The New York International Auto Show is long over. But I am not quite finished with my tips of the cap to the boring, yet practical cars of the show.
My third pick is a vehicle that has grown on me quite a bit the more I read about it - the third generation Mitsubishi Outlander. Part of this is because it has been on sale across Europe for over a year already. Another reason is because Mitsubishi has really brought the good stuff, especially for those who cross the $30K threshold (although that may be overpriced). Fully loaded, you get the guts of Mitsubishi's most legendary off road vehicles, the Pajero and Challenger, an interior that is finally refined and luxurious, and for the first time, a suite of safety technologies that Mitsubishi has only kept in Japan up until now.
As usual, I am ahead of myself. Let's catch up with Mitsubishi, a car company that is doing well in Japan, Australia and the Caribbean, but not many other places these days. Why do us car guys like them? There are several reasons. Mitsubishi is Japan's first mass producer of automobiles, with the Model A in 1917, nearly 20 years before Toyota built their first car. They never really charged into the US market, as I recall. They needed help to get here. So they sold a share of their car business to Chrysler, which realized that they could improve fuel economy in the turbulent 1970s oil market. That partnership resulted in the Dodge Colt, and Mitsubishi's gaining a foothold in the USA.
The 1977 Dodge Colt coupe. Perfect for hooning down under.
History records that Detroit was too slow to make their cars lighter, more efficient, more reliable, safer, and more comfortable in the 1970s. The Japanese manufacturers did, and took a huge bite out of US market share in the 1980s. Detroit might have even forseen Japan overtaking them, but that didn't stop US manufacturers from partnering with their Asian competitors. Ford parternerd with Mazda. And GM formed partnerships with Suzuki, Subaru, Izusu, and Korean maker Daewoo (the last partnership continues to this day as GM Korea). These partnerships brought smaller, lighter cars to the US.
Not all Americans wanted small cars, to be sure, but the impression I always had was that Americans wanted more choices, and the Japanese companies worked harder to provide them. The more Americans gave Japanese cars a chance, the more Americans appreciated their smaller styles and more ergonomic interiors. Wanted a lightweight, rear wheel drive sports coupe? Datsun, Mazda and Toyota made those. How about a light pickup truck for those who didn't need an Ford F-150? The Japanese created a whole new compact pickup market. Subaru brought standard all wheel drive to its entire lineup beginning in the late 70s. Mid 1980s cars like the Honda Civic HF and Toyota FX-16 gave Americans both sporty performance and high fuel economy, unheard of in American cars. And while the XJ Jeep Cherokee, Chevy Blazer and Ford Bronco were the kings of the second generation of American SUVs, the Toyota Land Cruiser, Isuzu Trooper, and Mitsubishi Pajero (a.k.a. Montero) quickly became legends in the own right.
There was a slow build up before Mitsubishi could become a known and respected brand in the US. Up until the early 1980s, Mitsubishi was just a smaller manufacturer of lightweight sedans. But their engine building reputation got them more business from their rivals. Their partnership with Chrysler led to them to design and build more engines for companies like Hyundai and PSA Peugeot Citroën. Together with Chrysler and Hyundai, they developed the World Engine project, which supplied engines to all three companies for nearly 20 years. The Eagle (Chrysler) Talon had a bulletproof Mitsubishi alloy engine. So did the first Hyundai Elantra. A lot of Mitsubishi DNA went into some of Chrysler's most successful cars of the 1990s, such as the Dodge Intrepid and Stealth (which was actually a rebadged Mitsubishi GTO, one of the most successful GT cars of its time). And they manufactured the first generation Volvo S40, which was a redesigned version of the Mitsubishi Carisma.
Another rare bird. The Lancer Wagon, sold in Asia, Europe, and Canada only.
