Take the new breed of smooth, stylish 4x4 trucks that is emerging from Japan. Nissan set the ball rolling with the new Navara in September, a musclebound titan with a class-leading 174bhp turbodiesel powerplant which will blow the socks off any of the opposition in terms of power.
Then in October, Toyota replied with its new Hilux which, while it looks petty tough, has a relatively puny 101bhp engine.
The present market leader, the Mitsubishi L200, is due to be replaced in March and – as widely expected among us journalists – will steer a middle path and offer a macho-but-fleet-sensible 136bhp, with the option of a power upgrade to 165bhp for those with a bent for extra oomph.
But it is not only in the power stakes that the L200 differs from its rivals.
At a special press launch in Sardinia, attended by Fleet Van, it soon became apparent that the Mitsubishi designers have steered themselves in a very different direction to those at Nissan and Toyota.
While the Navara and Hilux have a distinctly American look, the L200 has been styled exclusively for Europe.
Single-cab, club-cab and double-cab will be on sale from launch, unlike with the new Navara, where the single-cabs will still be based on the old model. Entry-level spec starts at 4Work and rises through 4Life, Warrior, Animal and up to a new luxury Elegance class.
In the cabin, the L200 boasts best-in-class dimensions for the double-cab – rear legroom is up 60mm over the old model – and there is a new car-like dashboard to replace the old agricultural version in the previous model.
A new ladderframe chassis provides a smoother ride with less noise and vibration and the L200 has the best drag co-efficient in its class, leading to better fuel economy at 32.9 miles per gallon on the combined cycle.
In the back, the load-bed for the double-cab is slightly smaller than the old model at 1,325mm long by 1,470mm wide as opposed to 1,500mm x 1,470mm. Payload is also down slightly from 1,065kg to 1,045kg.
Under the bonnet is a brand new 2.5-litre Euro IV-compliant common-rail turbodiesel engine offering 136bhp at 4,000rpm and 231lb-ft of torque at 2,000rpm, well down on the Navara’s massive 297lb-ft but up from the old L200’s 115bhp. Both a five-speed manual and four-speed auto box will be offered.
Driver and passenger airbags and ABS brakes are standard across the range and traction control will be available – another sector first. Prices range from £12,249 for the 4Work single-cab to £19,999 for the Elegance. The Nissan Navara costs from £14,695 to £21,970 (all prices ex-VAT).
Behind the wheel
LET’S get the matter of the L200’s looks out of the way first. While the Navara and Hilux both boast those macho muscle-bound American credentials, the L200 is something else again – more hairdresser than honcho.
While the Mitsubishi bigwigs were eulogising about these looks at the launch, I wasn’t so convinced myself. All those curves and swirls may not be to everyone’s taste, although I admit that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
There are certainly no complaints about the cab. Gone is the farmyard look of the old model, to be replaced by something that any car owner will recognise.
The seats are large and comfortable and the dash could be out of any self-respecting SUV, with car-like knobs and switches replacing the heavy old ones.
The club cab doesn’t have a fold-out rear door like the Navara so rear seat passengers will have to fold down the front seats and clamber in. And when seated, there isn’t a great deal of room.
The seats too are more like benches and not really intended for any serious long-distance use. Firing up the L200, I discovered just how much this model has moved on from the old one. Purring away like a contented lion, the truck moves off smoothly, with no rattling and jerking. The old recirculating ball steering has been replaced by a more modern rack and pinion system and it shows. This new model has a precise feel that the old one could never hope to achieve.
Power steering is weighted just right and the manual gearbox snicks into each slot smoothly.
Mitsubishi has decided to go for a second gearlever for changing to 4wd high and low ratios, and it looks more business-like than the dash-mounted switch on the Navara. Under way, on a mixture of major roads and dirt tracks on Sardinia, there was never a suggestion that the L200 was underpowered (unlike my test drive a month earlier in the Hilux).
One problem with the old L200 was its rock hard suspension. But in the rough with the new model, it smoothed out all the bumps before they reached my spine.
I ALWAYS thought that the old L200 was a model that would be hard to live with day-in- day-out both on smooth roads and in the rough – it was just too hard and uncomfortable.
This new model has addressed these problems and has triumphed. As long as the buying public takes to the truck’s rather curious shape, there is no reason to believe it won’t continue to hang on to its number one slot. But that beefcake the Navara is not far behind...
Model tested: Mitsubishi L200 double-cab
Gross vehicle weight (kg): 2,910
Payload (kg): 1,045
Max power (bhp/rpm): 136/4,000
Max torque (lb ft): 231/2,000
Prices (ex-VAT): £12,249-£19,999