by Phil Berg
Style leader gets bigger engine, better suspension.
Base Price $22,527
As Tested $33,602
With its lean, muscular lines, Mitsubishi's Montero Sport has been one of the best-looking sport-utilities. For 2000, the Montero Sport features fresh styling and a refined interior.
But underneath, the news is even better: For 2000, the Montero Sport gets a new coil-spring rear suspension -- a significant improvement over the less-expensive leaf springs that locating the rear live axle on the 1999 model. The new three-link setup with coil springs offers improved control on the highway and better articulation off road.
If you're new to the Mitsubishi stable, don't confuse the Montero Sport with its bigger brother, the older Montero. (The Montero uses a similar rear coil spring suspension system, but starts near $32,000 and often tops $38,000 with all the options.)
For 1999, Mitsubishi stuffed the Montero's bigger 3.5-liter V6 into the Montero Sport Limited model. This 3.5-liter V6 produces 200 horsepower -- compared with 173 horsepower for the 3.0-liter V6 that goes in the other Montero Sport models.
SUV shoppers on a budget will now look elsewhere as the entry-level model has risen from less than $19,000 last year to more than $22,500 for 2000. The reason is simple: the less expensive 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and manual transmission are no longer available. For 2000, all Montero Sport models come standard with a V6 and automatic.
Three trim levels are available with the 173-horsepower 3.0-liter V6. The lineup starts with the $22,527 ES with two-wheel drive. The $24,777 LS adds privacy glass, fender flares, a split rear seat, power windows and larger alloy wheels. An additional $2,030 adds the optional four-wheel-drive system, which lets you shift between two- and four-wheel drive at any speed. For $27,872 you get the two-wheel-drive XLS, which has luxury stuff like a power antenna, keyless remote entry, fog lights, side steps, and a leather steering wheel. (Add $455 destination charge to all prices.)
To get the bigger 3.5-liter engine, however, you have to buy the Limited, which adds a limited-slip rear differential and a rear seat heater, and runs $29,907 for the two-wheel-drive version. For 2000, the price of the Montero Sport Limited 4x4 is $31,357.
Why are all of these wagons available without four-wheel-drive? According to Mitsubishi, about 65 percent of buyers prefer the two-wheel-drive models. Everyone dreams of the big 4x4 trip, but these cars are used primarily for everyday transportation, the company says.
The Montero Sport is about the size of a Nissan Pathfinder. It sits high off the ground, with more than 8 inches of ground clearance, but its roof is only 65.6 inches tall -- nearly 4 inches lower than a Jeep Grand Cherokee's.
For 2000, the Montero Sport gets a new, more angular front grille and slotted taillights.
A new rear suspension uses a more sophisticated (and more costly) coil-spring layout designed for improved comfort and stability. Side-impact beams and other modern sport-utility advances haven't made it to the Montero Sport yet, which helps keep its price below that of a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Mercedes ML 320.
The Montero Sport remains useful inside, even though its exterior dimensions suggest it might be on the small side. There is more cargo room with the rear seatback folded than you'll find in Chevy's Blazer, but just a milk crate less than in Toyota's 4Runner or Isuzu's Rodeo. With the seatback raised (for passengers), the Montero Sport has noticeably more cargo room than the Rodeo, or Nissan's Pathfinder. Overall, the Montero Sport offers adequate passenger room, but lacks a bit in air space when stretching out of a paddling jacket.
The front seats are firm and hold the driver with side and back bolsters that have been slightly re-padded for the 2000 models. These seats don't feel as bucket-like as an Explorer's or a Grand Cherokee's, but they seem to keep your body in better control. A new back adjustment is standard, so the trip home after a weekend on the trails is easier on your back, even after you've done those things on your mountain bike that your chiropractor warned you not to do.
In back, there's adequate room for three adults and, even given the perception that the interior is slightly cramped for headroom, your legs will have no complaints.
The new instrument panel is plain looking -- good news if you're easily distracted by clutter. The 2000 models get two-tone dashboards, in a tan-on-tan or gray-on-black pattern. We prefer the darker dash colors since light dashes tend to reflect into the windshield in bright sunlight or at night when a maplight is on.
With its bigger 3.5-liter V6, the Limited model is a gutsy rig. It almost feels as potent accelerating from a standstill as some of the bigger, V8-powered SUVs. The Limited doesn't appear to strain when you direct it to move its 4260 pounds. This V6, like its 3.0-liter stablemates, revs smoothly, too.
The front suspension offers adequate travel so it'll soak up uneven railroad crossings with aplomb. When you do this, you notice very little shake inside, but there is enough side-to-side wiggling of the body that you know it's not a car. It handles well on ramps and on winding roads.
The most comforting part of the ride is the lack of rattles, squeaks, and extraneous movements, which are endemic to most truck-chassis vehicles on today's market. The Montero Sport's frame is fully boxed, and the long front torsion bars, beefy A-arms, and hefty rear trailing arms are unmistakably heavy-duty pieces. Really big impacts feel like, well, really big impacts, but you only feel them once and you never have the feeling the car just broke something. Looking at the big picture, the more expensive Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mercedes M-class wagons hide big bumps the best. If you're coming out of a passenger sedan, which is where most first-time sport-utility buyers are from, you'll notice the majority of sport-utilities and trucks make plenty of strange noises and motions. In the Montero Sport, they are at a minimum.
The optional antilock brakes work well in four-wheel-drive mode on steep hills, even when low range is selected in the four-wheel-drive transfer case. It's an extra comfort for dirt drivers, who don't rely on much braking in these conditions, and instead use low range and low gears to walk down slick hills. On the pavement, the brakes feel terrific, and you can tell if you're on slippery or sticky roads by the feel of the pedal.
The low roof of the Montero Sport is an advantage in tight parking garages. We once enlisted a Chicago parking attendant to ride on the rear bumper of a big Montero, just to sag the rear end enough so the roof rack would clear the ceiling and we could exit the underground parking lot of the Swissotel on Wacker Drive. A lower roof is beneficial when kayaks or mountain bikes onto the roof rack.
The sharp-looking Montero Sport has become less accessible to budget shoppers, acceding this territory to the Jeep Cherokee and the new Nissan Xterra. Yet the Montero Sport is priced below the larger, more-popular Explorer and Grand Cherokee, while offering similar performance.
Part of the perception that the Montero Sport is a smaller vehicle comes from its low roofline, and therefore you sense a more cramped feeling inside. This is the trade-off for high fashion in the frenzied sport-utility market. While the average sport-utility buyer ranks styling as the sixth buying priority, Montero Sport owners rank good looks as the second priority, according to the company's research. Possibly this explains why two-thirds of Montero Sports are sold in rear-drive only form.
Overall, the ride and refinement of the Montero Sport feels more luxurious than that of the more expensive Ford Explorer, which adds to the Mitsubishi's value.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.