2016 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL S-AWC
Attracting buyers has always been an uphill struggle for Mitsubishi’s North American operations, with U.S. sales of 345,111 units in 2002 sinking to a low of 53,986 in 2007 and then slowly rising, falling and rising again to the aforementioned sum arrived at when December 2015 closed. Yes, all this negativity despite offering some pretty standup products, albeit not enough models and nowhere near as many redesigns as needed in our hotly competitive market.
I’ve long had a soft spot for Mitsubishi. When I showed up on the scene they did something few other automakers do, count the actual readership of each journalist in order to determine how to classify them, and after doing so they judged me an A-lister and therefore sent me on every press junket they had coming (fortunately a number of other brands took notice and I quickly found myself trotting around the world testing new models every week). Mitsubishi’s leg up gave me opportunity to test a number of their cars on a variety of superb roads and racetracks, causing me to first fall in love with the Lancer Evo VIII MR in Vancouver, Canada and then the Evo IX at Portland, Oregon’s PIR, after which I fell head over heals with the Evo X GSR through Malibu Canyon highway and surrounding roads, as well as the Evo X MR through the twists, turns and max vertical of Laguna Seca, plus later on the Mont Tremblant racecourse in Quebec, Canada, not to mention many times on regular roads at home. That car, along with the less capable yet still impressive and similar looking Lancer was one of the reasons Mitsubishi managed to keep afloat during the recession years, but the Outlander that I first tested on the serpentine roads of California’s South Coast and newer Outlander Sport that pulled me across the nation to the Northeast Coast and inadvertently gave opportunity for me to fall in love with that area’s fabulous scenery and kind, hospitable citizenry are the key reasons why it’s still above water and breathing.
As you can see I’ve done a lot of falling in love over the years, and as anyone who’s experienced the mind numbing process knows, it can’t be planned and is never predictable (at least to the one doing the falling). So it was with the most recent Outlander. The first one I drove was in Southern Cal, and while very competent I just couldn’t accept its styling. It had a nose only Owen Wilson’s mother could love, but like the popular comedian it was a deft entertainer on curvy roadways and certainly lived up to family hauling duties so, when given reconstructive surgery for the 2007 model year, I was borderline ecstatic. Looking back, the first iteration of the second-gen model might have been the best looking Outlander of all, but really it’s a toss-up with the 2010 version that was really only a mid-cycle upgrade, albeit a visually dramatic one, pulling frontal design cues from the Lancer and Evo X just mentioned. Then, for 2013, while the interior quality improved, the Outlander’s styling went backward, at least in my opinion, although the then-new model’s lowest-ever sales in 2012, when it was introduced, seemed to justify my point of view. Still, sales grew stronger in 2013 and 2014, as did the entire compact SUV industry, but this newest refresh introduced last year has resulted in its best sales since 2007.
Yes, Mitsubishi has given the Outlander a big styling boost for 2016, with a much more appealing front fascia featuring a new chrome grille, unique chromed side elements, a brushed aluminum undertray, plus stylish multi-angled combination headlamps with integrated LEDs and circular fog lamps, all combining for a much richer looking appearance. Additional details on my tester included satin-silver sculpted lower body moldings, and sharp looking machine-finished alloys with black painted pockets, whereas the back end design included a new chromed trim garnish across the liftgate, a new bumper cap finished off with rear fogs and reflectors, plus a metallic silver undertray, while restyled tail lamps give it a more premium presence. Overall this mid-cycle update improves on the outgoing version of this third-gen model greatly, adding much needed style if not completely eradicating its proportional awkwardness. Any questionable design elements disappear completely once inside, however.
The Outlander’s interior really surprises in its quality and refinement. The instrument panel design isn’t all that imaginative, but Mitsubishi has gone way above and beyond with a premium-grade soft touch synthetic covering the entire dash top, all the way around the left side of the primary gauge package and around the center stack. Ditto for the front door uppers, and the extremely nice leather-like French-stitched door inserts and armrests. The center armrest is covered in a hard rubberized material, but my loaner’s seats were wonderful, not only to look at, with sharply cut contrast-stitched leather bolsters and perforated inserts, but they were fabulously comfortable as well. The two-way seat heaters get toasty warm in their highest position too, making this an enjoyable car to drive on a cold winter’s day.