Designing and building engines for other car manufacturers is something Mitsubishi has done for decades. But it needed to find a niche of its own in order to build brand identity in the US. And by the early 1980s, it seemed to have found it in the compact Lancer sedan, the rugged SUV known as the Pajero (also called the Shogun and Montero in other markets), and the slightly more comfortable, full size SUV known as the Challenger. The Lancer and Pajero were introduced in 1973 (with the Pajero undergoing 9 more years of development before it went on sale). The 4-door Pajero came to the US in 1983 as the Montero. The 2-door Pajero followed as the Dodge Raider in 1987. The following summer, Mitsubishi added the Eclipse coupe and Galant midsize sedan to its US lineup.
By 1990, the Eclipse and Montero were hits in the US, giving Mitsubishi the opening it needed to expand its network of dealerships. Along with the Lancer and Galant, these four cars would be Mitsubishi's core US lineup for 13 years. The Lancer would become a worldwide hit once its high performance varient -the Evolution- was produced.
There would be no big expansion on that lineup. The wonderful Delica minivan made the briefest of apperances in the US. Pickup truck models would come and go. The mirage subcompact would come and go (and now it’s back). But essentially, Mitsubishi Motors USA sold four vehicles with the red diamond logo on them from 1988 to 2011, with the Lancer and Montero becoming the most loved and respected over time.
Most auto enthusiasts would get to know the Lancer. It made the incredible transition from a cheap compact to an all-wheel-drive, four door rally car rivaled only by the Subaru WRX. Like the Subaru, Ford Escort and Citroën Xsara, the Lancer is one of the great rally car sales and marketing success stories of the last 30 years. Most Americans would recognize the Montero as well. It's arguably the only other Japanese off road vehicle that could keep up with the Toyota Highlander in all conditions (and the Isuzu Trooper II wasn't far behind the Montero). In harsh, hot environments such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the American Southwest, you can still see quite a few Monteros in use. People who currently own one are holding onto them. They are special vehicles. Mitsubishi still sells the Pajero and Challenger, where they are especially loved in Australia.
A 2007 Pajero and a 1983 model, which was sold as the Montero in the Americas.
Things were going really well for Mitsubishi in the US around the year 2000. They had earned respect. They had big budget commercials on American TV and sales were up. But then "Project America" happened around 2001. It was a corporate misfire, and cost them dearly. Since 2003, Mitsubishi Motors in the US has been slowly dying, and Project America, combined with cuts in marketing expenses are directly to blame.
Since I don't know too much about it, I'll keep my summary short. Essentially, Mitsubishi decided to re-design and build two of their models, the Galant and Montero, in the USA (Normal, Illinois), and introduce a crossover tp be sold worldwide as the Outlander.
First, they redesigned the Galant with an emphasis on what they thought Americans wanted in the 21st century. They thought Americans wanted longer, more retro looking sedans. But Americans only bought more Accords and Camrys. Those who didn't go with Japan's two most popular brands gave Ford's new global sedan platform a try, which boosted both sales and prestige for the Mazda 6 and Ford Fusion. Even the smaller, BMW-like Subaru Legacy became a smash hit. The Galant, having achieved greatness in design and technology in its eighth generation (1996-2003) became totally left behind in its final form. A last minute attempt to market the Galant in Australia as a muscle car failed. In August 2012, the Galant ended its production worldwide, and the company is still trying to sell off unused inventory in the US.
The ninth generation Galant. From sleek and fun to drive to long, heavy, and ugly.
In the second phase of Project America, a similar thing happened to the Montero. But I would argue the consequence was worse, because it cost Mitsubishi its flagship in the world's second largest car market. The US-based design team made the Montero longer and bumpier, with pronounced bumpers and thick fender flares, and renamed it the Endeavor. They also gave it the retro fascia of the ninth generation Galant. Mitsubishi must have realized that their new face for American cars was terrible, because they quickly revised the facia of the Endeavor, but the damage had been done. By 2009, sales of the Endeavor were so bad, Mitsubishi Motors USA suspended production for over a year to give unsold inventory a chance to decrease. In August 2012, the Endeavor was discontinued in all of North America. The Montero is still a hit worldwide as the Pajero, and it's still a real off roader worth buying. But with no 4x4 in the US market, Mitsubishi only lost precious market share.
