2023 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV First Drive – Still Finding Its Way
Standing in the lobby at Mitsubishi’s suburban Nashville headquarters last week, I looked out the window and saw Nissan’s own HQ just down the street. Even though Mitsubishi tells me that it’s just a coincidence that the two offices are that close to one another, the two companies are part of a larger alliance that also involves Renault. Even if it’s not intentional, one can feel the corporate synergy.
Geographic proximity isn’t the only reason I mention this – the 2023 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV I was in town to drive shares a lot of its bones with Nissan’s Rogue. Including much of the stuff that passengers see – things like the infotainment menu and switchgear design.
But one thing the Outlander has that the Rogue doesn’t – at least not yet – is an available plug-in hybrid powertrain. So while the shadow of Nissan may have loomed large over my trip, it’s the crossover being sold by the plucky little brand that once also made TVs that has a PHEV version.
This august site is known for running “deathwatch” series for brands, and we probably should’ve had one for Mitusbishi at some point in the past five years. Over time, the company has killed off the beloved Lancer EVO along with its less-loved other non-SUVs – the base Lancer and the Galant – as it has shifted towards crossovers. Of course, the Mirage soldiers on, mainly because it’s one of the cheapest cars on the market.
Otherwise, you can get an Eclipse Cross, which puts the name of a cherished small sports coupe on a crossover, an Outlander, Outlander Sport, or now the Outlander PHEV. The most recent 2022 Outlander I drove seemed perfectly fine, but some odd styling cues and an overall feeling of “meh” left me thinking Mitsubishi had more work to do.
Clearly, the PHEV powertrain is part of the plan here – the brand can get some buyers in the door using a sales pitch based on fuel economy and/or the fact that not every competitor has a hybrid or PHEV offering. And, after a day of driving around Nashville, I can report that like with the internal-combustion engine (ICE) version, the vehicle is perfectly fine but there’s still work to be done if the brand wants to be at the forefront of shoppers’ lists.
(Full disclosure: Mitsubishi flew me to Nashville, put me in a nice hotel in scenic downtown Franklin, TN, and fed me. There was a bourbon tasting. The brand offered a portable wireless cell-phone charger that I was going to leave behind but I misinterpreted the gift note and thought we needed it for our drive. We did not.)
There are several vehicles on the market, perhaps many vehicles on the market, that are fine in a vacuum but either are found lacking in comparison with their competitors, priced too high, styled too oddly, or some combination thereof. The Outlander PHEV falls into that category. That sounds like an insult, maybe, or maybe it’s damning with faint praise, but perspective matters here. Car reviewers and car nerds and maybe a few brand loyalists are the only ones who will really care that much. For everyone else, they’ll just be happy if they don’t hate driving the car, if they feel their monthly payment is fair*, if the car is reliable, and if they aren’t getting gas too often.
*Assuming normal conditions, and not today’s current market situation with low supply, dealer markups, and other factors that are causing some folks to have jaw-droppingly high payments on staggeringly long loans.
We can’t speak to reliability from a one-day test for (hopefully) obvious reasons, but the Outlander PHEV seems to check every other box. It’s not the most engaging vehicle to drive, but it’s not an actively hateful experience, either. It handled gently curving rural Tennessee roads just fine, with some body roll – though no more than would be expected in a crossover like this. The ride was generally comfortable and compliant without being soft – though most of the roads we drove on were relatively pristine. Let’s see how this bad boy does in southeast Michigan.
The whole point of a PHEV – and we’ll delve more into the tech in a bit – is to pass up gas pumps. Mitsubishi claims 38 miles of EV-only operation, but our trip computers were showing into the mid-40s. Though we suspect hard acceleration and/or copious use of the air conditioner would lower that.
This PHEV uses a CHAdeMO charger port for DC fast charging along with a 240-volt port for level 2 charging. Brand employees point out that even if one can find a CHAdeMO (this type of port isn’t the most plentiful in the U.S., though it is the standard in Japan), the 240 will still work fine at most public chargers, and with most home setups.
Another feature of the Outlander PHEV that Mitsubishi likes to highlight is the one-pedal driving mode that is driver-selectable. Not a surprise in a PHEV. The thing is, it’s not smooth. It’s jarring. So much so that I stopped using it almost immediately.
Speaking of jarring, the transitions between EV mode and the modes that make use of the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine can also be described as such – but to be fair, we were trying to make the car switch between modes with some unorthodox driving behavior, such as playing with the EV/drive modes and flooring it to get the gas engine to kick on. When we stopped being silly and just drove from point A to point B the way most customers will, the proceedings became much smoother.
