SAN FRANCISCO – Mitsubishi Motors is a brand that doesn’t score highly on the consumer awareness charts. Although it is a huge conglomerate globally, the company admits it has a bit part in the North American automotive playground and that’s okay with it – there are no expectations of knocking off the big guys just yet.
The company offers a limited lineup, choosing to participate only in segments it believes are sustainable for it – no minivans, no luxury cruisers and no pickups, at least in this market.
One area in which Mitsubishi does feel comfortable competing is the compact SUV segment, which just happens to be one of the most hotly contested categories in the business.
Still, the possibility of the Mitsubishi Outlander carving away market share from big guns such as Honda, Toyota and Nissan, for example, has been remote at best – and frankly, the previous generations of the Outlander couldn’t muster much of a threat to the segment leaders.
That threat level is about to escalate, however. A freshened version of the Outlander, with more than 100 improvements over the current iteration, will be rolling into the marketplace in July and our first look at the vehicle suggests these changes could make the 2016 Outlander a true contender in the compact SUV segment.
More mainstream appearance
Most obvious are the restyled front end and a fresh new look aft. From the windshield forward, the 2016 Outlander’s skin is new.
The front grille and fascia have a new design the company is calling Dynamic Shield. It’s the first application of a new corporate look that replaces the shark-nose theme – a design Mitsubishi concedes was polarizing for many consumers.
People either loved or hated it, and for a company that needs as many friends as it can get, the decision was made to move to a design that had a broader appeal. The new look also happens to be more aerodynamic, which helps reduce fuel consumption.
Below the new front fascia there’s a lower valance that resembles a skid plate, accentuating the more aggressive, sporty design. New auto on/off LED headlamps bracket the chrome grille on the top-of-the-line GT model; the other three trims get auto on/off halogen headlamps, but all models have new LED daytime running lights.
The taillights and centre brake light are also LED lamps. There’s a new lower rear fascia that repeats the skid-plate look. New power folding side mirrors, with integrated LED indicator lamps, are standard on the GT and available on the base ES model when fitted with all-wheel drive.
The GT also gets new 18-inch alloy wheels, while the other trims make due with 16-inch alloy wheels carried over from the 2015 model. Overall, the freshened exterior has a more aggressive but refined look to it, compared with the outgoing model.
More premium feel inside
Inside, there are numerous small improvements and upgrades that combine to create a more premium feel to the cabin. The current model’s interior was, to be honest, a bland design.
That shortcoming has been corrected in this new iteration. There’s now a nicely-padded hood over the instrument cluster, complete with contrast stitching to give it an upscale look.
The steering wheel has been given numerous upgrades, including an improved leather wrap and built-in thumb rests. A piano-black insert in the lower section of the wheel matches the accent panel on the instrument panel – a nice touch.
Additional padding has been added to the storage bin lid on centre console, an improvement your elbows will appreciate. To complete the shift to a more premium look, the inner A-pillars and headliner are now covered in a knit fabric.
Improved ride and handling
During a day of driving through the scenic regions south of San Francisco, the seats in two models I drove were very comfortable and supportive. What really impressed, however, were the improvements in ride and handling – and a dramatic difference in the noise level in the cabin.
Mitsubishi learned, in discussions with current Outlander owners, that they were disappointed in the dynamics of their vehicles. The engineers had tried to soften the ride of the current generation, but ended up with a vehicle that floated too much and leaned in cornering.
For 2016, the front and rear suspension systems have been recalibrated for a better balance between ride comfort and vehicle stability. As well, the front suspension cross-member has been reinforced and additional bracing has been added in key structural areas of the body to increase the rigidity of the chassis, resulting in more precise handling.
After driving the current model and the new Outlander back to back, the improvements are obvious. The 2016 model doesn’t have the bouncy, unstable road manners of its predecessor. It feels far more stable during cornering without compromising ride comfort.
Also notable, as discovered when I had to make a U-turn after missing a turning point on our drive route, the Outlander has an impressively tight turning radius.
The back-to-back drive also emphasized the dramatic reduction in noise levels inside the vehicle. Mitsubishi engineers have made more than 30 improvements to the Outlander in a bid to make it as quiet inside as possible.
