The Good: Quickness; safety; available seven-passenger seating; Consumer Reports recommendation
The Bad: Cabin noise on the highway; limited luggage space with third-row seats up
The Bottom Line: A strong rival to the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V
If you're thinking of downsizing from a big SUV to a smaller one, there are now so many choices on the market it's difficult to list them all, let alone choose one. But don't overlook Mitsubishi Motors' (MMTOF.PK) new Outlander, which hit the market last year as a totally redesigned 2007 model. It's a quick, relatively sporty crossover vehicle with available four-wheel drive and a rudimentary third-row seat that gives it excellent carpooling potential. For 2008 Mitsubishi has added an inexpensive entry-level model with better fuel efficiency than the 2007 model.
The Outlander now comes in four trim levels. The new entry-level model is the ES, which is powered by a 2.4-liter, 168-hp, four-cylinder engine coupled with a continuously variable automatic transmission. It's rated to get 20 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway. It's also quite inexpensive, starting at $20,665 with front-wheel drive and $22,025 with all-wheel drive, yet comes standard with full-power accessories, a six-CD sound system, 16-inch wheels, air conditioning, and cruise control.
If performance and a bit more luxury are priorities, you have two choices: the Outlander LS or XLS, both powered by a 3.0-liter, 220-hp V6 coupled with a six-speed automatic. They're quick, with a sporty feel to them. The trade-off is that their mileage rating drops to 17/25 with front-wheel drive, and to 17/24 with all-wheel drive.
The LS starts at $23,185 with front-wheel drive and $24,545 with all-wheel drive, and it includes such upgrades as a leather-wrapped steering wheel mounted with audio controls, a keyless ignition, privacy glass, alloy wheels, and roof rails. (The ES can be upgraded to include most features on the LS by adding an $820 Convenience package.)
The top-of-the-line XLS starts at $24,425 with front-wheel drive and $25,785 with all-wheel drive. It comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, second-row seats that slide back and forth, and a third-row seat that increases maximum seating to seven people. Just keep in mind that the cramped, bench-style third-row seat is suitable mainly for children. There's also a Special Edition (SE) version of the Outlander powered by the smaller engine but equipped with the upscale features of the XLS. It starts at $23,905 with front-wheel drive and $25,265 with all-wheel drive.
In any of these formats, the Outlander is a very good-looking vehicle that stands out from most other small crossovers on the market. The 2007 redesign added four inches to the vehicle's length, creating space for the third row of seats and making the Outlander a direct competitor with Toyota's (TM) RAV4 (BusinessWeek.com, 3/15/06). The redesign also gave the Outlander sleek, European styling. I particularly like the front end, with its curved lines and color-keyed grille.
The 2008 Outlander is recommended by Consumer Reports, which terms its first-year reliability "outstanding." It also earned the top crash-test ratings, five stars, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in all but one category—rollover risk—for which it received four stars. It comes standard with a full complement of safety features, including traction and stability control and side-curtain airbags that extend all the way back if you go with the third-row seat.
All those attributes have made the Outlander a hit with consumers. Mitsubishi's overall U.S. sales rose 8.8%, to 128,993, last year. The Outlander was a big contributor to that success: Its sales doubled to 23,285. However, with the auto market slumping generally, Outlander sales fell 8.5%, to 2,013 during the first two months of 2008.
Behind the Wheel
One of the big appeals of the Outlander is how much fun it is to drive. There's a manual shifting function on the V6-powered versions that allows you to redline the engine while doing the shifting yourself. You can even get the Outlander XLS with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
Such add-ons would be laughable on many family cruisers, but the V6-powered Outlander is surprisingly quick. I clocked it at 7.6 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60 mph, noticeably faster than the sporty Mazda CX-7, which I clocked at about 8.5 seconds. The Outlander isn't as fast as the V6-powered version of the Toyota RAV4, but it isn't far behind.
The Outlander's handling is equally sporty. Its suspension is relatively stiff, and it maintains its sangfroid quite well during hard cornering. Its steering is precise for an SUV, and its brakes are quite effective during emergency stopping. At highway speed, the Outlander's ride is comfortable, though the noise level in the cabin rises to an annoyingly high level.
The Outlander's interior has a number of features I really like. The control knobs and levers are easy to use and have a straightforward retro look and feel to them. You also can set the drive to front-wheel drive, part-time four-wheel drive, or full-time all-wheel drive by simply turning a little knob—a system I prefer to automatic all-wheel drive.
One unusual, family-friendly feature is that you can fold all of the seats down flat, creating a large, open space that's ideal for picnicking or as a sleeping platform during camping trips. One version of the optional navigation system ($1,800 to $1,999) allows you to play DVDs on the dashboard-mounted navigation system screen when the vehicle is stopped, so you could even watch movies during camping trips or other outings.
The Outlander also has an unusual two-tiered rear hatch, with a conventional top section that opens upward and a smaller bottom section that opens downward. This creates a handy seat for use during tail-gating parties and picnics.
If you don't go with the third-row seats, there's a storage area under the rear deck. There's also plenty of storage space and a cargo tie-down system with sliding eye-hooks along the sides of the rear compartment. When the third-row seats are in place, however, luggage space shrinks to a mere 13 cu. ft.
Buy It or Bag It?
The 2008 Outlander is reasonably priced, as long as you don't load up on options. Its average selling price is $25,173, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), about the same as the Mazda CX-7 ($25,466) and in the same range as the Toyota RAV4 ($24,584) and Honda's (HMC) CR-V (just over $24,000). Of these models, however, only the Outlander and RAV4 can be had with a third row of seats.
Be sure to deal on price if you're shopping for an Outlander. PIN calculates that the average cash rebate on the model is $626. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)
Of course, if you go with the Outlander ES you can end up spending a lot less than the average price. However, I'd be inclined to go with the V6 engine and spend a lot more than the average. I would be tempted by the $1,610 Sun & Sound package, which includes a power sunroof, an upgraded nine-speaker sound system, and Sirius (SIRI) satellite radio. The hitch is that to get the sun-and-fun extras, you also have to take the $1,600 Luxury package that includes leather upholstery, heated front seats, and a power adjustable driver's seat.
The optional navigation system is also tempting because it includes a 30-gigabyte hard drive on which you can store tons of music, as is the $1,480 rear-seat entertainment system if you have kids to keep entertained. Add it all up, and you're easily into the $30,000 range if you aren't careful.
There are a number of less expensive alternatives that don't have third-row seats. One to consider is the new Nissan (NSANY) Rogue, which is selling for an average of $23,646, about $1,500 less than the Outlander. Ford's (F) 2008 Escape is also a decent compact SUV that is being heavily discounted right now and sells for an average of $23,416 (after an average rebate of $1,775), according to PIN.
However, in this crowded field, the Outlander has a lot to offer. If you're considering buying a better-known rival, the Mitsubishi merits a test-drive before you sign on the dotted line.
See BusinessWeek.com's slide show for more of the 2008 Mitsubishi Outlander.