6 Feb 2013

2013 Mitsubishi Outlander review

Matt Hubbard reviews the 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander, an SUV which is as much concerned about price, mpg and CO2 levels as anything else.

The first Outlander was something new for the UK market when it arrived in 2001.  Its nearest rival was the Subaru Legacy, but the Outlander was taller and, unlike the Outback and other SUVs (although they were called Four Wheel Drive vehicles back then), didn't drink fuel at a monumental rate.  The problem with the 1st generation Outlander is that it was uglier even than a BMW X1, particularly its nose.

The 2nd generation Outlander was a vast improvement in looks and in general refinement.  The 2.2 diesel engine combined with the 6 speed manual gearbox was a joy to use.  Suspension was on the firm side and handling was fine.  The interior was typical Japanese.  Some of it was good, some of it plasticky.

The new 3rd generation Outlander arrived on UK shores this week and Mitsubishi organised a launch at Badminton House, home of the Badminton Horse Trials - sponsored by Mitsubishi.  The day started with a presentation by Lance Bradley, MD of Mitsubishi Motors UK.  It was a 40 minute presentation, the first 20 minutes of which focussed on how the Outlander slaughters the competition on CO2, mpg, tax liability, weight, price and drag (the Cd of the Outlander is 0.33, the same as the Lamborghini Murcielago fact fans!).

Power was only briefly mentioned and handling not mentioned at all.  This is because the new Mitsubishi Outlander is aimed squarely at company car drivers, to whom tax liability is an artificially generated, socialist millstone around their neck.  And not normally something that Speedmonkey worries about.  But we'll try.  For the sake of the Outlander.

The new Outlander costs a little more than the previous model.  There are four trim levels, ranging from GX2 to GX5 - with or without an automatic gearbox and four wheel drive.  The GX2 in manual form and with 2WD costs £23,699 whilst the GX5 with an auto gearbox and four wheel drive costs £33,999.

The chassis is completely different from the previous generation, and is based on the Evo X - but don't expect an SUV-style Evo.  This is a completely different proposition.  The exterior of the new Outlander is smoothed out, the grille reduced, the windscreen washer jets hidden under a shroud - all in the name of drag efficiency.  The shape is easy on the eye, with few stylistic lumps and bumps.  It's a tad blander than the 2nd gen but certainly not ugly.

The interior is that strange Japanese hybrid of decent materials at eye level, which worsens in quality the lower down in the cabin - finished off with some lovely stitching on the floor mats.  The interior isn't good, it isn't bad.  It's adequate.  Mitsubishi reckon the Outlander's competitors are the Hyundai Santa Fe, Honda CR-V and Kia Sorento.  In that company the Outlander's interior is refined.  Put it against a similarly priced Evoque or Tiguan and it looks cheap.

Space is plentiful.  All the seats are roomy and there are two seats in the boot.  In theory the Outlander will fit seven adults onboard.  In reality it will fit five adults in the front two rows and a couple of children in the 3rd row.  The seats are all pretty easy to configure and move around.  When both sets of rear seats are folded flat the back of the Outlander takes on vast, van-like proportions.  Strangely it has ten cup holders, but no 12v socket in the rear of the vehicle.

The engine is the same across the entire range - the Mitsubishi built 2.2 DI-DC.  It has 149bhp and produces 280 lb ft of torque.  In the manual version 0-62mph takes 10.2 seconds, in the auto it takes 11.7 seconds.  Slow for a normal car, reasonable for an SUV.  Economy is 53.3mpg in the manual and 48.7mpg in the auto.

To drive the Outlander is to remember that a) you're in an SUV and, b) that it's built for the company car market.  The 3rd gen is 100kg lighter than the 2nd gen, at 1610kg (half that of the Audi Q5).  This reduction in mass is noticeable through the twisty bits.  The suspension is set up for comfort rather than handling, but it does a decent job of hauling itself round corners.

In fact the suspension and ride is the outstanding feature of the Outlander.  It feels composed and comfortable, even when bumping and crashing over the worst potholes Gloucestershire has to offer.  The steering, on the other hand, is one of it's worst features.

