New products, positive PR spin helping set the stage.
Okay, it's quiz time. What is 3.7 inches longer, 2.0 inches wider, and 0.4 inches higher than the Mitsubishi Outlander SUV? The Endeavor perhaps, or the Montero?
Wrong. Bizarrely, the answer is the next-generation Outlander, unveiled by the Japanese firm at last month's Tokyo Motor Show. Size-wise it's a definite step up from the current model, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. What's brave is giving it the same name and expecting people not to be a little bit confused.
However, just because a new car has an identical badge to its predecessor, it doesn't mean it has to be saddled with the same characteristics, good or bad, as the older vehicle. Take the MINI; the current BMW version is a world away from the original Rover model launched in Britain in the Sixties. Clever marketing has convinced drivers the world over that the pair are the motoring equivalent of chalk and cheese.
Mitsubishi will be trying the same sales techniques with the new Outlander. But does bigger and bolder mean better? The day after its debut, TCC took the train north from the Japanese capital city to get behind the wheel.
Even at first glance the newcomer's larger dimensions are noticeable. It has much more of a presence than the 2006 model. Our test car was powered by a 2.4-liter DOHC MIVEC gasoline engine mated to six-speed Sport Mode CVT automatic gearbox. Delivering 170 hp, it will go on sale in America in 2006. But the range also includes a VW-sourced 2.0-liter DI-D diesel, though it's doubtful that will come Stateside.
There are three driving modes: 2WD for regular use, 4WD Auto which automatically adjusts traction and handling depending on the road surface, and 4WD Lock, which maximizes traction to get the best grip. An easy-to-use rotary knob, sited just to the rear of the gear shifter, allows the driver to swap between them very simply. What's more, technology has been borrowed from the outrageous Lancer Evolution super-saloon, including an aluminum roof panel to keep the overall weight down and monotube shock absorbers.
The good news for Mitsubishi's marketing team is that this Outlander is much better than the current model. Riding on 225/55R18 rubber, it handles well and delivers plenty of grip when pushed through corners. The ride is decent, and the whole package feels refined at speed with very little of the wind noise that can blight SUVs.
The least impressive thing about our vehicle was the CVT gearbox. As an automatic the engine was working too hard as it tried to deliver acceleration, and in the alternative manual mode it wasn't much better. That said, the system changes cogs well enough via steering wheel-mounted paddleshift selectors.
On-road performance has clearly been at the forefront of the engineers' minds during the development of the Outlander. They speak of impressive off-road capability, too, but sadly we had no way of verifying their claims during our day of testing.
Fitted for space
The cabin is an improvement on the current car, too. In an age where more buttons, dials and display readouts are seen as a good thing, it's simple and stylish but well finished. The two heavily cowled instrument binnacles are a neat touch, too, and at night everything is illuminated in red, which is very reminiscent of Audi interiors.
The driver and front passenger sit in sporty semi-bucket seats. The two-tone multi-function steering wheel continues the "less is more" theme, with buttons only on one side.
Jump in the back and there's decent space for rear passengers, and a generously sized cargo area into which the third row of seats fold flat. Mitsubishi engineers describe these final chairs as for occasional use only. And they're right; they're not the most sturdy ever designed, though they do come with full three-point safety belts. Cargo space is cut to a minimum with the chairs upright. For added practicality, the middle row bench - which splits 60/40 - tumble forward in a single movement. One push of a button hidden away in the luggage compartment is all you need to create a huge load bay. A Range Rover-style split tailgate has also been included, with the lip low to the ground. That's great for getting those big loads in.
The test car also featured an optional in-built Rockford Fosgate audio system. Tuned for heavy bass reproduction, the 650-watt, nine-speaker outfit sounded impressive.
American crash data on the car isn't available yet, but in-house testing during development has led engineers to believe the Outlander will earn the maximum six-star rating in the Japan New Car Assessment Program (JNCAP). Twin front dual-stage inflation airbags are standard, with side and curtain units available as factory-fit options. Active Safety Control (ASC) is fitted to every car, which regulates dynamics to prevent skidding as a result of sudden steering inputs or loss of traction on a slippery surface. The limitations of our testing time meant we couldn't try this system out.
The car is available in its home market as a five- or seven-seater, though Mitsubishi's North American arm has yet to decide which version it will sell through dealerships. Whichever one is sold, the all-new Outlander is much more of a lifestyle SUV than the more aggressive mud-plugging designs of the Endeavor or Montero.
That said, it's better than the current car in almost every way. Though that vehicle is sold across Europe, it's not been a massive hit. But there's huge interest in this new version there because of what else the platform is being used for. The car is being developed as part of a pioneering joint venture between Mitsubishi and PSA, which means it will form the basis of the eagerly anticipated SUVs from French siblings Peugeot and Citroen. Likely to be badged the 707 and C7 respectively, they're due on sale across the Atlantic in 2007.