Additional niceties include fabric wrapped A-pillars, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, high gloss black plastic surfacing on the steering wheel spokes, center stack surfacing, and shifter surround, while cool gray bamboo-like inlays highlight the instrument panel ahead of the front passenger and the door panel trim. What’s more, a great looking blue, red and white on black primary gauge package incorporates a high-resolution color multi-information display at center, while the digital gauges for temperature and fuel gauges were done out in a stylish aqua green-blue. The Outlander isn’t trying to attract premium buyers, but they’ve managed to give the mainstream volume crossover crowd an upper crust experience that makes this model especially appealing.
The switchgear is also very good, with tightly fitted, well-damped buttons throughout, although the rotating knobs on the infotainment system are quite tiny and therefore a bit difficult for even my smallish hands to twist. Fortunately the volume control on the left steering wheel spoke worked perfectly so I found myself using the redundant controls more often than I usually do. And that stereo sounded great with excellent bass response, ideal for dance music if that’s your thing. I hate to admit it, but Justin Bieber’s “What do you mean?” actually sounded pretty decent on this system.
To be clear, the model I drove was in base trim, but it wasn’t base. Mitsubishi offers four Outlander trim levels, starting with the ES that comes in front- or all-wheel drive, although the latter gets a fancy S-AWC acronym for Super All-Wheel Control that, while differentiating its advanced characteristics from mere mortal AWD systems might be doing more to confuse the crossover buying populace than adding value. The ES, SE and as-tested SEL come with a four-cylinder engine, and to Mitsubishi’s credit you can dress up this more efficiently powered version almost as fully as the higher end 224 horsepower V6-powered GT S-AWC variant.
For instance, my SEL S-AWD tester came with the leather upholstery already noted, while the $26,995 model responsible for the ultra-luxe seats also powers the driver’s perch while adding proximity-sensing access and pushbutton ignition, fog lamps, etcetera, while it also pulls up some key items from lesser SE trim including body-color side mirror caps with integrated turn signals, a high-contrast speedometer and tachometer with a color multi-information display, dual-zone auto climate control, a 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system with a rearview camera, heatable front seats and more. It’s like you get all the luxury without paying the V6’s fuel economy price, or the higher initial price of entry.
My tester also included the $1,900 Premium package that adds a windshield wiper de-icer, power-folding side mirrors, an upgraded 710-watt nine-speaker audio system with satellite radio, a powered glass sunroof, and a powered rear liftgate.
The 18-inch alloys, leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob, piano black detailing, gray woodgrain trim and all the soft-touch surfacing mentioned earlier come standard, incidentally, as does a long list of features that surprisingly rivals luxury brands, the menu including heatable powered side mirrors, variable intermittent aero-type wipers, a tilt and telescoping multifunction steering wheel, a multi-information display, filtered single-zone auto HVAC, FUSE hands-free with streaming audio, USB input, voice activation, and six-speaker 140-watt AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio, while the standard list goes on to include auto-off halogen headlamps, LED daytime running lamps, LED taillights, an engine immobilizer and alarm system, hill start assist, tire pressure monitoring, ABS-enhanced four-wheel disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, a brake override system, stability and traction control, height-adjustable front seatbelts that also include pretensioners with force limiters, plus all the usual airbags including one for the driver’s knees.
An “ECO” mode indicator with drive assist is also standard, helping you get the most from a tank of fuel, the base 2.4-liter engine not only efficient with an EPA rating of 25 mpg city, 31 highway and 27 combined in base FWD trim or 24 city, 29 highway and 26 combined with AWD, but also quite spirited at takeoff thanks to 166 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque and Mitsubishi’s impressive CVT-8 automatic, a continuously variable transmission with eight forward pseudo gears.
Honestly I’m not normally a fan of CVTs, but this one feels much better than average despite not having a manual mode, or maybe because its stepped gears are only mildly noticeable and therefore it doesn’t attempt to be sportier than it needs to. It applies the power progressively and smoothly while achieving 26 percent greater efficiency than last year’s CVT, resulting in a one-second improvement from standstill to 60 mph, from 11.2 seconds last year to 10.2 now, leaving the Outlander’s capable suspension for sporting duties.
Suspensions are a Mitsubishi strong point. I referred to the Evo earlier in this review for a reason, because it’s one of the best handling cars I’ve ever driven no matter the price (and I’ve driven some pretty amazing hardware). The Evo is now legend, although it’s currently on its way out of production with a Final Edition available, a thought that leaves a lump in the throat of any performance car aficionado including yours truly, and while the Outlander is nowhere near as capable on road or track, you can feel the engineering DNA at every turn. It starts with a simple MacPherson strut system up front and a sophisticated multi-link setup in back, plus stabilizer bars at both ends, a fully independent suspension design that’s more complex and much costlier to build albeit worth it, plus it’s the norm in this segment. Somehow Mitsubishi makes all the components work better than average, however, especially noticeable in the corners where it’s able to manage bumpy corners without unsettling its rear end one iota, keeping tires planted on the road where they’re able to fully grip the tarmac and therefore deliver the Outlander’s noted handling advantage while still providing excellent ride comfort.
