SPECIAL REPORT

CROSSING NEW BOUNDARIES

The ’03 Mitsubishi Outlander enters the “crossover” sport utility fray

By Bruce W. Smith

The last time Mitsubishi brought out a new sport utility vehicle was in 1996 with the debut of the Montero. It has served the up-scale, sport-minded SUV buyers well and carved out its own little niche among the 60-plus SUVs that now flood the marketplace.

Little is the key word. The Montero is facing very stiff competition from all fronts and the slices of the full-size SUV market are getting thinner every year. Mitsubishi Motors needed another pie to take a much bigger bite out of for 2003.

So they turned their attention to buyers who are not really interested in a truck, but want the feeling of being in something that is more substantial than a car.

What has emerged is the 2003 Outlander—a youthful, spirited, practical, reliable, inexpensive crossover utility vehicle that is indeed a mechanical and functional blend between sedan and SUV. Just as attractive is the Outlander doesn’t require buyers to mortgage the farm to make the down payment.

 

DESIGN ROAD 

The Outlander, which is built on the same platform as the Mitsubishi Lancer, is part of what has become known within the automotive manufacturing industry circles as the “S.U.V.-lite”-segment where the quest is for ultimate practicality. The Outlander rates high in that regard, and stands to be real competition for such vehicles as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CRV, Subaru Forester and Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute.

Some of those in the power seats at Mitsubishi Motors felt the crossover SUVs that inhabited the U.S. market seemed to be the result of a “dispassionate pursuit of ultimate dependability and practicality.”

“Those are admirable qualities for sure,” remarked one Mitsubishi marketing executive during the Outlander media introduction in the rolling hills of Virginia. “However, the emotionally compelling features that make cars appealing—style and appearance—were lost in the process.” 

With the Outlander destined to change perspectives they started building from the ground up. The base platform is rally-proven chassis and powertrain of the Lancer (the Team Mitsubishi front-wheel-drive Lancer Rally Edition won the SCCA ProRally national championship last year.) The object of using the Lancer platform is it is not only reliable and comfortable, but also sporty and user friendly.

 

NO POWER THREAT

 Outlander, whether of the front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive variety, incorporates the Lancer sedan’s rack-and-pinion steering and a fully independent suspension set on a 103-inch wheelbase with a 59-inch track.

This is a good setup for both ride comfort and handling as we found during our day-long drive along narrow, paved country roads and the bustling thoroughfares of suburbia. The new entry is quiet over the road and sporty in its response to the wheel.

The engine, automatic transmission, and the rest of the drivetrain are also derived from the car line—with a few modifications for SUV-lite application, of course.

Under the hood, for example, is the same single-overhead-cam, 16-valve 2.4-liter four-cylinder found in the Galant and Eclipse, but tuned to deliver more torque at the lower rpm. Mitsubishi increased the engine’s throttle body inlet from 54mm to 60mm, and changed the computer mapping from the car engine to reflect SUV use instead of those of sports cars.

The 140-horsepower four-cylinder (there is no V6 option) is on the low-end of the power scale in today’s mix of V6-powered SUV and car engines. The saving grace is a sweet 4-speed “Sportronic” automatic and low-enough differential gearing to make the Outlander a good daily driver.

The new transmission allows the driver to manually shift if that’s the preferred driving style at the time.  We found that made driving a lot more fun than letting the transmission handle the gear-shifting tasks on its own. The shits, too, are velvet-smooth and wuick, which adds to the driving pleasure.

This engine/transmission combination performs quite well for its intended purpose of being a dependable, efficient powertrain. It’s not overly buzzy at normal operating rpm, the shifts are smooth, and overall the Outlander responds well to a heavy foot during those freeway on-ramp merging sessions. The engine delivers 21mpg in the city and 26 on the highway according to EPA figures.

