Stylish wagon for the suburban wilderness.
by Phil Berg
Base Price (MSRP) $22,747
As Tested (MSRP) $33,297
With its lean, muscular lines, Mitsubishi's Montero Sport has long been one of the best-looking SUVs. Lately, however, Mitsubishi has been working to prove that beauty is more than skin deep. Last year, the Montero Sport benefited from interior refinements and a coil-sprung rear suspension. For 2001, the body has been re-engineered for greater safety, and both available engines massaged for lower emissions with better fuel economy.
Headlining the changes, however, is a new performance-leader 3.5XS model, which combines Mitsubishi's biggest engine with a unique exterior appearance and a surprisingly moderate sticker price.
If you're new to the Mitsubishi stable, don't confuse the Montero Sport with its older brother, the bigger and more radically styled Montero. The big Montero, with its 109.5-inch wheelbase, 104.6 cubic feet of passenger volume, and 5840 pound GVW starts near $32,000 and often tops $38,000 with all the options.
Our subject here is the junior-edition Montero Sport: 107.3-inch wheelbase, 93.6 cubic feet of passenger volume, and a GVW of 5000-5350 pounds. This is still no econo-SUV, however, with standard V6 power and a starting price close to $23,000.
For 2001, Montero Sport comes in a head-spinning five different trim levels, and each of these is now available in two-wheel or four-wheel drive.
ES, LS, and XLS variations are all powered by a 165-horsepower 3.0-liter V6. Even the $22,747 ES boasts a long list of luxury goodies. This model was offered only in 2WD last year, but is offered with 4WD for 2001.
Next up is the $25,627 LS, which adds rear privacy glass, more adjustments for the front seat, a 60/40 split rear seat, larger alloy wheels and, on 4WD versions only, four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS. For $27,397, you get the XLS, with color-keyed fender flares and other style enhancements, plus a security system in case the wrong sort of people notice.
Topping the line is the $31,317 Montero Sport Limited, with four-wheel-discs and ABS on 2WD as well as 4WD models, a limited-slip rear differential, plus monochromatic paint, Infinity stereo, tilt-and-slide moonroof, LCD trip computer, leather upholstery, and other ultimate-luxury equipment. Powering the Limited is Mitsubishi's top engine, a 3.5-liter V6 producing 197 horsepower.
New for 2001 is the Montero Sport 3.5XS, which combines the big engine with a slightly-better-than-LS trim level, and sells for a more reasonable $26,637. (We and others had complained about having to buy the whole farm just to get the big mill.) The 3.5XS is distinguished by unique matte-black exterior trim and comes only in Solano Black or Phoenix Red. As with all of its siblings, both two and four-wheel drive are available.
Curiously, Mitsubishi expects about 65 percent of Montero Sport buyers to select two-wheel drive. Although truck-based and fully capable of 4x4 adventure, most Montero Sports will live out their lives as hip, luxurious, suburban station wagons.
The Montero Sport is about the size of a Nissan Pathfinder. It sits high off the road, with more than eight inches of ground clearance, but its roof is only 65.6 inches tall, which is nearly four inches lower than a Jeep Grand Cherokee's.
Montero Sport's low roofline leads to more cramped feeling inside, but this is the trade-off for high fashion in the frenzied sport-utility market. While the average SUV-shopper ranks styling as their sixth buying priority, Montero Sport owners (according to Mitsubishi's research) list good looks as their number-two criteria. Possibly this explains why two-thirds of Montero Sports are sold with rear-drive only.
Last year, Mitsubishi updated the Montero with a new grille and tail lights and, more significantly, a new coil-spring rear suspension. For 2001, the emphasis has been on safety. Structural improvements are designed to deflect the force of an offset-front-end crash, and a new seat-belt pre-tensioner will help protect the driver from injury.
The Montero Sport offers more useful interior room than its small exterior dimensions might suggest. There is more cargo room with the rear seatback folded than you'll find in a Chevrolet Blazer, and just a milkcrate 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 the Nissan Pathfinder. Passenger room in the Montero Sport is adequate, but lacks a bit in air space for stretching out of a paddling jacket.
The front seats, refined a bit last year, still hold the driver firmly. They don't feel as bucket-like as the front seats in an Explorer or Grand Cherokee, but they seem to keep the body in better control. A trip home after a weekend on the trails is relatively easy on your back, even after you've done things on your mountain bike that your chiropractor warned you not to do.
In the back seat, again, there's adequate room for three adults and, although the interior is slightly cramped for headroom, your legs will have no complaints.
The instrument panel is rather plain looking, which might be good news if you're easily distracted by clutter. Since 2000 it has been made in a pair of two-tone patterns, either tan-on-tan or gray-on-black. We prefer the darker version, since the lighter edition tends to reflect into the windshield in bright sunlight, or at night when a maplight is on.
With its big 3.5-liter V6, the Limited model is a gutsy rig. Accelerating from a standstill, it almost feels as potent as some of the bigger, V8-powered SUVs. It certainly shows no sign of strain when asked to move its 4330 pounds. And like the smaller, 3.0-liter V6, it's a smooth revver.
Montero Sport handles well on freeway ramps, and on winding roads. Its frame is fully boxed, and its 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 they never leave you with the feeling that you've broken something. The front suspension has adequate travel, so it will soak up uneven railroad crossings with aplomb. However, while you notice very little shake inside, there is enough side-to-side wiggling of the body to remind you that Montero Sport is not a car.
That said, the most comforting aspect of Montero Sport's ride is the lack of rattles, squeaks, and extraneous movements, which are endemic to most truck-chassis vehicles. (You'll notice them particularly if you are trading in a passenger sedan for your new sport-ute, as are so many buyers these days.) In comparison, however, the more expensive Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mercedes M-class wagons hide big bumps the best.
The antilock brakes (standard on all but ES) work well on steep hills in four-wheel-drive mode, even when low range is selected in the 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 top is also beneficial when loading kayaks or mountain bikes onto the roof rack.
The sharp-looking Montero Sport is not as accessible to budget-SUV shoppers as the Jeep Cherokee or Nissan Xterra; yet it is priced below the larger, more-popular Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee, while offering similar performance. In overall ride and refinement the Montero Sport feels more luxurious than Explorer, which adds to the Mitsubishi's value.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.