With a little help from Nissan, Mitsubishi returns to relevancy with its undeniably distinct and unexpectedly engaging fourth-generation Outlander SUV.

Mitsubishi needs a hit. It's no secret that the Japanese automaker is now a minor player in the U.S. market, its product lineup lacking the star power of an Evo, or even a Montero. It doesn't help that two of its four remaining models­—the Eclipse Cross and the three-row Outlander—are compact crossovers that compete in the most cutthroat segment in America. After all, there are only so many driveways to fill every year, and in 2020 alone more than 1 million of them added either a new Chevy Equinox, Honda CR-V, or Toyota RAV4. Meanwhile, the Outlander (Mitsubishi's most popular U.S. model) found just 173,674 takers from 2016 through 2020. Facing increasing competition and decreasing market share, the company could've ordered up another facelift and resigned itself to perpetual fringe-player status. Instead, it found a tag-team partner and fought for relevancy.

Enter the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance. While there’s certainly plenty of scandal and strife between Nissan and Renault, this is also Mitsubishi's redemption story. In short, the merger means Nissan developed a platform and powertrain for the all-new 2021 Rogue and then shared those fundamental pieces with Mitsubishi, which used them to create the fourth-generation 2022 Outlander. The result is a surprisingly compelling addition to the throng of compact utes jockeying for the public's attention and the press's admiration. To be clear, we're not just impressed with the new Outlander because it's better than its predecessor, which set the bar somewhere down in the Mariana Trench. We're charmed by its competent handling, handsome interior, and roster of desirable features. Its extroverted bodywork will likely have as many haters as fans, but its bold face does look better in person and some might even say it has shades of Range Rover if you look past the three-diamond emblem and squint really hard.

HIGHS: A cabin we like spending time in, more popular modern features, sporting intentions shine through not-so-sporting bones.
Mitsubishi calls the design inspiration I-Fu-Do-Do, which means “authentic and majestic” in Japanese. We'll just leave that right there. But we will point out that the new Outlander is one of only two compact crossovers with 20-inch wheels, which is surely to attract a size queen or two. The Volkswagen Tiguan also offers 20s and it's the only other seven-seater in this class, but the VW’s third row is limited to front-drive models. Every Outlander seats seven, but only five comfortably. Even though Mitsubishi says the rear-most seats are intended for kids only, we're confident anyone with legs won't be comfortable back there. At least passengers in the other two rows have adequate stretch-out space and enjoy more hip and legroom than before, thanks to a 3.4-inch width increase and an extra 1.4 inches between the axles. Cargo volume also grows from 33 to 34 cubic feet behind the second row and from 11 to 12 cubes behind the third row.

While the Outlander’s exterior is a clean break from the previous generation, its interior is an even wilder departure—not because it’s outrageously bizarre or futuristic, but because it’s genuinely nice. In the past, our most vitriolic comments were reserved for the Outlander’s prehistoric interior design and offensively cheap materials. Now, the dashboard is almost luxury-car grade in its elegant simplicity, and the hard plastics are mostly relegated to surfaces out of sight and infrequently within reach. Even base models have dual-zone climate control, knurled switchgear, and nice-feeling window switches. Stepping to a top-of-the-line SEL trim brings legitimate luxuries like leather, quilted door panels, and aluminum trim on the center console. Our Diamond White SEL example carried an as-tested price of $38,590, but that included the $2700 SEL Touring package with semi-aniline leather upholstery, a 10-speaker Bose stereo, a head-up display, and a panoramic sunroof. While we appreciated the crisp resolution and configurability of the 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster, only die-hard fans of The Price Is Right will appreciate the Big Wheel-inspired speedometer and tachometer. The 9.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system—up from the standard 8.0-incher—works flawlessly with wireless Apple CarPlay, though Android Auto users must still be plugged in.

The Outlander SEL we tested was also fitted with the $1800 all-wheel-drive system and the aforementioned 20-inch wheels. They're standard on most trims and even optional on the base one and are fitted with wide-for-this-class (255 section width) Bridgestone Ecopia H/L 422 Plus all-season tires. They provide a notable 0.85 g of cornering grip and contributed to the Outlander's newfound agility. Sure, their narrower sidewalls and the SUV's lack of isolation combined to send hollow thuds up through the structure. The hood flutter at 70 mph is enough to have a passenger question whether the bonnet was actually latched. We’re not surprised that the steering offers little in terms of feedback, but the car doesn’t fall on its face if you have to hustle it around a cloverleaf to merge. It needed 172 feet to stop from 70 mph, which is respectable for the class and 8 feet shorter than a 2016 Outlander we tested. We’d feel even better about the brakes if the pedal weren’t so squishy.

But the biggest demerit is the Outlander’s 181-hp 2.5-liter inline-four and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). It's the only powertrain until the plug-in-hybrid variant arrives. Thankfully, the new engine isn't quite the boat anchor that the 166-hp 2.4-liter four-pot it replaces was, but the 224-hp V-6 is no longer an option. The old four-cylinder powertrain carried the Outlander to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds. The Nissan-supplied version takes 8.2 ticks and is a half-second quicker between 50 and 70 mph (6.0 seconds flat). Both times are identical to the Rogue we tested, despite the Mitsubishi's 226-pound disadvantage. But even though the Outlander feels responsive at city speeds and can keep pace on the highway, the transmission's syrupy behavior and overall lack of urgency when merging dulls our enthusiasm. Especially when the top trim's sticker price mirrors that of a turbocharged Mazda CX-5.

Mitsubishi’s resolutely average powertrain is probably the right call for this market. Remember the 2010 Outlander GT? It featured a V-6, an electronically controlled limited-slip front differential, a lockable center diff, magnesium column-mounted paddle shifters, an aluminum roof, and a 7.5-second 60 time. Nobody bought that one.

So, four-banger and CVT it is. Though the Outlander's CVT mimics traditional gearchanges and effectively mitigates the dreaded engine drone, it doesn't really pay off at the pump. The EPA estimates all-wheel-drive versions will earn 24 mpg city and 30 highway. That's not particularly impressive, and an equivalent and lighter Rogue is rated at 25 mpg city and 32 highway. We tested both on our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test and observed 32 mpg with the Nissan and a much lower 26 mpg with the Mitsubishi.

Even with our enthusiast-slanted gripes and its underwhelming powertrain, the 2022 Outlander finally has some style and substance to compete against today's top compact crossovers. “Spend money where people can see it” is probably a good strategy when your audience cares more about a quality interior than having a tarmac setting on the all-wheel-drive system. And compared with the Rogue, the Outlander also offers a higher towing capacity (2000 pounds versus 1350) and a longer powertrain warranty (10 years or 100,000 miles versus five or 60,000). Credit Nissan with the assist, but Mitsubishi made its own decisions and took its own chances to transform the Outlander from punchline to prime time.

caranddriver.com

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