We'd like to say that Mitsubishi has had a tough time of it lately, but "lately" isn't exactly the proper descriptor since the brand's troubles have slowly built over the past decade or so. It cut back on its marketing and it cut model lines while leaving what remained in the equivalent of a product cryo-freeze. Then there was the financial crash and replacement models that didn't possess the same edge we expected from the house of the triple diamond. There was the lack of a North American chairman to fight for market-specific initiatives, and hence, models that lacked some of the details that US customers desired and that could sway buying choices in close races. True, that's a battle with an overseas headquarters that you'll hear from the US reps for almost every foreign automaker, but as you pile on the obstacles they multiply exponentially, not additionally. Or there's this: For more than a year, while its competition has been trumpeting new product, Mitsubishi hasn't had any new models. Like, at all.
That changes with the arrival of the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander, an SUV that we're told will begin a new-product offensive over the next 18 months that – along with a much larger marketing budget – should begin to turn things around. This is the third generation of Mitsubishi's volume model, one that hasn't really been changed since it arrived in 2006 and wasn't just showing its age, but practically crowing about it.
How new is the 2014 Outlander? Every piece of sheetmetal and glass is fresh from the drawing board, save for one exterior and one under-hood carryover: the windshield and the 3.0-liter V6 engine. Hearing that buoyed our confidence in the exercise. But we had to fly to Oregon to see if the coming model truly had more chance of putting steam into the turnaround, or would be more likely to continue the run aground.
The difference between the cabins of the second- and third-generation Outlanders isn't just a showcase of different interiors, it's an obvious and apparent showcase of different eras of interiors. When the 2006 model arrived, its cockpit served it well for the time, but the copious amount of hard plastic and joins in the instrument and door panels is a throwback to that particular – and in car terms, when things are moving so quickly now – bygone era. Most cars will demonstrate the same discrepancy, it's just that the cars in the competitive set haven't remained untouched since 2006.
The new cockpit will look relevant through to a mid-cycle refresh.
The new cockpit is one that makes sense for 2013 and that, with proper model support, we can see maintaining its relevant look through to a mid-cycle refresh. Instead of numerous pieces put together to form the instrument panel, it's a one-piece cowl up top with a vastly more harmonious design theme throughout. The console is limited to a panel canted toward the driver with a smattering of buttons, mainly for controlling the climate system, and the rest of the usual functions handled by a touchscreen. There will be two options for infotainment, a 6.1-inch touchscreen and a 7.0-inch version with SD-card based navigation and HD resolution.
With more room inside, the second row had plenty of space for us at 5'11"; with the driver's seat set in our preferred position our knees had a couple of inches of room when we got behind. Mitsubishi has made it more easy to reach the third row, but it does call those two extra seats "emergency seating." With the second row placed forward far enough for us to sit in the third row, it was possible for us to also sit in the second row but we had to spread our knees to get around the front seat. It's fine for quick trips that average-sized adults might need to make and perfect for kids.
Mitsubishi calls those two extra seats in the third-row "emergency seating."
The only bump, literally, came when during that third-row test our head hit the headliner in the second row. With the second row-bench moved forward we lost out on headroom because of the space built into the roof for the sunroof. It's not enough to turn you into Quasimodo, but a relaxed posture is a help.
That cabin is wrapped in an exterior that goes much more mainstream than the shark-nosed Outlander of today. Some will miss the gaping, chrome-ringed maw and cross-bar bumper, and some think it represents Mitsubishi's final descent into a milquetoast surrender and eventual departure from the US market. We'll admit the front end is still taking us time to get used to, but we like it from the sides and the back. Yes, it's sedate and unadorned, but it's not anonymous, and we think it is the kind of design that will help Mitsubishi reach more buyers and its modest sales goal of 15,000 per year – and stay in the US. Less aggressive throughout, the softer lines are touched by finer detailing in items like the front bumper character line, upper and lower side lines and taillight treatment.
Primarily, though, the redesign and its details are meant to provide a coefficient of drag of 0.31 and class-leading fuel economy in the midsize CUV segment dominated by the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe. Only the Sorento and Santa Fe among those has a seven-seat option, but the Outlander nearly outdoes them all regardless with 25 miles per gallon in the city, 31 mpg on the highway and 27 combined for ES and SE trims with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder MIVEC engine. The more slippery body gets another boost in the economy stakes with the vehicle having lost 220 pounds compared to its predecessor. Compare those mpg numbers to the five-seat RAV4's 24 city, 31 highway or the 18 city, 25 highway, 21 combined of the seven-seater, front-wheel-drive Hyundai Santa Fe GLS.
