Pros: Distinctive styling, fun to drive, entertaining optional V6, plenty of cargo space, versatile "flap-fold" tailgate, lots of technology features.

Cons: Steering wheel doesn't telescope, available third-row seat is almost useless.

Introduction

The 2012 Mitsubishi Outlander might be the best compact crossover you've never heard of. Companies like Honda and Toyota have far more marketing muscle, but Mitsubishi's got a very competitive product on its hands with the Outlander. It all starts with the styling, which successfully evokes the high-performance Lancer Evolution sedan, particularly in the aggressive snout. But the Outlander is about more than just outer beauty-this is the rare crossover that's actually fun to drive both on- and off-road, with an optional V6 that packs an endearing punch. It's practical, too, with a sizable cargo bay that's accessed via a trick "flap-fold" tailgate that makes loading heavy items easier.

You might be feeling smitten already, and we don't blame you, but there are some other things you should know about the Outlander. If you're tall, for example, you'll resent having to reach for the non-telescoping steering wheel. The base inline-4 engine's only transmission option is a continuously variable automatic (CVT) that hampers acceleration and orchestrates an unpleasant racket when your foot gets heavy. And while we applaud Mitsubishi for adding a third-row seat to the SE and GT models, the seat itself is about as comfortable as a park bench bolted to the floor. Make that a park bench with no legroom.

But we genuinely like driving the Outlander, and that's rare praise for a compact crossover. It's a shame more people haven't heard of Mitsubishi's hidden gem.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Mitsubishi Outlander is offered in ES, SE and GT trim levels.

The base ES comes standard with 16-inch steel wheels, roof rails, the flap-fold tailgate, automatic headlamps, remote keyless entry with a security alarm, power accessories, air-conditioning, a leather-wrapped tilt-only steering wheel and a six-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input.

The SE steps up to 18-inch alloy wheels, paddle shifters on the steering column, keyless entry with push-button ignition, a color trip computer, a six-CD changer and a third-row seat.

The GT starts with the SE's equipment and adds the V6 engine, xenon headlamps, plug-in compatibility with Thule roof racks, automatic climate control and leatherette interior panel trim with exposed stitching.

The SE can be equipped with a Premium package that includes the leatherette interior trim, a sunroof, a rearview camera and a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with a subwoofer and satellite radio. The GT is eligible for a Touring package that adds leather upholstery for the first two rows, a power driver's seat, heated front seats and the contents of the SE's Premium package.

A la carte options include a hard-drive-based navigation system with digital music storage and Mitsubishi's FUSE voice-command system for phones and music devices. The FUSE system comes with a USB port, but you can also add just the USB port if you'd rather not have FUSE.

The Outlander's interior is attractive in an understated way, dominated by dark colors and smooth surfaces. Materials quality is so-so unless you get the leatherette trim, which adds a distinct hint of luxury. The Outlander's front seats provide pleasantly firm bolstering, and they give front occupants a nice authoritative view of the road ahead. The tilt-only wheel could be a deal-breaker for tall folks, however.

The Outlander's deeply hooded tachometer and speedometer are crisp and attractive, and they bookend an upscale color LCD trip computer on SE models and above. Ergonomics are good except for the optional touchscreen navigation system, which is surrounded by small, similar looking buttons that aren't always intuitive.

The second-row seat is fine for a pair of adults, with plenty of legroom to go around. The available third-row seat is unimpressive, as its bench is virtually on the floor, and there's little padding to speak of-or legroom, for that matter. Ingress and egress are also awkward. We suppose it adds versatility, but we wouldn't want to subject even small children to much time back there.

The Outlander's got plenty of cargo space past its nifty flap-fold access gate, which has a lower tailgate portion that folds down for a flat loading floor. There's 14.9 cubic feet behind the third row, roughly 38 cubic feet behind the second row, and a formidable 72.6 cubic feet with the second row folded down.

Technology

We appreciate available niceties like the LCD trip computer and automatic climate control-neither is a given in this class-but the real technological action starts with Mitsubishi's new FUSE voice-command system, which uses Ford SYNC-style software to give you verbal control over your phone and portable music device. It works quite well and gives the aging Outlander a cutting-edge vibe. Also noteworthy is the optional touchscreen navigation system, which responds quickly and provides ample digital-music storage on its 40-gigabyte hard drive.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Outlander ES and SE are powered by a 2.4-liter inline-4 rated at 168 horsepower and 167 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a continuously variable automatic (CVT). Acceleration is adequate with this tandem, but we much prefer the Outlander GT, which gets a 3.0-liter V6 that sends 230 horsepower and 215 lb-ft of torque through a six-speed automatic. This V6 may be down on power relative to some, but it makes up for it with a perceptible performance boost around 4,500 rpm that's attributable to Mitsubishi's electronically controlled variable-valve timing (MIVEC). It's consistently entertaining.

The Outlander is front-wheel-drive by default, but a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system called S-AWC ("Super All-Wheel Control") is available on six-cylinder models, while the four-cylinder model offers a more tradition AWD system. S-AWC includes a console-mounted dial selector with three modes: snow, tarmac and 50/50 lock.

Fuel economy for the ES and SE is 23 mpg city/28 mpg highway with FWD and 22/27 mpg with the CVT Sportonic transmission, while the GT checks in at 19/26 mpg with FWD and 19/25 mpg with AWD.

Safety

The 2012 Mitsubishi Outlander comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, active front head restraints and six airbags (front, front-side, full-length side-curtain).

The government had not tested the Outlander using its latest methodology as of this writing. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Outlander its highest rating of "Good" for frontal-offset and side impacts, but its second-highest rating of "Acceptable" in roof-strength and rear-impact testing.

Driving Impressions

The Outlander is unusually engaging from behind the wheel. Body control is good for a tall crossover, and the steering is eager to follow your commands. If you get the all-wheel-drive system, you'll have yourself a rally vehicle of sorts-we've found the Outlander to be a hoot in the dirt with S-AWC. On tarmac, the Outlander's ride is firm but not unpleasant, and road noise is generally held to moderate levels.

Other Cars to Consider

Dodge Journey - If you don't need the Outlander's off-road capabilities, consider the vastly improved Journey, which has a much more practical third-row seat and delivers strong V6 acceleration.

Kia Sorento - Like the Outlander, the Sorento offers both four-cylinder and V6 power, and its third row is superior.

Toyota RAV4 - The RAV4's third row probably comes the closest to the Outlander's in terms of uselessness, but there's otherwise a lot to like about Toyota's tried-and-true crossover.

AutoTrader Recommends

The Outlander GT with S-AWC is great fun. We know it's expensive, but it's undoubtedly the Outlander at its finest.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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