On the Road Review: Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

Once a significant Asian import brand in America, Mitsubishi has fallen on slack times in this market and struggled to remain relevant. One of the first Asian automakers to build an assembly plant in the States — with former partner Chrysler — Mitsubishi has dropped some once popular nameplates, (Eclipse, Spyder, Galant and Endeavor) and labored to move the sales needle with its remaining lineup.

One bright spot has been the Outlander Sport, this week’s review vehicle. A smaller edition of the Outlander Crossover, the Sport was Mitsubishi’s top seller here last year, accounting for 40 percent of overall sales, while helping Mitsu dealers realize a 20 percent sales gain. With only four nameplates remaining, Lancer, Mirage, Outlander and Outlander Sport, Mitsubishi dealers are counting on the Sport to carry them until new products arrive.

After pushing the Outlander Sport through northern New Hampshire, cold, icy Vermont and back to wintry Maine, the Mitsubishi showed hope — and shortcomings.

Power for the Sport comes from a 2.0-liter in-line four-cylinder engine making 148 hp. This motor is standard on both ES and upgraded SE trim levels. FWD also is standard, with a five-speed manual if you wish, or, the optional CVT is available on both FWD and Mitsubishi’s AWC — all-wheel control four-wheel drive models. The Mitsu system features an AWD setting that engages the rear wheels when slip is detected, plus, another click of the console button engages 4WD locked, which keeps all four wheels engaged for the worst conditions. This simple electronic aid should be available on all small crossovers.

Outlander Sport pricing starts at $19,595 for front-drive ES models with a five-speed manual transmission, rising to $22,795 with the CVT automatic and additional features. Top SE trim with AWC/AWD starts at $24,195 with the CVT. Our Labrador Black Pearl SE lists EPA mileage ratings of 24/30/27-mpg. Our cold week together returned numbers closer to the city-mpg rating.

Inside, the Sport demonstrates part of the Korean automaker playbook — offer lots of features for a modest price. Along with a 10-year powertrain warranty, the Outlander Sport, seen here in top SE trim with AWD plus $4,900 worth of options, carried the full complement of equipment. Short of the bevy of safety gear that is creeping into the ‘value’ market, the Mitsubishi stocks an interesting features list.

Items such as keyless ignition, keyless locks and access, rear view camera and auto-dimming rear view mirrors are now expected — in virtually all price classes. Add paddle shifters, power seat, heated leather buckets and satellite radio to entice more buyers. Include a panoramic sunroof (with LED mood-lighting) Rockford-Fosgate audio, and touch-screen navigation to clinch the deal for buyers who seek entertainment and atmosphere.

After a thousand miles of cold driving, the Outlander Sport exhibited no fatal flaws and only minor gripes. Chassis performance is comparable to other small crossover wagons; predictable, stable, compliant, perhaps a little soft when pressed. The 2.0-liter engine is little different from rivals too; adequate power is on tap and the CVT does a decent job of maintaining selected cruise control speeds without the exaggerated highs and lows of some automatic transmissions. Cabin noise levels are average.

The seat heaters earn accolades, the optional audio is up to the task of masking excessive road noise, plus the locking 4WD is a bonus for anyone in the Snowbelt region. With proper tires, the Outlander Sport can match any other small crossover for winter traction.

Gripes include a vertical backseat angle that is not adjustable, hard-to-see or missing markings on some controls — that disappear in the monochromatic interior scheme — plus a nav-screen that washes out in direct sunlight. While the wide-angle low beam lights are a nice feature for urban driving, it also would be welcome if the high-beam lamps had more reach.

Crossover shoppers will like the squarish cargo space—there is a lot to be said about not being a slave to style — and there is a certain appeal to the Outlander Sport’s blocky face and crisp lighting accents.

The conundrum for Mitsubishi is what faces the Outlander Sport in the marketplace. At 169 inches long on a 105-inch wheelbase, the 3,290-pound Sport is right in the heart of the suddenly popular compact/sub-compact crossover class, battling for marketshare against some heady nameplates. Honda has an all-new HR-V ready for sale, Jeep is bringing its European-based Renegade to the States as you read this, plus Chevy gains a version of Buick’s Encore this spring. Throw in existing rivals like the distinctive Kia Soul, the Hyundai Tucson, plus Subaru’s fast-growing Crosstrek XV and you can see that Mitsubishi could get lost in the shuffle.

All of these rivals are within inches of the Sport dimensionally, most have more power — either standard or with optional engines, including some turbo-power — and all are competitively priced against the Mitsubishi.

That raises the question of how many buyers will decide to spend $30,000 for a compact crossover. Do other larger vehicles fit on the shopping list at this price threshold, or, are buyers content with compact dimensions because of where they live, how they drive, no matter what the price. I think we know that answer to be true, as Mini Cooper prices have proven that buyers are not very hesitant to spending premium dollars for a car that is sized to their liking.

In this arena, the Outlander Sport will need to be aggressive on pricing to maintain its value image.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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