Mitsubishi's graceful SUV

A lot of us are sniffy about SUVs these days, so it helps if they are made as graceful as possible. That's what Mitsubishi has done, says John Simister

Price: from £19,449 to £24,749 (2.4 petrol, automatic only, from £17,044)
Engine: 1,968cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 140bhp at 4,000rpm, 229lb ft at 1,750rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 116mph, 0-62mph in 10.8sec, 41.5mpg official average
CO2: 180g/km

We are not lovers of SUVs on this newspaper. They have their place (rugged roads, rugged weather) but they are often to be found in less appropriate places. Much of the buying public does love them, however, and sometimes there are good reasons for that.

They tend to be roomy and versatile, for example. So are MPVs, but they're a lot less cool. The right SUV is an MPV with attitude. That it has four-wheel drive is a bonus.

What, then, is the "right" SUV? It isn't something butch and overweight and overspecified; it's something that satisfies whatever needs an SUV seeks to fulfil, but doesn't drive roughshod over sensibilities. Something like the new Mitsubishi Outlander, in fact.

Its maker says that no seven-seater SUV is more economical than the Outlander, with its 2.0-litre, Volkswagen-made turbodiesel engine. It doesn't look ready to bash obstacles out of its path, but it does look as if it would be fun to drive and own.

We'll look at the style before the substance. The rear lights are dotted with LEDs, and there's no external spare wheel (too butch). There's a faux skidplate under the front, though.

Inside, it's gone all motorcycle. The two main dials are angled towards each other under a double-bump cowl, and the metal-look bars either side of the gear lever are meant to evoke a petrol tank. There's lots of silver finish, representing steel and aluminium, and with black or dark grey trim elsewhere the effect is moodily monochrome (unless you specify the light-coloured option).

The body shape, with its rising waistline and reverse-slope rear side window, is good-looking but generic. The head-on front view is the best, with an angularly definite front grille incorporating a triangular peak with which to surround the Mitsubishi diamonds. The company calls it the Mount Fuji peak, but it's unique to Mitsubishi's European models.

For all its motorcycling motifery, this Outlander is not a work of art. The shapes are pleasing enough, but the plastics are hard and the detailing is cheap; loose, ill-fitting covers over the door-pulls' fixing screws, for example.

That said, it's a very useful interior. The dashboard has two gloveboxes in a double deck, and the tailgate has a lower, floor-level, drop-down section. Ahead of this are the two rearmost seats, which fold completely flat into the low floor, an impressive engineering trick. The centre-row seats have a clever trick on top models, too - press a button on the appropriate side of the rear hatch aperture and the seat on that side flips down then tumbles forward automatically.

Another nicety is the Rockford Fosgate 650-watt stereo system, with a digital sound processor that compensates for the Outlander's acoustic characteristics and ensures a stable stereo image and sound-field. Music can be stored on a built-in hard drive, which also handles the sat-nav. The data becomes, in fact, Rockford files.

But what are these acoustic characteristics that must be compensated for? The system has to work quite hard, actually, because the 140bhp diesel engine is a bit boomy and gruff at times, although it pulls keenly once past the initial torpor felt when pressing the accelerator at below 2,000rpm. By modern standards, the VW turbodiesel isn't impressive. However, Mitsubishi is developing its own diesel range, and the 156bhp Peugeot diesel (a version of which is used in the Land Rover Freelander) will become an Outlander option.

Another, more imminent, option will be a 2.4-litre version of the "world" petrol engine developed and used by Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Chrysler/Dodge. Some markets have a V6 option.

Underpinning the Outlander is a platform developed by Mitsubishi but embraced also by Chrysler. This versatile piece of auto-architecture is the basis of the new, European-styled Lancer at one extreme, the Jeep Patriot at the other, and several models in between. It's the economic way forward - Ford is doing something similar with the S-Max, new Mondeo, Volvo XC60 and Freelander.

So, how does it drive in Outlander guise? Pretty well. There are three transmission modes, selected by a rotary knob: 2WD (front-wheel drive), 4WD Auto (brings in the rear wheels as required) and 4WD Lock. This last always sends a hefty share of effort to the rear wheels to cope with bad off-road conditions. Auto is fine for dirt tracks and slippery roads.

The Outlander feels good on the road. It rides tidily over bumps and stays quite flat and positive in corners. Sticking my neck out, I can't recall a compact SUV that feels as agile, natural and car-like as this, apart from the Honda CR-V. Positive, friction-free steering helps.

A good car, then, apart from its cheap interior and gruff engine. Goodbye to Chelsea tractors, hello to the acceptable face of SUV-ism. I hope so, anyway.

The rivals

Dodge Caliber 2.0D from £13,990

Looks like a 4x4 but isn't. Engine and underpinnings otherwise as Outlander; interior cheap but chunky; feels vague to drive. Good value if you don't need 4WD.

Toyota RAV4 2.2 D-4D T140P

From £20,315 Faux-US-style glitzy 4x4 with limited off-road ability and a fidgety ride. But it's well equipped, and this diesel version is lively. Too expensive for what you get.

Honda CR-V i-CTDi from £19,250

Apologetic styling, but has the best-quality interior in its class and a terrific diesel engine, and is best to drive overall. Outlander has more seats, though.

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