One advantage the Outlander has over its closest competitors is cleaner aerodynamics. The flat belly pan, slightly wedge-shaped upper body, rounded hood and front bumper, and the shape of the lower side panels, and narrow windshield front pillars all contribute to making it a slippery SUV with a coefficient of drag of .43Cd.

Those aerodynamics also play a role in other areas such as visibility from both driver and passenger seats and a low level of wind noise at those 70mph-plus highway speeds. In fact the Outlander is so quiet you notice a little wind noise around the roof rails that are designed to accommodate a wide variety of dealer available accessories.

 

INTERIOR SUPRISE

Seating and overall interior design is a step up from what one would expect from an SUV, crossover or not, that sells for less than $20,000. (Price range is $18,000-$24,000.) There is a lot of plastic and hard shapes found on the interior, but the blend of the materials and layout of the dash and passenger living area feels and looks much more upscale.

Cruise control, climate control, and power windows are just three of many features that are standard equipment on Outlander. Cup holders are conveniently located, center console storage is of a useful size, and power outlets are located front and rear.

The seats use a high-density foam padding that is designed for the more robust American physique, and there’s just enough bolstering on the sides to keep you from slipping off an edge. Standard fare is cloth, but the option packages include heated power seats with full leather trim for the upscale décor.

The rear seat is a 60/40 split-folding bench. Fold both sides down and the rear cargo area expands from 24.4 cubic feet to 60.3, large enough to handle most light-duty tasks the typical family might encounter.

Comparison shoppers will find the cargo space is around four to eight cubes less than the Outlander's chief competitors. Even the petite Toyota RAV4, at 68 cubic feet, has more cargo volume. On the flip side, Outlander provides more room for its rear occupants than the RAV, so it's essentially a trade-off.

Lift the rear storage compartment floorboard and there’s a hidden storage tray made from heavy duty plastic with three molded compartments. Further utility value comes from the ability to tow up to 1,500 pounds, which equates to a couple personal watercraft or a small folding tent-type trailer.

GO ANYWHERE

Should you choose the all-wheel-drive version, slippery roads become much less intimidating because safety and handling are greatly improved. 

The new Mitsubishi gets the traction and power via an all-wheel-drive system that operates through a viscous-coupled center differential. When the system senses wheel slip, power is split to the where the best traction is be it the front or rear. In normal mode the torque is split 50/50 between the front and rear axles.

Outlander comes in two trim levels--LS (base) and XLS. The upscale models include a rear spoiler, white-faced gauges, color-keyed heated/folding side mirrors, and optional antilock brakes. When it comes to sales projections, Mitsubishi expects 65-percent of the sales to be the XLS models and 55-percent to be all-wheel-drive.

Bottom line: If you are in the market for a vehicle that rides and drives like a small car but has the versatility of a SUV, the Outlander fills the bill nicely. What it lacks in speed it more than makes up for in user friendliness and versatility.

 

2003 Mitsubishi Outlander FWD XLS

Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door SUV

Base price: $20,070 (tested model)

Price as tested: $22,670 (XLS w/ Luxury option package)

 

ENGINE AND DRIVETRAIN

Type: 16V 2.4L SOCH Inline 4

Horsepower: 140 @ 5,000rpm

4-speed Sportronic automatic

 

VITAL STATISTICS

Wheelbase: 103.3 in.

Track, F/R:  58.9/59.3 in.

Suspension:

Front: MacPherson strut

Rear: Multilink independent rear suspension w/ coil springs

Brakes: Front, disc; Rear, drum (ABS optional on XLS)

Fuel capacity: 15.7 gals.

Curb weight: 3,240

Towing capacity: 1,500 lbs.

 

PERFORMANCE

Acceleration, 0 to 60 mph: 11.0 sec

EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 21/26 mpg

Observed: 22.1/26.7

Warranty:  3 yrs / 36,000 miles (basic); Powertrain: 5 yrs/ 60,000 miles

Contact: www.mitsubishicars.com

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