2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

A new nose, a new front differential, and a button on the dash that says "Tarmac." Is the 2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT the Lancer Evolution of SUVs, or just another… er… pretty face?

(We're taking a step back from 500 HP Week to bring you a timely first drive of a new vehicle. Sorry, these damn automakers are always messing with our timelines. — Ed.)

Full Disclosure: Mitsubishi flew us out to Palm Springs and put us up in a swanky hotel so we could bring you this review. Palm Springs was full of old "new" people, new "old" people, hip people, and old people with new hips. Our hotel was full of nifty fake cheetah fur and fizzy drinks. Also, we went to a bar where Liberace once hit on everyone. It was fun.

No, you're not seeing things –- that's a Mitsubishi Lancer's snout tacked onto the nose of a seven-passenger truck. This is the 2010 Mitsubishi Outlander. Do not adjust your screen.

We know what you're thinking: That is one big nose job.

In the industry, this sort of thing is known as a mid-cycle face-lift, a planned rejuvenation that occurs roughly halfway through a vehicle's production life. In these face-lifts, cosmetic updates are usually paired with a handful of mechanical and electronic refinements; the goal is to give sales a small boost and retain interest in the model until its replacement is ready for sale.

But enough with the background. We mention all of the above only so we can tell you this: Rarely is a face-lift this extreme. In one fell swoop, the Outlander has made the jump from relative nonexistence to something else entirely, something both polarizing and compelling. (Go ahead: Try and remember what the 2005-2009 Outlander's nose looks like. Five bucks says you can't.) It's like John Travolta's shift in Pulp Fiction –- at some point during that dance with Uma Thurman, Vinnie Barbarino began to matter again. And somehow, by borrowing a face, Japan's most anonymous SUV became interesting.

Also, Mitsubishi gave it an updated interior, the aforementioned differential, and ten more horsepower. We have thoughts on all of this.

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Exterior Design ☆☆☆☆

This is one of those things that's entirely up to taste. The last Outlander suffered from anodyne looks and a wallflower vibe that encouraged parking valets to mistake it for a turkey sandwich. The truck you see here is as extroverted as its predecessor was sleepy; the gaping hole in its maw is either a killer shout-out to the Evo's rally heritage or a tribute to the everlasting glory of the Mississippi River catfish. We like it, but we also like bourbon milkshakes and playing the music of John Philips Sousa very loudly at three o'clock in the morning. We acknowledge that such things are not for everyone. Your call.

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Interior Design ☆☆☆

Excellent use of space. A mix of above-average and below-average materials. (On a recent press launch, a certain journalist accidentally scratched the bejesus out of an Outlander's dash by simply skittering his fingernails across it. Diamond-like fingernails, or an interior in need of slightly more attention to detail? You be the judge.)

The Outlander's interior has the same refreshing sparseness and black-coffee simplicity found in all current Mitsubishis; things are occasionally boomy over rough pavement, but the thin pillars and good visibility prompt you to throw the truck around in ways that you probably shouldn't. The thickly bolstered front seats may not suit the girthier folk of middle America, but they hold you remarkably well when dropping into seemingly bottomless off-camber turns with one wheel in the air. (Not that we would know.)

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Performance ☆☆☆

Make no mistake: There's no Evo firecracker under the Outlander's hood. Mitsubishi's 230-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 lives in the GT's scowling snout, and while it's competent and smooth, it's by no means overly potent. As with the old Outlander, the standard 6-speed automatic — intuitive and quick to respond to a prod of the shifter or the column-mounted paddles — is the best part of the package. (Interesting question: Would we take an Evo drivetrain if it were available? Sure, even though it would probably send the Outlander's sticker price through the roof. But we doubt that anyone else would want one.)

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Ride and Handling ☆☆☆☆

Handling is the Outlander's main party trick — it's blessed with decent steering feel and a suspension just sharp enough to be handy in the hills. The Super All-Wheel Control business is Japanese embroidery for the electronically controlled front differential; it shuffles torque between the front wheels when it senses wheelspin, but most people won't notice it in action. (The "Tarmac/Snow" setting on the console knob simply modifies how aggressively the system does its job.)

All told, the end result is something that sneaks up on you. The Outlander will hustle down a country road or blaze down a freeway with surprising speed, but it doesn't have any interest in throwing its talents in your face.

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Toys and Tech ☆☆

Items of note: a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate stereo with a ten-inch subwoofer in the trunk; a sunroof; an optional navigation system. The stereo can store songs on its internal hard drive, and there are iPod and video jacks in the center console. Given the price point, this is a respectable, but not remarkable, amount of icing.

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Value ☆☆☆

At $29,990, the Outlander GT is almost three grand more than the base Outlander ($27,130). Neither is a bargain, and both feel a bit too expensive for what they are. It's kind of like eating out in California if you're from the Midwest –- the food is generally pretty good, but you can't shake the feeling that there's a better deal just down the street.

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Overall: 76%

A good SUV, but not a great one. That said, the GT is a more well-rounded truck than the base Outlander, and it's definitely worth paying a premium for. On top of that, the competition — specifically, the offerings from Nissan, Hyundai, and Ford – isn't anywhere near as much fun to drive. This is what you buy if you have to have a mid-size crossover and don't want to spend a lot or drive an appliance. It'd be nice if both this and the regular Outlander were a bit cheaper, but you can't have everything.

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Suitability Parameters: Who Should Buy This?

● Tuner Crowd
● Soccer Moms
● Rally Freaks who breed

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Suitability Parameters: Who Shouldn't Buy This?

● Penny Pinchers
● Speed Merchants
● Treehuggers
● People who think the Mercury Mariner handles just fine

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Also Consider:

● Ford Escape
● Honda CR-V
● Mazda CX-7
● Nissan Rogue

2010 Mitsubishi Outlander GT: First DriveS

Vitals:

Model Year: 2010
Make: Mitsubishi
Model: Outlander
Trim: GT
Price, Base/As Tested: $29,990/$29,990
Engine: 3.0-liter SOHC V-6
Horsepower & Torque: 230 hp @ 6250 rpm/215 lb-ft @ 3750 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Curb Weight: 3860 pounds
0-to-60: 7.5 sec (est.)
Top Speed: n/a
Crash Testing, Front/Rear/Side: n/a
Fuel Economy (EPA): 18/24 mpg