I am both charmed and perplexed by the Mitsubishi Outlander, a car that successfully answers the question: Just how much can we get away with not putting in a car with seven seats and get you to buy it anyway? The big thing is the engine.
(Full Disclosure: Jalopnik asked Mitsubishi for a Mirage to review, as we love cheap and minimal cars. None are more cheap or minimal than the Mirage, and we wanted to remind people that it’s still a viable choice for those of you who miss small cars that are actually small, simple, and available with a manual. Mitsubishi, possibly too scared to loan us one, told us we’d actually prefer an Outlander instead. Whatever! The Outlander is basically the only thing keeping Mitsubishi afloat in the States, so it was worthwhile for us to drive.
As it turns out, it manages to be both cheap and good, though in ways less obvious than in the Mirage. I drove this Outlander for a few hundred miles worth of long weekend in the Catskills, hauling a couple friends and all their stuff with me.)
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I say that it’s the engine that stands out as the most notable thing missing from the Outlander. Or, at least, a third of that engine.
The Outlander is a seven-seat SUV in the most minimal sense. There are seven seats. There is a boxy, oddly handsome SUV body around it. There is also an enduring question of how this fully-loaded seven-seat SUV from Mitsubishi has a sticker price of $38,590 while the fully-loaded seven-seat SUV from Kia I just drove stickered at $48,720.
It’s hard to tell from the outside. Both SUVs are about the same size (197 inches long for the Kia, 185 for the Mitsubishi). They both look generally handsome, the Telluride coming at the design brief from a pretty conventional standpoint, the Outlander almost the opposite. The giant fog lights, the pinched-in grille ... at first glance the Outlander looks weird. But it grows on you pretty quickly. It’s a good ugly, unlike the simply ugly ugly you get from, say, General Motors’ entire truck and SUV lineup.
It’s also hard to tell how Mitsubishi saved on cost from the inside. The Outlander is a good-looking vehicle from any of its seven seats. The orange-brown leather on this car didn’t feel great, but it’s not noticeably bad. It doesn’t present any different from what you get on, say, an Ikea office chair.
The infotainment is fine, hooking a phone up to CarPlay without issue and generally getting out of the way beyond that. You could say the same of the seats, no issue there, or the ride.
What I expected to be awful was the engine. Other manufacturers look at the design brief of a vehicle like this — big SUV body, three rows of seating, expectations that those seats will be regularly filled with people and the cargo area with their stuff — and reckon that what it needs is a powerful V6. After all, these things are not lightweight machines. This top trim Outlander weighs 3,803 pounds, according to Mitsubishi, and that was before I filled it up with five people and a weekend’s worth of their luggage.
For a bit of contrast, the Telluride I drove not all too long ago was right around 4,300 lbs. Kia saw fit to handle all of that weight with a 3.8-liter V6 good for 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque.
The Outlander? Mitsubishi gives that a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, no turbo, good for 181 HP and 181 lb-ft. Doesn’t matter what trim you get; there’s just one engine, just one output.
Now, I was sure that this thing was going to be glacially slow. Horrifically underpowered. I was waiting for its CVT to groan all through my weekend with the car. I was being demanding of it, after all. It was driving loaded up, and it was going over, through, up, down, and around the hills (mountains?) of the Catskills. I thought I’d be planning my passing like I did in the old family Volvo 240 station wagon.
Amazingly, none of this was the case. The engine was perfectly up to the task. It never felt overly stressed, it never felt out of its depth. Mitsubishi told power-hungry America that it would be fine with a four-cylinder in a big SUV and it was right. This is all the engine we need for a big people hauler like this. I wouldn’t want to tow a boat with it (Mitsubishi rates its towing capacity at a pretty slim 2,000 pounds) but that’s about all.
Now, here is where things get increasingly strange. The Outlander makes do with less power than something like a Toyota Highlander (hybrid or V6), but it doesn’t get significantly better mileage. I mean, it gets better mileage, but it’s only a couple MPG better than its competition:
Those are the rated figures. In practice, I got 23 MPG out of the Telluride and between 27 and 28 from the Outlander. The Mitsubishi makes do with less engine, but doesn’t make up for it with a lot of added economy. There isn’t a real performance loss, neither is there a real efficiency gain. It’s intriguing, if a bit perplexing. At a certain point, I think, if you’re not going hybrid, you’re not really getting anywhere out of the 20-something wasteland shared by both unibody SUV fuel economy figures and young millenials.
As for what’s bad, it is important to mention that while the seven seats in the Outlander are all very nice, you either get seven seats or room for everyone’s stuff. I think you could make this a functional six-seater with everyone’s things, so you could pack two parents, three kids, and a vacation’s worth of things into three rows, as was the case with my old family 240. I guess I should say this is not great, but it’s fine, and nothing I’d want to change. This Outlander doesn’t have to be any larger.
All right, the weekend with the Outlander was not entirely without issue. As you may have gathered, there’s only one thing I didn’t like about the crossover in question, and it’s the only thing I have not yet mentioned. Driving the Outlander has one thing wrong with it. It’s not the ride. That’s fine. It’s not how it handles. Again, totally fine, no complaints.
It is: the pedals. I do not know why, but for some reason there was no way for me to comfortably cruise in the Outlander, maintaining a nice and even speed, as the pedals were kind of awkwardly placed. I think it was that they were maybe unusually high? Maybe strangely far away? I was always tiptoeing the gas pedal, which wasn’t exactly light. It was annoying to always be consciously working the gas — just a bit, not too much, too much! now not enough — while driving on the highway. Putting the Outlander in cruise control made the problem go away and the whole vehicle was once more at peace, until ...
... the car’s radar cruise control sprung an error! The lane keep assist wouldn’t work, and since the car automatically started its cruise control with it on (you turn it off after turning cruise control on, not unique to Mitsubishi), it wouldn’t allow cruise control to be turned on at all. It refused to engage the system until eventually I made it to the next stop and turned the car off and on again. It wasn’t the worst problem in the world, but it was the only time I’ve had an issue like that in all of my years driving press cars, and it served to remind me how annoying it was to pedal the car at a steady state. Again, this was far from a big issue, but it was something I encountered, something I didn’t love, and something I felt worth mentioning.
Is this why the Outlander costs 10 grand than a Telluride, a couple grand on top of that if you go to a Honda Pilot or the Toyota Highlander, best-seller that it is? Is there any more tinniness to the Outlander’s doors? Could it be saving that much money attaching the grille directly to the hood in one big piece, not distinct panels? Is there anything chintzy to its seats, its displays? I don’t think so. People just ... don’t buy Mitsubishis these days. The Outlander is basically all Mitsubishi has these days, so I sort of understand the discount price, even if I can’t exactly pinpoint where Mitsubishi saved on cost.
Drive a Mitsubishi Mirage and you can instantly tell how and where Mitsubishi saved money with the car. It is smaller than something like a Honda Fit, more bare, more roughly finished. Aside from the engine, there’s really not much about the Outlander that gives anything up to higher-cost competitors.
Ultimately, the Outlander gives you just as much car as Mitsubishi can get away with, while still keeping three rows and seven seats. I expected it to not feel like enough. A couple hundred miles later, and its competitors feel like excess.