Under the bumpy skin it was still a Montero. But Americans rejected it in droves.
Just so I'm clear, I'm arguing that missteps in the physical design of the Galant and Endeavor sealed their fates. Quite often, how bad a car looks can explain its demise, just like missteps in marketing, poor corporate leadership, or overall poor build quality. Just look at what happened late in the game to Pontiac and Isuzu.
For Project America's third phase, Mitsubishi entered the crossover market with the Outlander. Of the three "Project America" projects, it has not been a disaster. But it had a rough start. The first generation actually looked great in Japan (known in the JDM market as the Airtrek). But in the US, the Outlander (a name too close to the Subaru Outback, I think), was given a similar, retro nose and grill similar to the last generation Galant and Endeavor. The big grill vents look like something out of Fallout (where big 1950s car designs rust away in post World War III America). But Mitsubishi probably caught a break here. The Outlander was affordable, had all wheel drive, and was relatively efficient. Its sales numbers were respectable, and it was spared the axe.
2003-2006 Outlander and its ugly grille.
The second generation Outlander was a vast improvement. It had more room and luxury features. It intorduced a 650-watt audio system by Rockford Fosgate. It had one of the better navigation systems available. And it offered Mitsubishi's new, global small truck engine, the 6B3. After a long hiatus, one of the engines offered in the Pajero and Challenger in three continents had returned to the States, more efficient than ever before.
Entertainment / navigation hub in the second generation Outlander. One of the best offered at the time.
The Outlander stretched from 179 to 184 inches to to accommodate a third row of seats, and the price, fully loaded, swelled to $34K. And yet, it became a hit, mainly because the entry level trims offered a lot of car for the money, and the quality was a marked improvement over the second generation. The Galant may have been dying. The Eclipse had been beaten by a new generation of east Asian rear wheel drive sports cars (Nissan Z, Hyundai Genesis, the Toyota-Subaru twins). But Mitsubishi had found a new product to compliment the Lancer, and remain in the US as a small niche brand.
It was soon time for Mitsubishi to do three things: reboot their North American marketing, increase their American marketing budget (a big reason sales dropped since 2009), and redesign an existing, popular vehicle without ruining it.
In the summer of 2012, the third generation Outlander debuted in Russia to positive reviews. Then it came to its native Japan. Then Australia. Then mainland Europe. And now, finally, the USA. So far, the two biggest gripes are that the base engine is too weak, and the GT model with AWD and the V6 is overpriced. The critics are nearly unanimous that overall, it is an improvement over the second generation model, aside from the loss of the drop-down tailgate. The critics also agree that while the styling is conservative on the inside, it's what American drivers prefer in terms of materials. A soft-touch dashboard goes a long way to win critics’ hearts these days.
The new Outlander is the most aerodynamic Mitsubishi ever produced with a drag coefficient of 0.33. Design-wise, it has elements of things I have liked over the last 10 to 20 years. It has a somewhat rectangular profile similar to the last generation Montero to be sold in the US, or the first generation Toyota Highlander. The front air intake is prominent, and probably shows too much radiator, but I appreciate the wide distance between the front headlamps (one of, if not the widest in the US market). The rear window is curved, contemporary, and compact. And the crystal clear brake light lenses are reminiscent of the previous generation Subaru Impreza, and they blend into the rear bumpers and lines very well. The stamped steel roof has ridges, which are functionally unnecessary, but similar to the ones seen in rugged vehicles like the Nissan XTerra, Ford Escape, and Jeep Wrangler. There are no fender flares like previous Outlanders. This is a tighter, more minimalist exterior design.
A nice accent: the chrome trim under the side windows swoops up to highlight the C pillar. It's almost a Hoffmeister Kink.
Rear brake light lenses remind this author of the third generation Subaru Impreza.