When AWC is included road holding improves further. AWC was first offered in the 2001 Lancer Evolution VII, although for the Outlander its capability is not quite as all encompassing. Basically it combines Mitsu’s electronically controlled four-wheel drive system with active skid and traction control, allowing a torque vectoring effect that can really be felt in dry or slippery conditions. There’s a large circular button on the lower console that let’s you switch between 4WD Eco, 4WD Lock and Normal positions, Lock useful when trudging through snow.
Along with its superior road manners it’s a fabulous people mover and above average load hauler. You won’t get complaints from front or second-row passengers when it comes to space and comfort, and you certainly won’t feel shortchanged when it comes time to load it up with gear. The standard 60/40 split-folding second-row seatbacks aren’t the most convenient to stow away, being that you need to first flip the lower cushions upward and forward before dropping the seatbacks down, but the result is well worth the extra effort. The cargo compartment is accommodating to say the least, and the load floor is completely flat which is certainly not the case with most competitors, resulting in 63.3 cubic feet of maximum load space. With the second row upright the Outlander is already quite commodious at 34.2 cubic feet, although the metal casing for the retractable cargo cover is a bit lighter duty than others, making me wonder how well it will hold up over time. On the positive (kind of), all trims come standard with a third row of seats for seven-occupant capacity, although I’m certain some would rather have the option of five-passenger seats as available in other markets, these models benefiting from a large, deep, sectioned cargo compartment hidden under the rear floor, adding capacity and protecting valuables. You’d think with Mitsubishi’s need to appeal to as many buyers as possible to attract sales they’d be more flexible in their seating configurations, the lack of a five-person version a mistake. After all, the largest players in the industry don’t offer seven-passenger seating at all, proof that most buyers don’t need or want the extra row.
So how much did I like the latest 2016 Outlander? Due to the sheer number of reviews I’m required to write each week I need to test multiple vehicles at a time, and therefore I didn’t expect to be spending much time in the Outlander. After all, it was up against a Lexus NX 200t F Sport, BMW 340i xDrive Sedan and Cadillac Escalade Platinum, so what chance did it have? Truth told I spent at least as much time with the Outlander as these others, which says a lot about this impressive compact crossover.
Added to its overall goodness is a Top Safety Pick + rating from the IIHS when its optional active safety equipment is included, these items being lane departure warning and forward collision mitigation that can be added to my SEL tester and the top-line GT. This means that lower models don’t fare as well, the NHTSA only giving them four stars out of five in crash tests. Still, this is average for the class, whereas Mitsubishi’s reliability rating is above average according to J.D. Power’s 2015 Vehicle Dependability Study.
On that note Mitsubishi’s warranty makes sure you’ll probably never need to worry about reliability at all, with the longest powertrain warranty in the industry at 10 years or 100,000 miles, while its comprehensive “bumper-to-bumper” warranty is a full five years or 60,000 miles, again considerably longer than average. Go ahead and ask the finance manager in any competitive dealership how much it’ll cost you to extend that brand’s basic warranty by two years and 24,000 miles as well as your powertrain warranty by five years and 40,000 miles, and then amortize that number over the duration of your loan; you’ll be surprised at just how much Mitsubishi gives away for free.
Of course, Mitsubishi offers more warranty, more standard features and in many ways a better compact SUV because it desperately needs to find ways to lure you down to your local tri-diamond dealer. It knows that once you’ve spent a little time with an Outlander it’ll probably win you over, its $22,995 base price not a bad way to start the tempting process. Load up a competitor with the same features as the base Outlander ES FWD and you’ll be paying thousands more, warranty aside, while my luxuriously appointed SEL S-AWC Premium tester’s price tag was only $28,895 plus freight and dealer fees, again thousands less than most competitors, many of which are nowhere near as nicely finished.
I’m not going to say I’m in love, but the 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander has won a deep appreciation. There’s no way it should be selling so slowly as this compact CUV is miles better than some much bigger players. Of course, the brand’s acute need for sales is to your benefit as you’ll no doubt be able to strike a good deal, Mitsubishi’s retail site shaving $1,000 right off the top via factory rebate, and that’s before even trying to negotiate a better deal.
My advice? Check out the Outlander before paying more for something else. I’m guessing it’ll impress you too.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press