Possibly energized by the outstanding Lancer Evolution X, Mitsubishi is showing new energy as a brand, planning its future around two families of vehicles, the Lancer and the Outlander. The Lancer models stretch all the way from a sub-$15k front-wheel-drive car to the $40k all-wheel-drive Evolution.
The Outlander, a small SUV, boasts a variety of trim levels, from the $21,605 ES model up to the $30k GT. And now there's an additional car in the lineup, the Outlander Sport. This model's wheelbase is the same length as the standard Outlander, but more than a foot shorter in overall length, and shares no exterior body panels with its larger sibling.
We were afforded a short preview drive of the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, and checked out the cabin tech.
The Outlander Sport, a compact crossover, is a new global car from Mitsubishi, sold as the RVR in Japan and the ASX in Europe. We got the better deal on the name.
We also got the better deal on the engine. The Outlander Sport will be powered by a 2-liter four-cylinder engine producing 148 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque, as opposed to the 1.8-liter engine in the rest of the world.
In its base ES trim, the Outlander Sport can be had with either a five-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). In the high-trim SE model, only the CVT is available, which is kind of a shame. We found that the most impressive aspect of the drive experience was the handling from the available all-wheel-drive system, which can best be taken advantage of with the manual transmission. Yet navigation and a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate system is only available in the SE model. We hate having to make these sorts of choices.
On the cabin tech front, the ES model's saving grace is that it comes standard with Mitsubishi's new Fuse system, as does the SE model. Fuse replicates the core features of Ford's Sync, allowing voice control over an iPod or USB drive music library and dial by name with a Bluetooth-paired phone. Plugging an iPod into the car, we were impressed with how well Fuse responded to even difficult band names. We didn't have the opportunity to test its phone system.
Paddle shift CVT
Driving an Outlander Sport SE over a few miles of Northern California roads, the CVT delivered on expected smooth and linear acceleration. As all CVT-equipped models also come with column-mounted paddle shifters, we immediately started playing with the six programmed shift points. Each shift occurred quickly, fixing the virtual gear ratio in what seemed a more responsive fashion than a typical automatic transmission.
One little thing we found annoying: hitting a paddle puts the CVT into manual mode, even if the console shifter is still in the drive position of the gate. And where most cars will move back into automatic shift mode after a minute or so, the CVT stayed in manual mode until we either threw the shifter to manual and back to drive, or held the upshift paddle down, which also turns off manual mode. As this car was a preproduction model, this issue may be fixed by the time it goes on sale.
As for the engine, even though the U.S. model gets a bigger one than the rest of the world, it still struggled to get the Outlander Sport moving. We floored it as we attempted to pass other cars on the highway, which only resulted in moderate acceleration and a horrible straining sound from the engine compartment. Production models may use better noise engineering to mask the sound, but the lack of power should have made the Sport part of the car's name run away and hide in shame.
Going up hills produced the same wheezing pull, and the car did not give us much confidence for passing or merging. We could only hope that Mitsubishi will create an Evolution version of the car, strapping a turbocharger onto the engine. On the flip side, Mitsubishi claims the Outlander Sport, with the CVT, will get 31 mpg on the highway. With new EPA fuel economy rules on the horizon, the company probably needs the boost.
Sitting up in the Outlander Sport's front seats, we thought it would be ungainly, but one thing Mitsubishi does extraordinarily well is make all-wheel-drive systems, and this car benefits from that expertise. The Outlander Sports uses an electric all-wheel-drive system with front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, and all-wheel lock modes, selectable from a knob on the console.
With a tight suspension that minimizes body roll, the Outlander Sport shuffled torque around appropriately as we put it into a moderate corner, maintaining a speed that seemed like it should have upset the car more. Although we didn't put it through hard cornering, during these initial tests it proved surprisingly good. In all-wheel-drive mode, the car throws up to 90 percent torque front or back, and its lock mode keeps the torque more evenly distributed, although still transfers some power back and forth.
Similar to the all-drive system, the Outlander Sport also uses an electric power-steering unit. And helping keep the battery charged is a generator/alternator unit that captures kinetic energy when the car is slowing.
The SE trim car can be optioned with a package that includes a hard-drive-based navigation system with traffic and a Rockford Fosgate audio system. Although the navigation system looks a little rough, it proved very capable during our initial look. Changing zoom levels was surprisingly fast, something with which many nav systems struggle. That fast processing bodes well for destination entry and route calculation.
The Fuse system we mentioned earlier comes standard on the Outlander Sport SE, with the added benefit of being able to view an iPod library on the navigation system's LCD. There is also space for music storage on the navigation system's hard drive.
The Rockford Fosgate audio system uses nine speakers, one of them being a 10-inch subwoofer mounted in the cargo area, powered by a 710-watt amp. We've enjoyed the sheer ridiculousness of these Rockford Fosgate systems in previous Mitsubishi models, as the sound is robust, to put it one way. To put it another, expect car alarms sounding off in the Outlander Sport's wake.
One of the more impressive features about the Outlander Sport is its price. The low trim ES model, with front-wheel drive and the manual transmission, will start under $19k. Move up to the SE model, and the price starts out at around $22k. Although these numbers are not finalized, Mitsubishi said that a fully loaded Outlander Sport would be around $25k.