The steering is so heavily assisted that, initially, one over-compensates which in turn makes it feel as though there is a lag between turning the wheel and turn-in.  It is the lightest steering I've encountered and doesn't provide any feedback from the road at all.  After a while I became used to it and tootled along nicely, but the initial lack of feel and over-lightness is slightly unnerving.

The engine's 149bhp should, in theory, be plenty to haul the Outlander at a decent turn of speed.  And it would but for the fact the car is set up with CO2 emissions and average fuel economy in mind.  I recently drove the Mercedes-Benz C 250 CDI, which was hideously slow in Eco mode but great in Normal mode.  The Outlander only has Eco or More Eco (my words, not Mitsubishi's).  The gearbox is meant to be adaptive, which means it learns how you like to drive and responds accordingly.  In reality it is slow to change down and quick to change up.  It is always in too high a gear and labours the engine so much that it feels uncomfortably slow.

Drive through a village, hit the 60mph zone and boot the throttle and not a lot happens unless you change down the auto gearbox using the flappy paddles - not available on the GX2 or 3.  This set-up is great for company car drivers and econofreaks but not great at all for enthusiastic drivers.  The Outlander in auto form desperately needs a Sport button.

Mitsubishi claim that due to the low Cd the Outlander's cabin is a quiet place to be at speed.  It mostly is.  The diesel engine thrums a little, but is less than half as loud as Mercedes' diesels, the wind noise from the huge side mirrors is low and the road noise is acceptably quiet.  My test car had a very annoying high pitched whistle from the passenger side window seal.  Hopefully this is just because it's an early model, and not something that will be found on those sold to the public.  If I'm wrong then Mitsubishi need to beef up the seals pronto.

On the motorway you get a few gadgets that aid driving.  Lane assist is turned on as soon as the ignition is engaged and it works well, but it is annoying that you have to turn it off when not on the motorway.  I'm a huge fan of adaptive cruise control and the system on the Outlander is as good as any other - plus it's simple to use.  This is a technology that will stop the loonies, who would rather rubberneck than look where they are going, shunting us normal, alert drivers up the rear - so is a good thing.

Being an SUV the Outlander has four wheel drive as standard on most of the range.  It's a good system (which it should be, Mitsubishi has built 4WD cars for years) that has three modes.  Eco (that word again) which normally drives just the front wheels but engages the rears of needed, Auto 4WD that normally has a 70/30 split and sends up to 50% to the rear if needed, and 4WD Lock which is permanently 50/50.

The new Mitsubishi Outlander is, at heart, a great vehicle.  It's got plenty of space, more than enough cupholders, the tax band is cheap, the engine is economical and powerful enough, it's got 7 seats, it can go round a corner (although the seats don't have enough bolster), it has all the gadgets and it has the Mitsubishi badge on the front.

Mitsubishi undersell themselves when they reckon their competition is Kia and Hyundai.  But they struggle to match the kudos and quality of rivals such as Land Rover's Evoque (£28,000 for a pov spec) and Freelander (£26,000 for a decent spec) and BMW's X3 (£28,000 for bog spec).  Mitsubishi might not claim the Land Rovers and BMW as rivals because they don't have seven seats, but so what?  How often are you going to use that last row of seats?

The only real fly in the ointment with the Outlander is that it is such a slave to economy and legislation. What could be a good car is spoiled somewhat by the need to shout so much about it's CO2, mpg and tax bands.

I wouldn't buy an Outlander with my own private money but if, in some parallel universe I was forced into having a company car, would certainly consider it - as long as they fix that whistling window, install a Sport button and firm up the steering a bit.

It's also worth mentioning that the chassis has been designed with a hybrid in mind.  Mitsubishi call it the PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) and it's coming to the UK this summer - it's already on sale in Japan.  The PHEV will be 'competitively' priced and can do 547 miles on a full tank and full battery.  Mitsubishi claim 148mpg if the battery has been fully charged before departure.

The car I drove was the Mitsubishi Outlander 2.2 DI-D GX5 Auto 4WD.  The specifications:

Price - £33,999
Engine - 2.2 litre, inline 4, diesel, DOHC, turbo
Transmission - 6 speed automatic, 4WD
Power - 149bhp
Torque - 280lb ft
Weight - 1610kg
0-62mph -  11.7 seconds
Top speed - 125mph
Fuel consumption - 48.7mpg combined