That 2.4-liter has been reworked and fitted with a "smart" MIVEC system that can adjust valve timing and lift, another aid in the fuel economy quest. Both that engine and the larger V6 can work with a passive-and-active Eco system that can help drivers be even more frugal: a green Eco light in the dash cluster lets drivers know when they're being efficient with the throttle; for more engaged help, press the Eco button on the center console and the throttle response will be dialed back to provide eco responses that counter lead feet. Press the throttle to the floor, however, and that will override the miserly tendencies and you can have full power.
We preferred the smaller engine and the CVT to the more expensive options in the GT.
There will be three trims for the 2014 Outlander: ES, SE in either front-wheel drive or optional S-AWC four-wheel drive, and GT with standard S-AWC. The 3.0-liter MIVEC V6 is reserved for the GT, and that's the one we drove first. With 224 horsepower and 214-pound-feet to move it along, it's peppy enough but you do have to dig into it to get it on the trot. The spec sheet says it takes premium fuel, and while the remote resort we were at had its own fueling station we doubt that its holding tanks were full of premium, so we might have been a little down on horsepower. The engine is fine, but we did wish for more from the six-speed transmission. It was just sluggish enough to remind you that it wasn't crisp and was always going to need your attention before it would give you exactly what you wanted.
That didn't bode well for the switch to an SE S-AWC model and its 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Rated for regular fuel we were sure to get all of its 166 hp and 162 pound-feet of torque to move 3,461 pounds, but we were also going to get its continuously variable transmission. The surprise of the day was that we preferred the smaller engine and the CVT to the more expensive options in the GT.
The Super All-Wheel Control is derived from the one in the Mitusbishi Lancer EVO.
There's only a 110-pound gap in the weights between the SE and GT we drove, but it feels much greater. The SE S-AWC was more lively on the drive route, felt snappier in its reflexes and much less weighty when responding to gravity and physics. The CVT, a gearing option that manufacturers are still trying to get right, provided the kind of feel and feedback we'd expected to get from the six-speed automatic in the GT – pert acceleration, a welcome sensation of actual gear changes and quick to deliver more revs and more power when you worked the throttle. There was a small debate with a colleague as to which one you'd prefer in tight passing situations, but we didn't think the four-cylinder would ever be a problem – you learn how and where you can make your moves. With the better drive experience than the GT – and cheaper price and better gas mileage of 24 city/29 highway/26 combined versus 20 city/28 highway/23 combined – the SE is the model we'd take without hesitation. If you don't need four-wheel drive, the SE without S-AWC gets you even better mileage. If you do, the Super All-Wheel Control is an updated, torque-vectoring system that is derived from the one in the Mitusbishi Lancer EVO. As we experienced on an off-road course guided by instructors who do the same thing for Land Rover, it is good enough to take the 2014 Outlander to places where its buyers will never, ever go.
Many of the Oregon roads we drove were composed of that special kind of tarmac that produces a sticky sound that makes one think there's a car nearby with a flat tire. It was tough to get a real feel for the improvements in noise, vibration and handling until we drove the current generation Outlander and then hopped into the new one on the same stretch of road, at which point the difference was clear. Especially with the work done around the A-pillar and mirrors, the new Outlander cuts down on the drone that can wear on you over long distances and that you find yourself using the volume knob to combat.
The ride was never cushy, though. Even though the cabin noise and exterior treatment have gotten softer, the point wasn't to make a vehicle that's gone soft and will perhaps appeal to the most people. The point has been to make a vehicle that is the Mitsubishi of the segment, akin to the way Mazda makes vehicles that provide its trademark character. With the four-cylinder Outlander especially, we believe they've succeeded.
The Mitsubishi "thing," as it were, also means features like a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with tons of media options, such as HD radio that provides real-time traffic updates that aren't subscription-based and so won't ever cost any extra beyond the option price. The rear liftgate is power up and down; Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning and a Forward Collision Mitigation are options; there are seven airbags and Mitsu expects the 2014 Outlander to receive the Top Safety Pick accolade from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and a four- or five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The point has been to make a vehicle that is the Mitsubishi of the segment.
As for price, we were told buyers can expect the price to rise by about $800 across the line, starting somewhere a little above $23,000, but the value of new standard equipment in the SE trim was said to be worth $1,500, and worth $2,000 in the SE S-AWC and GT trims. Even with the base ES model, we're talking about an SUV that is larger – its third row is no longer "insulting" – lighter and much better in every obvious way, and gets better fuel economy. One model isn't enough to tell if the brand has truly turned around – and we hope they get around to offering it with the rims from the model displayed at the LA Auto Show – but the 2014 Outlander has got it pointed in the right direction.