Mainstream appeal and pricing. by Ray Thursby
Since Mitsubishi first offered its Montero to sport-utility customers, it has presented a utilitarian, boxy appearance that disguised the luxury touches inside. Like the Jeep Cherokee and Isuzu Trooper, the Montero's looks have suggested that style had been accorded a distant second-place ranking to function.
Sport-utility buyers liked that, and still do. The piano-case Montero continues on sale, but now it's joined by a new, slightly smaller version, the Montero Sport, that puts the same rugged underpinnings under a slick new shell.
Style-wise, the Montero Sport faces rivals that wouldn't have been considered by previous Montero intenders. Nissan's Pathfinder and Toyota's 4Runner, both redesigned last year, and the Isuzu Rodeo/Honda Passport twins come to mind, as do the Jeep Cherokees, Chevy Blazer/GMC Jimmy/ Oldsmobile Bravada and Ford Explorer.
It's important to remember that all of these competitors have as much substance as style. That's a major consideration for those looking to the sport-utes for more than just high-profile on-road duty. The larger Montero has never been found lacking when asked to work hard; can the same be said of its new junior partner?
Yes, it's still boxy. The dictates of maximum passenger and load space, high ground clearance and minimal front and rear overhangs make an essentially square-rigged look almost mandatory. That said, Mitsubishi designers have done an admirable job of smoothing off the rough edges to give the Sport a more modern, streamlined appearance.
Still, there is something a bit unusual about the Sport's proportions, and it's the relationship between body and greenhouse. Ordinarily, they are roughly equal in height, but Mitsubishi has lowered the roofline to create something of a visual imbalance. That has no significant effect on glass area or ease of ingress and egress, but does create a hunkered-down muscular impression that takes some getting used to. The larger tires used on upscale Sports only add to the mismatch.
Four versions of the Montero Sport are available. Buyers looking for what is in essence an oversized station wagon -- albeit an extremely efficient one -- will want to check out the two two-wheel drive models, the base ES and rather more lavish LS. The ES has the distinction of being the only Sport to do without V-6 power, relying instead on a 2.4-liter four that develops a modest 134 hp. This engine is available only with a five-speed manual transmission.
A 3.0-liter V-6 powers all other Sports, whether two- (LS) or four- (LS or XLS) wheel drive. Offered with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, this is a rugged, refined engine. Unless fuel mileage is a top priority, it should be considered essential by most customers, as the four, though not as vibratory as some similar engines (thanks to a pair of internal balance shafts) is challenged by heavy loads and limited in trailer-towing capacity.
The larger Monteros, meanwhile, benefit from a power upgrade with a new 3.5-liter V-6 rated at 200 hp and 228 pound-feet of torque.
Other differences between the models are confined largely to availability of options, with only the XLS getting standard air conditioning, power sunroof, two-tone exterior paint, fender flares, cruise control leather upholstery and power windows, mirrors and locks. All can be applied at extra cost to the two LS versions. ABS is optional on all except the ES. Surprisingly, even the ES has a CD unit in its audio system.
The Inside Story
As you'd expect, the Sport's long suit is space. Lots of it, including more headroom than the low roof would suggest. Materials used for upholstery, carpet and other surfaces are attractive and appear to be long-wearing. All Sports save the XLS (which gets leather) have good-looking cloth coverings on their comfortable seats; the front seats' range of adjustment is sufficient to give any reasonably sized person enough legroom without cramping those in back. A height-adjustable steering column is standard, though its locked positions are far enough apart that some drivers may not find exactly the wheel angle they want.
Visually, the Sport cabin tends more toward truck than car, with a large, blocky dashboard holding essential gauges in front of the driver -- the usual speedometer, tachometer, fuel level and water temperature gauges -- and, if chosen from the options list, a Multi-Meter with compass, outside temperature, voltage and oil pressure readouts. Heat/vent/air conditioning and audio controls are centered in the dash, within easy reach of driver and passenger. Each of the outboard seating positions also has a hefty grab handle, a feature much appreciated on- road or off.
It's a bit of a reach down to the 4WD transfer case shift lever, which sits next to the shift handle on the center tunnel. No pushbutton or rotating-switch controls for this part-time system; a tug of the lever allows the driver to shift between 2WD and 4WD while the Sport is underway. A shift to low-range 4WD can only be made at rest.
Ride & Drive
In daily to-and-fro use, the Sport is remarkably comfortable. Soft, though well-controlled suspension, power steering and lots of sound-deadening materials throughout the body see to that. Most of the noise comes from the engine (our tester, a well-equipped LS, had the V-6/automatic combination) and tires; wind noise is almost nonexistent. Maneuverability is about average for the class.
Still, that high seating position does count for something; if you can't get past obstacles, at least you can see over them.
On the highway, the Sport does just fine, as long as you don't mind noise levels that are somewhat above passenger-car standards. At 65 mph, the most obtrusive noises come from the tire treads. The seats are supportive enough to be good for all-day drives, and you can take plenty of luggage along; even with four or five people on board, there's more than 40 cubic feet of load space available.
In straight-ahead performance, the Sport is so-so. Even 173 horses are somewhat hard-pressed to cope with more than two tons of mass, so acceleration tends to be leisurely.
To be fair, though, that's true of most sport-utility vehicles. Blazing acceleration just isn't part of the deal in this realm.
But the Sport really comes to life when taken off the pavement. Its Montero heritage has left it with a rugged box-section steel frame and suspension components hefty enough to withstand enormous amounts of abuse.
In low range, the Sport has the power to go almost anywhere, with enough ground clearance -- 8.5 inches -- to tackle moderate log- and rock-hopping. And for this kind of action, the Sport is a better bet than the senior Montero, since there's less front and rear overhang. If you're considering off-road use, we strongly recommend the optional limited-slip rear differential.
General comments that apply to the Montero Sport are equally valid for most sport-utility vehicles. If you can accept their limitations -- noise levels and ride quality that are generally poorer than you find in a passenger car and below-normal fuel economy -- they can be pleasant, useful transportation devices.
But if you appreciate the extra interior space, higher seating position and rugged looks of a sport-ute, the Sport deserves to be high on your shopping list. It is one of the more refined machines in its class, is well-made and has distinctive looks.
If you want more luxury, check the rest of the Montero tribe. But the new Sport version is the best choice if you plan to visit the wilds, and, arguably, the better buy. Just be careful with the option shopping.
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