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MITSUBISHI’S last foray into the mid-size SUV market wasn’t a raging success. The Outlander, which was launched in 2003, was very much a Japanese product and was doomed to failure in the UK fleet market largely because it was only offered with a 2.4-litre petrol engine mated to an automatic gearbox.
In fact, if you’ve ever seen one on Britain’s roads, you’re one step ahead of me.
However the new model, to be launched in March, is a very different kettle of fish.
Based on a platform that will eventually spawn the Citroën C-Crosser and the Peugeot 4007, and featuring a turbodiesel engine straight from the Volkswagen Passat, the new Outlander gives Mitsubishi a fresh opportunity to grab a slice of a market that is expected to grow by 35% between now and 2009.
There’s certainly going to be plenty of competition, with a glut of new launches in the next year alone. As well as Land Rover’s Freelander 2 and Honda CR-V, there will also be SUVs in the form of the aforementioned Citroën C-Crosser and Peugeot 4007, plus Renault and Volkswagen will be joining the fray in 2008.
Unfortunately, the European launch of the Outlander took place on the same day as a story in The Times forecast doom and gloom for 4x4 vehicles, but Mitsubishi’s director of sales and marketing, Lance Bradley, was dismissive of such claims.
He said: ‘This car proves that you can have an SUV and still be environmentally responsible. It offers seating for seven and fuel economy of more than 40mpg.
‘Its CO2 emissions are so low that it fits in the VED band E, which is the lowest for any seven-seat 4x4.
‘In fact, its footprint is smaller than most upper-medium sector estate cars.’
Bradley expects to sell around 5,600 units in a full year, representing 10% of the mid-size SUV market. He believes 30% of these will go to fleet buyers.
The new vehicle features a sleek exterior that eschews the boxy shape of rivals such as the Nissan X-trail.
It has a front end which is reminiscent of the new L200 truck, while at the rear, the light clusters intrude neatly into the top tailgate. The lower portion folds down to provide a handy step across which loads can be transferred easily.
In the cabin, there are the conventional two rows of seats, while a third pair can be sprung from the floor with two pulls of a cord, offering occasional accommodation for children.
For extra luggage space – the Outlander offers up to 1,691 litres – the middle seats fold down in a one-stop fold-and-tumble action.
Under the bonnet is Volks-wagen’s 2.0-litre TDI unit, which offers 140bhp and 228lb-ft of torque at a low 1,750rpm, giving the Outlander plenty of low-down grunt. 0-62mph comes in 10.8 seconds, while top speed is 116mph. Combined fuel consumption is 41.5mpg and, importantly to company car drivers, the Outlander pumps out 177g/km of CO2, meaning a it will sit in the 25% benefit-in-kind tax band next year.
For the future, Mitsubishi is looking at using a PSA Peugeot Citroën-sourced 2.2-litre common- rail turbodiesel unit offering 160bhp and a 2.4-litre petrol engine with 170bhp. There will also be a commercial vehicle version from launch.
Mitsubishi is sticking with its usual three trim levels – Equippe, Warrior and Elegance – and all feature optional two and four-wheel drive which is selected by a dial near the centre console.
Prices will range from £19,449 to £24,749, which Bradley reckons is 2% cheaper than the Nissan X-trail and Honda CR-V when adjusted for specification.
Behind the wheel
THE new Outlander not only knocks every other mid-size SUV into a cocked hat in terms of style but it is bristling with good, practical ideas too.
A lot of newcomers to the sector are tempted out of estate cars and here the Outlander is bound to score, because while most of its rivals are pretty boxy in design and offer that sit-up-and-beg driving position, the Mitsubishi is much more laid-back and car-like in its seating.
And those seats are wonderful, too – comfy on flat roads but also offering lots of back and side support when the going gets rough.
There is seating for up to seven – another plus point that the rivals can’t offer, although you would have to be either very small or a contortionist to get comfortable in the third row.
One of the big bugbears of cars like this is that it is sometimes awkward to reconfigure the seats for different activities. With the Outlander, it couldn’t be easier.
You just yank a lever to see the middle row tumbling forward out of the way, while the back row appears as if from nowhere from the rear floor by pulling on two cords.
We tested the Outlander both on and off-road and although it was never intended as a pukka mud-plugger, the car remained completely unfazed by a fairly testing set of muddy hills, dips and other obstacles.
On the open road, the Volkswagen powerplant proved muted yet willing. Some of my colleagues complained of a lack of power, but I’d have to disagree – you don’t have a car like this for racing round the bends, do you?
My only real complaint was that the massive A-pillar tended to get in the way on sharp bends in both directions.
THE Outlander has what it takes to lead this sector – style, green credentials, practicality and low running costs. But it is proving a very crowded sector and is set to get even more so with a host of launches ahead. Add to that the ‘bogeyman’ image of 4x4s and the Mitsubishi marketing boys have their work cut out.
Max power (bhp/rpm): 138/4,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 228/1,750
Max speed (mph): 116
0-62mph (secs): 10.8
Fuel consumption (mpg): 41.5
CO2 emissions (g/km): 177
On sale: March
Prices (OTR): £19,449-£24,749