The Outlander is no wider over the previous generation - a relatively narrow 71 inches (just an inch wider than my Hyundai Elantra Touring). It has actually shrunk in overall length by one inch to 183 inches. Because of this, and its reduced weight, it is classified by the EPA as a compact SUV, like the Subaru Forester. But in terms of overall dimensions, it should be considered a midsize SUV. It is very similar in dimensions to the Subaru Tribeca, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, Chevy Captiva/Equinox, Kia Sorento, Dodge Journey, and Ford Edge. And of those vehicles, only the Outlander has a standard third row seat. In addition, the Outlander promises fuel economy equal to the Captiva and Santa Fe Sport, at about 25-28 MPG overall. Those are the Outlander’s key selling points, and the company can only hope American buyers take notice.
In the American three-row SUV market, the list is short, and the prices often creep above $35K. There’s the Chevy Traverse, Ford Explorer, Dodge Durango (essentially a lengthened Jeep Grand Cherokee), Hyundai Santa Fe Seven, Toyota Highlander, and Mitsubishi Outlander. With the lowest entry level sticker price of that group, the Outlander has an advantage it needs to market to death. It seems to be working. I’m seeing Outlander ads on TV again, marketed towards moms and dads alike (dads get a Monument Valley ad, moms get ads about the active safety technology). More important, I’m beginning to see the new Outlander here and there. I saw one at the Newport Folk Festival in July, and another in midtown Manhattan last week. So it is selling. But where is the cost cutting, and is it worth it to step up the premium model?
Not having driven the premium GT S-AWC model yet, I can’t comment on performance. But I spent some quality time in one at the 2013 New York International can make some observations conclusions about the overall package.
So what do you get for starters? Things you should expect for a contemporary crossover. The Outlander has independent suspension, four wheel disc brakes, steering wheel-mounted cruise and audio controls, an alloy engine, deep tint rear windows, and heated side view mirrors. So far so good.
The base model, the ES, gets a 2.4 liter I4 generating 166 horsepower, mated to a CVT. The jury is in on that combination: it’s efficient but sluggish, like the former Honda Element. The slightly more luxurious SE gets the same combo. The SE S-AWC also gets it, except it also gets a transfer case and center differential, for part-time all-wheel drive (or as Mitsubishi calls it, “Super All Wheel Control,” or S-AWC). I expect the SE S-AWC to be the best selling model, as it offers more convenience, safety, and luxury packages while retaining the 28MPG overall average. That’s the same average as the slightly smaller Chevy Captiva.
But the Grand Touring (GT) trim interests me the most, despite the high price. It swaps out the four banger and CVT for the 6B3 engine and a new 6-speed automatic transmission. Peak horsepower is only obtainable at high RPMs, but the overall noise and vibration is far lower compared to the ES andd SE trims. The GT also adds aluminum paddle shifters on the steering wheel and digital, dual zone climate control. S-AWC comes standard with the GT, as well as the option to lock all wheel drive at slow speeds. Don’t expect a 0-60 time of under 9 seconds, but do expect a quieter, more confident ride, as well as better road feedback and handling, which I greatly prefer. If the Outlander with the CVT feels slightly numb, like a first generation Nissan Murano, as I suspect, then I would hope the Outlander with the 6-speed feels more like a Hyundai Santa Fe sport. That would be a lot more fun.
There is a high price to pay for the upgraded drivetrain - about $5,000 more. And then, with the price nearing $30K, you might be tempted to get the Grand Touring options package, which adds heated leather seats, a sunroof, and the 710-watt audio system by Rockford Fosgate. That brings it to about $31K. If you go all the way and add Navigation, a power liftgate, and radar cruise control and speed limiter, it tops out around $34K. That’s about the price of a well equipped Santa Fe Sport with nearly the same features (minus the third row of seating, and substituting a turbocharged I4), or the price of an entry level Audi Q5 (also with a turbocharged I4). That’s premium territory, and critics have pointed out, it's a bit much for any Mitsubishi aside from the Lancer Evolution or Challenger.
