Mitsubishi customers, drivers who are already sold on the tech-heavy ethos and who want to remain apart from the fray of ordinary crossovers.