The four-banger works in concert with two electric motors. The gas engine and the front motor drive the front wheels, while a stand-alone electric motor mounted on the rear axle drives the rear wheels. Torque is shifted between the two as necessary, and there is torque vectoring. The front puts out 114 horsepower and the rear makes 134 ponies – the total system horsepower is 248 and the total system torque is 332 lb-ft. The transmission is a single-speed automatic and the PHEV is all-wheel drive (S-AWC in Mitsu speak) only.
Mitsubishi says the 20-kWh battery pack and the 14.8-gallon fuel tank help the Outlander achieve 64 MPGe and a combined electric/gas range of up to 420 miles.
Power – the acceleration kind – is decent here. As another journalist remarked to me: “It’s not NOT slow”. It sure isn’t – but it’s not exceptionally fast, either. There’s passing punch here, at least after everything kicks down – and placing the drive-mode switch in “Power”, a mode purpose-built for passing, helps – but you’re not going to set any land-speed records. That said, the Outlander feels, at least in seat-of-the-pants testing, to be within the same range as most of its competitive set. It doesn’t feel any slower than most of its rivals.
For reasons that escape me, Mitsubishi decided to give us track time. Yes, in a seven-seat crossover. I didn’t push super hard or see super-high speeds thanks to rainy weather, but I did push enough that I noticed the body roll was a bit worse than during on-road driving. On the other hand, the steering, while light and artificial in feel, was accurate and the Outlander PHEV turned in surprisingly smoothly. Once the power came on boil, I could scoot down the straights, although, again, you’ll need to give the powertrain a second to get sorted. And, again, while 332 lb-ft of twist is nothing to sneeze at, you’re still dealing with a heavyset three-row family vehicle.
Speaking of the third row – it is for children only and the tall, vertical headrests block the driver’s rear view. That’s the bad news – the good news is that it's quite easy to stow and leaves a flat load floor.
Mitsubishi had also hoped to show off the Outlander PHEV’s off-road chops, but Mother Nature put the kibosh on that. We were reduced to doing donuts in the mud for grins and to see how well the Mud mode worked/how it moved power around to the “correct” wheel(s) for the situation. No one got stuck, to my knowledge, and it wasn’t difficult to get into and out of the muck or to stop and start a donut. The electronics were up to the task.
From a driving dynamics standpoint, the biggest disappointment to me was the brakes. The mushiness and lack of progressive feel would annoy me during a stop-and-go commute. While every other aspect – acceleration, handling, ride – seemed fine if unremarkable, the brakes were a letdown. Though they were stout enough on track, at least at our reduced speeds, to not be a cause for concern.
We were given top-trim SELs to drive, and the features list seemed pretty appropriate for the near-$50K price tag. I appreciated the massaging seats, and I found the materials to look and feel mostly nice, though the seats did tire me out a tad toward the end of long on-road stints. Head and legroom were not an issue. The infotainment system is well-integrated – no tack-on BS here – and I had little trouble quickly learning the switchgear placements. I also found the digital gauges easy to read and attractive, though at one point I struggled a bit to get the menu I wanted.
You have a lot of options for how you want to set up your drive. You can use different EV modes to try to preserve charge. You can use varying drive modes to change dynamics. Power, for example, sets things up for passing punch. Tarmac is supposed to be like a sport mode and make handling engaging for back-road jaunts. Other modes like Mud and Snow are self-explanatory. Of course, there is an ECO mode that sets the vehicle up to maximize energy efficiency.
The Outlander PHEV is on sale now and comes in three trims: ES, SE, and SEL. The PHEV makes the 12.3-inch digital-gauge cluster that is optional on ICE Outlanders standard and it also adds an available front-seat massager and passenger-seat memory. A base Outlander PHEV starts at $39,845 and a top-trim 40th Anniversary Edition is $49,995.
Available features, depending on trim, include navigation, a heated steering wheel, a head-up display, Bose audio, a power panoramic sunroof, and an onboard outlet that can power small appliances like a coffee maker.
Outside of some driving-dynamic issues – mushy brakes, a one-pedal driving experience that is less smooth than a teenage boy asking his crush to the prom – the Outlander PHEV seems to be just fine. There’s otherwise little that would cause me to recommend against it – except for the fact that its competition, such as the Toyota RAV4 Prime and Ford Escape PHEV, would be more likely to get my nod.
The Outlander is, at least, worthy of a look. A few nitpicks aside, it is perfectly fine. The problem is that in highly competitive segments, “fine” will be good enough for some buyers, but perhaps not enough of them.
[Images © 2022 Tim Healey/TTAC, Mitsubishi Motors North America]
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