2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT – Click above for high-res image gallery

Mitsubishi presented its best and brightest rides for us to drive over the course of an eight-hour event in the parched desert oasis of Palm Springs, CA. Everything from a tuned, 290-hp Lancer Sportback Ralliart to an electric i MiEV. And drive them we did. We rocketed up winding mountain roads and down gravel-caked trails. If they brought it, we pounded on it. Fairly hard, too. Odd then that the focus of this particular review – and in many ways the star of the party – isn't some carbon fiber body kit-enhanced EVO X, but rather the new 2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT.

Yup, an SUV. Actually, a CUV, albeit one with lots of ground clearance. Mitsubishi first introduced the second generation Outlander in 2006 (replacing the more wagon-esque first gen.), and 2010 marks a major refresh. In GT trim, almost everything has changed, from the exterior to the interior to the quantity and quality of gadgets to the engine output to the transmission and finally, most importantly, its all-wheel-drive system. The 2009 Outlander was a fine, competent, utilitarian machine – perfectly adequate for schlepping kids and groceries. But let's be frank, it didn't set hearts on fire. And while the new Outlander GT won't necessarily do that either, it's most definitely not just another sedan on stilts.

Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.
The first and most blatant new-for-2010 change is that nose. Mitsubishi has finally (finally!) realized that its halo vehicle is the Lancer Evolution X, and that the brand must flow from that hopped up, street legal rally all-star. As such, they essentially grafted the Evo X's snout onto the new Outlander. The results are smart, because like the Kia Soul has proved, if you're stuck in a sea of sameness, it's best to stand out.

While not quite as sinister looking as the Evo's mug, the Outlander GT looks plenty thuggish. You cannot say that about a Honda Pilot. The wheels are new and sportier looking. The rest of the outside remains largely unchanged and comes across as your run-of-the-mill CUV. You'd have to be some sort of crazy car geek to notice the twisted side-sills and new mirrors (ahem). Maybe the rest of the Outlander GT will get Evo-ized for an upcoming refresh, but for now, it's standard crossover fare.

Perhaps the most significant update, or at least the one that will resonate most strongly with potential buyers, is the upgraded cabin. A quick glance around reveals much time and attention to detail went into sprucing up the joint. The previous Outlander's huge tracts of plastic are now covered with beautiful, thick-stitched leather. Sure, the glove box door is still a flimsy piece of low grade plastic, but it now looks beautiful. Ditto for the rest of the cabin, and especially the cowhide shroud atop the instrument cluster. We also need to send a shout out to those hefty aluminum pedals. The magnesium column-mounted paddles shifters, too. Long story short, and to quote Mitsubishi's PR folks, the "Outlander has gone upscale."

Techno geeks will be thrilled by all the gizmos Mitsu's packed into the new Outlander GT. For starters is the brand's new FUSE handsfree "media gateway," a direct shot across SYNC's bow. With FUSE you get full voice recognition access to all your tunes, whether it be contained on an iPod, CD or a USB stick. Phone integration is handled via Bluetooth 2.0 and can support multiple phones. You also get a 40-gig hard drive that instantly rips tunes the second you insert a CD. The Navigation system is quite good (both to look at and in terms of user friendliness) and now has real time traffic updates. Our favorite feature was actually the "Environment" button, which not only included an altimeter (useful when climbing from Palm Spring's 750 feet above sea level to the surrounding mountains' 6,300 feet) that logged previous elevations but displayed them as a chart, so you can see how high up you've been. Necessary? Not at all, but we loved it.

Truthfully, we didn't get too much of a chance to play with the all the entertainment goodies, so that will have to wait until we get the car for a full review. Aside from time, the reason we didn't note the fidelity of the hi-fi (a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate) is because we were having too much fun behind the wheel. We mention this because normally when testing an SUV/CUV, the driving aspect is the least interesting part (lumbers down the road, stops, has turn signals, etc.). You instead occupy the white space with tales of how many children or bags of groceries said truck/thing can handle. But Mitsubishi pulled off an interesting party trick with the new Outlander – they fit it with a version of the Evolutions's S-AWC system.

For those that despise acronyms, S-AWC stands for Super All-Wheel Control. Put another way, S-AWC is the reason Evos can hang with supercars on twisting roads. This means that the Outlander GT has an active center differential that meters out torque as merited by road conditions. There's also an active front differential that can send torque left and right as needed. While not quite as highfalutin as the S-AWC found in the Evo (no Active Yaw Control here), the Outlander's version offers up shocking results.

Let's set the stage a little. The first part of our drive route has us trudging through stoplight infested, downtown Palm Springs traffic. We spent most of that drive fondling the leather and dreaming about the Evos we left back at the staging area. The Outlander GT is fine in city traffic, but so what? Then we turn onto the most excellent, snaking Highway 74 and, well, we just weren't prepared for what happened next. Because by all accounts, it shouldn't have.

In tall, top heavy crossovers, you expect a certain amount of understeer, reluctance and general fuddy-duddiness (it's a technical term – look it up) whenever you turn the wheel in anger. Not so with the Outlander GT – it simply glides through corners. The damping and vehicle control are also quite above par, as the expected body motions and stomach turning leaning tower of truck we've come to know and dread in sporty CUVs played hooky. High center of gravity, what high center of gravity? It's not just that the Outlander's smooth in the bends, but it's quick too. Honestly shockingly so. It's now 24 hours later and we're still surprised just how fast we were able to muscle the car around corners.

Speaking of fast, Mitsubishi upped the compression ratio of the Outlander's 3.0-liter V6 from 9.0:1 to 10.5:1. This change eeks out an additional ten horsepower (230 hp total) and 11 lb-ft torque (215 lb-ft total). A BMW X6 M it's not, but the revised engine has enough gumption to make a winding mountain road enjoyable. Even better is the borrowed-from-the-Ralliart dual-clutch transmission (TC-SST) six-speed Sportronic transmission that not only provides crisp, surefire downshifts (and upshifts), but allowed us to hardly touch the brakes on our 100-mile mountain adventure. We just let the motor do all the heavy lifting. That said, the Outlander GT could use more brakes.

We're big fans of certain mid-cycle refreshes (the 2010 Mustang springs to mind). We're equally big fans of vehicles that err on the side of sport. Mitsubishi then has made us sit up and take notice of a type of vehicle we usually just gloss over. Ideal? Not quite. For instance, the transmission has three modes (Normal, Snow and Lock), and even in the supposedly hardcore "Lock" setting we managed to get the Outlander GT stuck in a foot of sand (don't ask). But while running around like a wannabe rally driver in loose gravel the Outlander did just fine. Until we had to slam on the brakes, which, again, could use some work.

However, we have the sneaking suspicion that most Outlander GT owners have never even heard of Travis Pastrana, let alone engage in a pathetic attempt to imitate him. And while these same folks probably aren't shopping CUVs for their sporty nature, the sure footed handling will keep both them and their loved ones safe. Bottom line: those looking to get into vehicles like the Toyota Highlander or Ford Edge would be doing themselves a favor by checking out the 2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT. New nose not withstanding, it really does stand out from the crowd.

Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.

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