Stepping inside the Outlander, you can see the critics have a point. The gauges are LED-illuminated, not electroluminescent (a premium feature these days). The steering wheel, while leather wrapped, is not small and beefy as is the trend today (see any current BMW, Audi, or the Jeep Grand Cherokee). The centerpiece of technology is the Rockford Fosgate radio/CD/NAV unit, which, since 2008, has always looked more like an aftermarket product than a factory installed option. But I am still in love with that unit. It’s among the best factory-provided satellite radio and navigation units available.
The dash, at long last, is soft touch, but the design is closer to cargo van than luxury SUV (I admit, I am fond of the new design, because it is closer to what Mitsubishi and Subaru offer in their domestic market vans). The vents are up high, and the center stack is nearly vertical. But in a nice ergonomic touch, all the buttons and controls are all angled at the driver, not unlike the last Saabs or the current Kia Optima. There is no Mazda-like slope to the center stack. There’s nothing to surround the driver in soft materials. But that does seem to be Mitsubishi’s design philosophy, as seen in the nearly vertical center stacks in both the Challenger and Pajero SUVs overseas.
I have no idea why manufacturers like Ford and Nissan think that piano gloss black plastic is a premium material. I try not to touch my dashboard as a general rule, but piano black is a fingerprint magnet. It’s usually a dealbreaker for me, but I admit it looks okay here. The buttons are big enough so it’s difficult not to miss them with your finger. But I will have to wait until a test drive to see if the aluminum trim around the cluster of buttons is reflected in the windshield. The Saab 9-3 had that issue, and in sunlight, it caused the trim to appear as a bright line across the driver’s line of sight out the front windshield.
So the interior is conservative. But still, on a scale of Western vs. Japanese, I’m happy to say that the Outlander still feels Japanese. I actually consider that a selling point in in the current US market, as most Japanese automakers are designing their cars in Europe and the US.
The back seat is fine. There’s plenty of legroom. The seats are firm and supportive. My rule for back seats is simple. If there’s more room than a BMW 5 series, and a drop-down center armrest, then I’m happy. If not, then I have a impractical car that can’t accommodate my mother in law. Most cars skimp on legroom, especially the German brands. I need those seats to be roomy.
Cargo space is also fine. With the third row folded flat, there’s 34 cubic feet of space behind the second row of seats. With the second row folded down, cargo space becomes an impressive 63 cubic feet, a little more than my own Hyundai Elantra Touring. I carry a toolkit, various tote bags, and two beach chairs in my Elantra Touring at all times, and can still carry two pieces of rolling luggage when needed. The Outlander can easily do the same.
A panoramic sunroof is not an option at this time (something you’d hope for above the $30K mark). Mitsubishi opted not to make a rear seat DVD or video game center available, which opens the door to plenty of aftermarket choices for families who need to keep their kids entertained.
Third generation Outlander conceptual illustration, circa 2008.
Although the automotive world saw this vehicle coming in slow motion since 2008, I like how Mitsubishi maintained its size and overall look during the design process. From conceptual drawings, to concept show car, to final production model, Mitsubishi took care to make this a global car, marketed in nearly every continent as the first vehicle of a refreshed car company looking to put recent mistakes behind them.
Third generation Outlander prototype, 2009.
I will kick its tires again at the New England International Auto Show in January 2014. And there is an outside chance that the plug-in hybrid model, the Outlander PHEV will make an appearance at the New York International Auto Show in April, as Mitsubishi hopes to sell it in the US before the end of calendar year 2014. We’ll see if this vehicle lives up to my positive first impressions in the months ahead.
I'm probably in the minority when I say that I care about Mitsubishi, and I want them to stay in the USA. Mitsubishi, Mazda, and Subaru are the smaller, "performance" brands from Japan,and I'm a fan of all three. What Mitsubishi does over the next 12 months will decide their fate here, as does the sales figures for the new Outlander.