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Not everything that glitters is gold; and not every vehicle with the word "Sport" in its name is sporty. Such is the case with the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport.
When we took delivery of our Laguna Blue example, the crossover's muscular exterior, aggressive front end, and AWC (all-wheel control) badging conjured fantasies of whipping through the twisties in something like the slightly larger Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback Ralliart--after all, the vehicles share their basic chassis architecture and 2.0-liter MIVEC engine. Then, we looked a bit closer. The Outlander Sport AWC was equipped with a single-option continuously variable transmission, not the twin-clutch SST gearbox we loved in the Ralliart. Our 2.0-liter MIVEC engine lacked a turbocharger and about 89 horsepower, outputting a reasonable (but not neck-snapping) 148 horsepower. Also, our AWC system was lacking an active center differential. Slowly, but surely, our fantasy was beginning to dissolve.
How sporty is the Sport?
There's more to the story than just the numbers, so we grabbed the Fast-key transponder (more on that later) and hit the road.
As we expected, the Outlander Sport's power output was less than overwhelming. Thankfully, however, it was also far from underwhelming. We were perfectly whelmed by the 148 ponies and pleased as punch at the 145 pound-feet of torque. On paper, it doesn't seem like a huge amount of power, but with a reasonable amount of foresight, the Mitsubishi can make good use of it.
What do we mean by "foresight"? Well, that brings us to our biggest issue with the Outlander Sport: the continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT is able to infinitely vary its gear ratios, because there are no actual gears. This allows it to keep the engine in the sweet spot for the best possible power or economy. However, in practice, what it does is create about a 1-2 second delay between major changes in throttle position and actual acceleration while the transmission sorts out which of its infinite ratios is best suited for the job. A manual shift mode can be initiated by sliding the shifter into the appropriate position or by engaging the steering-column-mounted paddle shifters. While in manual mode, the CVT holds at one of six virtual gear ratios, for more predictable performance for passing maneuvers and zesty driving. Shifts are still slower than the slushiest automatic transmission we've tested, but with practice and timing, we were able to coax some reasonable fun out of the unsporty Sport.
Despite sharing a name with the Ralliart and Evolution's AWC system, the all-wheel drive setup in the Outlander Sport is much less sophisticated than either. There are three modes available to the user, selectable via a knob near the shifter. The first mode is 2WD, which sends all available torque to the front wheels. This is the mode you'll want to use to maximize fuel economy in day-to-day use. When things get a bit slick, users can select the second mode 4WD--or more specifically, 4WD Auto--which retains its front-wheel bias but allows the system to send nominal amounts of torque to the rear wheels in the event of front-wheel slip. We weren't able to observe a noticeable difference in handling between the 2WD and 4WD Auto modes, even in the middle of a torrential downpour. That's not to say that 4WD is useless; rather that 2WD is competent enough for most situations.
The last transmission mode is Lock, which, as far as we could tell, isn't a truly locking center differential. However, this mode does constantly send power to the rear wheels--up to 60 percent of available torque, in fact-- so it is a true full-time all-wheel-drive mode and the unlikely sportiest mode the Outback Sport offers.
Handling is one of the strong points of the Outlander Sport's performance portfolio. It's no canyon carver, but by the time we'd reached our favorite twisty road, we'd long stopped expecting it to be. Pushed as hard as the sluggish CVT would allow, the Sport felt competent; sticking predictably through turns when kept within its surprisingly high handling limits and understeering slightly and safely when pushed beyond. Brakes were equally predictable, gripping strongly through an impromptu emergency stop test.
A weekend of driving under our belts, we found ourselves coming to terms with what the Outlander Sport was, rather than what it claimed to be. Mitsubishi's crossover didn't live up to our expectations of what a sporty CUV should be: it's not the sort of car you'd aggressively throw round a corner and it's not the sort of small SUV that you'd take off-road. A more accurate name would be Mitsubishi Outlander Competent, but we understand how a thusly named vehicle wouldn't exactly fly off of dealer lots. At best, the "Sport" in Outlander Sport refers more to a sporty image, an athletic look, and a reasonable amount of space for carrying your actual sports equipment in back.
Another feather in the Outlander Sport's cap easily goes unnoticed until it's time to fill 'er up. In the AWC plus CVT configuration with which our tester was equipped, the Sport manages a quite respectable EPA-estimated 24 city and 29 highway mpg. We landed squarely in the middle of that range with an observed 26.4 mpg for the duration of our testing. Drivers who want to squeeze an extra mile or two out of each gallon should skip the AWC configuration for a 1 mpg bump in the city and 2 mpg on the highway--as a nice bonus, FWD models also feature a larger 16.6 gallon tank as opposed to the AWC's 15.8, further increasing their single-tank range.