Sound deadening and insulation materials have been added, door seals have been upgraded and additional weatherstripping has been installed, foam now fills cavities in the fenders and the windshield and rear door glass have been modified.
Even the thickness of the alloy wheels and the mounting surface have been increased to reduce the intrusion of road and wind noise.
The attention to detail has been so focused, a panel has been added inside the side mirrors to help reduce wind noise. The true success of these efforts, however, is only apparent when you compare the two models – and there’s no doubt here that the engineering team has achieved its goal. The 2016 Outlander is far quieter inside.
Two engines, two AWD systems
The Outlander is available with just two engine choices for 2016 – a 2.4-litre four-cylinder, standard on the base ES and ES with all-wheel drive, and a 3.0L V-6, which powers the mid-range SE and upscale GT models, both with all-wheel drive.
Interestingly, the Outlander is the only Japanese-built compact SUV available with six-cylinder power. More interesting, it’s the engine choice of 70% of buyers in Canada, while just 15 percent of U.S. consumers opt for the V-6.
Two all-wheel drive systems are offered. The first is Mitsubishi’s All Wheel Control (AWC) system which has three modes: a fuel-efficient eco mode, regular driving mode and a 4WD lock mode for more traction.
This system, which is standard on the ES AWC and SE AWC models, transfers torque from front to rear as required.
The other all-wheel system is the Super All Wheel Control and is standard on the GT AWC. It not only transfers torque front to rear, but also side to side through an active front differential. It features four modes, including eco, normal, lock and a snow mode for improved stability on roads covered with the white stuff.
The 2.4-litre four is a 16-valve, single-overhead-camshaft design with Mitsubishi’s Innovative Valve-timing Electronic Control (MIVEC) system. It generates 166 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque and that output is channeled through a new continuously variable transmission (CVT8.)
This combination has resulted in a reduction of acceleration time to 100 km/h by a full second while also improving fuel efficiency (8.4L/100 km combined for two-wheel drive; 9.0 for all-wheel drive.)
The 3.0L V-6 is also a single-overhead-cam engine. Its 24 valves are controlled by the MIVEC system as well. It produces 224 horsepower, down fractionally from the current model’s 227 horses due to a new catalyst system, and 215 lb-ft of torque. Premium-grade fuel is recommended for this engine, which is standard on the SE and GT.
The transmission paired with the V-6 is a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters. This powertrain is capable of towing up to 1,588 kg (3,500 lb) – a key feature for many compact SUV buyers.
On the road
Driving the four-cylinder, its power output proved to be acceptable – not neck-snapping but certainly adequate. I did find the CVT less than stellar, however.
In the aforementioned turnaround, the return run to the designated turning point was up a decent grade with several curves along the way. Accelerating from a standstill, the engine willingly buzzed up, then stuck at an annoyingly high level while the transmission caught up.
The exercise seemed to take forever, though the vehicle did ultimately make the climb and settled down to normal cruising mode. I concede I’m not a CVT fan – and this experience just solidified that opinion.
The V-6, on the other hand, performed flawlessly. It was quiet and reasonably responsive. However, to tap its full potential in situations such as passing, merging and grade climbing, I found it better to make my own gear selections with the paddles, rather than rely on the automatic tranny to pick a ratio.
The new Outlander has all the tools and features it need to make it a vehicle worth considering if a compact SUV is in your future. It’s roomy and offers three rows of seating, with an improved seat-flipping feature, for the functionality buyers in this segment demand.
It has the latest in safety features, premium amenities and connectivity technologies, including available navigation, that one expects – and it’s all wrapped up in a well-executed package. This Outlander could boost Mitsubishi’s profile significantly – it just needs to find a way to get on consumers’ shopping radar.
The Outlander beings arriving in showrooms in July, with full distribution to its dealers nationwide in August.
Model: 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander
Price: $25,998 (base ES FWD) to $38,498 (top-of-the-line GT S-AWC with Navi)
2.4-litre SOHC four-cylinder, 166 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 162 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm;
3.0-litre SOHC V-6, 224 horsepower at 6,250 rpm, 215 lb-ft of torque at 3,750 rpm
Transmissions: CVT8 continuously variable with four-cylinder; six-speed automatic with V-6
Length: 4,695 mm
Width: 1,810 mm
Wheelbase: 2,670 mm
Competitors: Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Jeep Cherokee