2016 Mitsubishi Outlander first-drive review: A journey of 1,000 miles begins with 100 steps

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Currently, there are 37 vehicle brands on the market, and over 300 different models. Whereas Chevrolet offers 21 different models on the high end, Mitsubishi has five. In the first five months of 2015, Chevrolet has sold almost 900,000 units; Mitsubishi is at about 41,000. As a conglomerate, Mitsubishi’s parent company dwarfs Chevrolet’s General Motors, but as an auto manufacturer in the U.S., Mitsubishi Motors North America, for the past decade, mostly has been an afterthought. This wasn’t always the case, as once upon a time, Mitsu was a vital player in the industry, with one of the first U.S.-based manufacturing plants in Normal, Illinois (part of a joint venture with Chrysler at the time), and selling a total of over 350,000 North American units annually in 2002.

Mitsubishi Motors LogoUnfortunately, bad business decisions and bad timing started the descent toward the bottom for this brand, which was a shame, as Mitsubishi was building some beautifully designed vehicles that had a lot going for them. We loved the Eclipse and Eclipse Spyder, the Galant sedan was voted Motor Trend Import Car of the Year, and the Montero Sport was a capable off-road vehicle. Since 2002, Mitsubishi sales declined every year, but now the company has a renewed commitment and focus to staying in the game in North America. One of its goals is to become a technology leader in the segment; however, to do that requires a commitment not only to updating its vehicles, but introducing new models and new technology that will bring in new buyers.

2016Outlander-17The 2016 Outlander is the first true vehicle to help Mitsubishi noticeably climb back to the top of the mountain. The slow climb actually started with the introduction of the Mirage compact hatchback last year, which has increased in sales by almost 100% since May 2014. Total sales for Mitsubishi are up over 30% as well. The new Outlander takes the baton from the Mirage to continue the trek upward.

Since Mitsubishi has a lot of challenges ahead, it stayed with that theme for the Outlander. The goals are to challenge styling, challenge the driving experience, and challenge safety in the vehicle. After driving the 2016, we believe Mitsubishi has accomplished its goals.

Mitsu2016Outlander_details_14While we’ve heard it referred to as all new, the 2016 Outlander is what many would called significantly changed. However, with over 100 modifications made from design to powertrain, there are enough differences to deliver the feeling of it being new. Starting with the styling, the Outlander has a new front end; basically everything from the windshield forward had been altered. The new grille helps push forward Mitsubishi’s “Dynamic Shield” global design language, where it’s bold to the point of aggressive, it’s sophisticated with LED accent lights and LED headlights (on the top-level GT model only for now), and it’s definitely more modern, while still keeping the family resemblance intact. It can be compared to Lexus’ spindle grille, but not as “in your face.” A few other journalists on the press trip didn’t care for it, but we like design that is instantly recognizable and dynamic without going overboard like the Lexus grille. Around back there’s a new rear fascia and new LED taillamps, along with trim pieces that tie in the front-end design. At the side, the Outlander gets new fenders, new wheels, door trim, and new available power-folding sideview mirrors. Before we move to the inside, one important area that Mitsubishi addressed with the new Outlander is to give the entry model real alloy wheels instead of steel wheels and caps. A small gesture, but one that might make a big difference to customers who are cross shopping entry-level models.

Mitsu2016Outlander_details_01While the exterior differences might be more subtle, the interior is where you’ll notice the biggest changes. The Outlander went from one of the cheapest-looking interiors to one of the nicest in the segment. Changes here include a better looking and feeling steering wheel, new accent panel trim, improved seat fabrics and leather, more padding, and enhanced navigation features and functions. Mitsubishi was smart; it brought the 2015 Outlander models along for us to drive and compare, and, side by side, you really see the differences.

Mitsu2016Outlander_details_11Before the redesign, Mitsu talked to current owners of the Outlander to see what needed improvements. One big area was the second-row seat area. The way the seats folded down were a bit more difficult than solving a Rubik’s cube. For 2016, the seats feature an auto flip-up seat cushion, auto headrest folding, and a seatback that folds flat. Easy to put up and down, the second row also slides forward for third-row access. Although Mitsubishi made a lot of major upgrades to the interior, there are still a few items we’d like to modify. First, the third-row head restraints are huge to meet safety requirements, but they are the least-attractive feature in an otherwise really nice-looking interior. Second, we would love to have a power passenger seat. We harassed Kia enough so it’s adding them to a handful of vehicles; we hope Mitsubishi can at least offer the feature as part of a package or on the GT trim.Mitsu2016Outlander_details_12

Speaking of trim, the Outlander trim levels have a slight modification from the 2015 model year: an SEL has been added to the lineup. It starts with ES in two-wheel-drive trim, with a base price of $22,995, then the SE in either two-wheel drive or S-AWC (more on this later) for $23,995 and $25,995, then SEL in either drive mode at $24,995 and $26,995, and finally GT, with only S-AWC at a base of $30,995. The base model SE is about $200 less than the outgoing Outlander, and features the aforementioned 18-inch alloy wheels. The Outlander also offers a handful of packages, such as the SEL Safety Package, which adds forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and more for $1,550. The SEL Premium Package for $1,900 includes a power sunroof, remote liftgate, Rockford-Fosgate audio and the power folding sideview mirrors. The SEL Touring Package is $5,250, and adds navigation plus all the features from the previous packages. Finally the GT Touring Package for $3,350 includes navigation, forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning, and adaptive cruise control, as the rest of the features are standard on the GT trim.

Mitsu2016Outlander_details_13The power for all these models comes from two sources: a standard 2.4-liter MiVEC inline four cylinder engine that’s carryover, and produces 166 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. The I4 is mated to an all-new CVT-8, an upgrade from the continuously variable transmission in the 2015 model, but was first used on the Outlander Sport for 2015. The CVT-8 was designed to provide quicker response in relation to pedal input to deliver improved acceleration, while at the same time offering great fuel economy. The EPA-estimate numbers are 25 city, 31 highway, 27 combined. That’s right in line with The Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, both of which are only five-passenger vehicles. Mitsubishi claims the CVT-8’s torque loss is reduced by 26 percent, which will deliver better power to the wheels. The second engine is found only in the GT, which carries over the only V6 offering in the segment: a 3.0-liter MiVEC producing 224 horsepower and 215 lb-ft of torque, mated to a standard six-speed automatic transmission. As we’ve learned, having a V6 can be worthwhile as long as it makes decent power to compensate for the loss of fuel economy. Unfortunately, this is where Mitsu’s engine falls short. To make a comparison, the Outlander’s 3.0 V6 can’t compete with the Ford Escape’s 2.0-liter I4 EcoBoost for power and torque, at 240 and 270, respectively. And the Escape with the 2.0-liter EcoBoost beats the Outlander in fuel economy as well, with 21 city/28 highway for the Ford with all-wheel drive versus the Outlander GT at 20/27. Both Mitsubishi engines are single overhead cams, and while they provided adequate power on the road, on paper, where people make comparisons, the Mitsubishi Outlander is going to come in second.