Platform shared with the Evo + three rows of seating = the ideal vehicle for an enthusiast with kids? This formula encapsulates the promise of the second-generation Mitsubishi Outlander. But back when it was introduced, for the 2007 model year, the reality fell short, with too many rough edges in both the chassis and the interior. Last year the Outlander was freshened with a more Evo-like nose, an upgraded interior, and a new GT trim that added an active front differential. More than ever Mitsubishi was pitching the Outlander as the family hauler for enthusiasts. But do the tweaks go deep enough?
The Outlander was already a handsome crossover when fitted with the 18-inch wheels standard on all but the base model (which gets 16s). Though the crisp sheetmetal dates back to 2007, it’s doesn’t appear dated. Flared wheel openings and a kinked beltline keep the exterior from appearing generic without taking it over the top or appearing tacked on. The new, more distinctive nose adds some aggressiveness and more clearly marks the vehicle as a Mitsubishi.
Inside, Mitsubishi has done an admirable job of upgrading the interior for pocket change. Most of the plastic castings remain the same, but padded vinyl surfaces have been added to the instrument binnacle, instrument panel fascia, and upper doors. Though the vinyl has a budget look and feel to it—no one will mistake it for leather—it’s a big step up from hard plastic. That said, plenty of cheap bits remain, and door handles evince a tinny clang when the portals are opened, so the overall effect isn’t convincing. The Outlander was short on refinement even by 2007 standards, and the revisions aren’t thorough enough to keep up with competition that has lept forward.
The view forward from the driver’s seat is about ideal for a crossover: not too far from the windshield, and also not too upright. Simply a good car raised a few inches. The view rearward is good, and enhanced by large mirrors and (with the optional nav) a rearview camera. The front seats will work better for some people than others, as the non-adjustable lumbar bulge is prominent. Thankfully the active headrests don’t jut uncomfortably far forward. More of a problem: the steering wheel does not telescope and is positioned a little too far away for those of us without long arms.
Though Mitusbishi has stuffed three rows into the body of a compact crossover (183 x 71 x 66 inches), the second row is roomy enough for adults even when slid all the way forward. Slide it back, and there’s large car legroom. The second row is also high enough off the floor to provide decent thigh support and an open sitelines. The third row, which is more difficult than most to set up and stow, could not be more rudimentary. The bottom isn’t even a cushion. Instead, cloth that doesn’t attempt to match the other seats is stretched over a perimeter frame, hammock-style. Okay for kids, less okay for larger, heavier people. Even with kids back there the second row must be slid forward to make room for legs. Bottom line: if you’re just looking for occasional space for two kids, it’ll do. For full-time or adult use, perhaps not.
Even with the third row up there’s enough space behind it for a few large duffels or a major grocery run. There’s almost as much room behind the third row as in a Honda Pilot, a much larger vehicle, and far more than you’ll find behind the third row in a Kia Sorento or Toyota Highlander (much less the RAV4, which dealers rarely stock with the third row). It helps that the well behind the seat is very deep. And, to access this deep well, the bumper folds own tailgate style. You won’t find a lower liftover. The third row collapses flat into the floor—with little in the way of padding, it takes up very little space when stowed. The second row doesn’t fold to form a flat floor, but this is to be expected given how extremely low the rear floor is. The front passenger seat does not fold, a shame as this would take a highly versatile interior to the next level. A rigid cargo shelf as see in the PT Cruiser to form a flat floor with the second row would also be a nice touch, but the optional cargo cover is the window shade type.
While Mitsubishi’s 230-horsepower 3.0-liter DOHC V6 can’t deal out thrust the way Toyota’s or Kia’s stronger, smoother 3.5s can, with the throttle open wide it’s certainly more energetic than the fours Honda and Nissan rely on in their compact SUVs. Even with all-wheel-drive, torque steer is occasionally in evidence. At part throttle the six leaves more to be desired, with both the throttle mapping and the six-speed automatic transmission’s programming oriented towards economy rather than behavior worthy of the GT label. So in casual driving the 3,780-pound Outlander GT feels weaker than its specs suggest. The GT model includes some outstanding fixed position magnesium paddles alongside the steering wheel, but this powertrain is not worthy of them.
And the economy? The EPA numbers of 19/25 miles per gallon (city/highway) and the numbers I observed about the burbs (18 to 20) are little better than those of larger crossovers. Then again, the Kia Sorento does even worse (18/24) while the Toyota RAV4 does just a touch better (19/26). In this segment, if you want excellent fuel economy you want a four-cylinder engine.
My hopes were highest for the Outlander GT’s chassis. With the GT label and the active front differential, I figured this could be the three-row vehicle enthusiasts who’d been overly lax with birth control have been looking for. But it’s not. While the Outlander GT steers and handles better than the related base Outlander Sport I also reviewed recently, and about as well as other compact crossovers, it’s still not good enough. Even with the fancy differential, the effect of which was never evident, there’s too much understeer even in moderately aggressive turns. Also too much roll and not quite enough body control. Not a bad chassis for casual drivers, but not a willing, competent, confidence-inspiring partner for those of us looking to do more than get from one point to another. The Goodyear Eagle LS tires, an oddly casual specification for a “GT,” give up the fight early, and the nose then plows for the outside curb.The moderately heavy steering feels like it would communicate well if only the rest of the chassis and the tires would do their parts, but it cannot carry the entire team.
Ride quality is similarly passable, but lacking in polish. Bumps are absorbed well, but the engine noise, road noise, and sensations through the seat of one’s pants are those of an inexpensive, somewhat dated vehicle. Ford dropped off a new Focus the last day I had the Outlander GT, and the difference in refinement was night and day. Ford’s latest feels like it should cost twice as much as the Mitsubishi, boding well for the upcoming Escape replacement and not reflecting well on the Outlander. A decade ago the Outlander’s materials and refinement would have been competitive, but in recent years industry norms have been advancing rapidly. The tight, slick, smooth, and hushed sound and feel that used to only be obtainable in expensive European machinery is now available in a $20,000 Ford. Mitsubishi has a lot of catching up to do if it hopes to survive.
Is the Mitsubishi as inexpensive as it feels? While the tested vehicle’s $33,290 sticker might not seem low, a Kia Sorento SX runs nearly $3,000 higher when similarly outfitted with leather, sunroof, and nav. TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool suggests that about $1,150 of the gap is due to the Kia’s additional features, leaving an adjusted price difference of about $1,800. Don’t need these three big ticket features? Then the Outlander GT’s list price falls to $28,590. A similarly-equipped base trim Toyota RAV4 is priced only a few hundred dollars higher, but adjusting for remain feature differences opens up a nearly $3,000 advantage for the Mitsibishi. Bottom line: once you consider the Outlander’s features, every other three-row crossover costs considerably more. A Hyundai-like 5/60 bumper-to-bumper warranty, plus 10/100 powertrain warranty for the first owner, further sweetens the deal.
So the Outlander GT isn’t a driver’s crossover. Marketing rather than engineering appears to have pushed the GT label. For now, you must spend real money to obtain such a beast. And, even with the very welcome interior upgrades, the Mitsubishi’s materials and refinement remain at least five years behind the industry norm. But the Outlander’s exterior remains attractive and its interior is a triumph of packaging, with an excellent driving position, three rows of seating, and good cargo space inside a compact body. Add in a relatively low sticker price and long warranty, the Outlander likely deserves more attention than it has been receiving. Just not from enthusiasts.
Mitsubishi provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.