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When we last saw the Mitsubishi Outlander XLS, it snagged our coveted Editors' Choice award for its versatile V-6 engine and cutting-edge cabin tech package that included a hard-drive-based navigation system. Two years later, the Outlander returns with minor aesthetic and quality updates.
So how does Mitsubishi's aging mid-size SUV stack up against the new generation of competition?
On the road
Settling into the driver's seat of the Mitsubishi Outlander as it sits, parked, in the CNET garage, we found that there's much to like about the SUV. On the outside it's a handsome, if not beautiful, vehicle with neat touches like LED tail lamps and HID Xenon headlamps.
On the inside, the cabin is attractive, although a bit plasticky, and quiet, thanks to the buttery smooth V-6 engine. The heated leather seats are comfortable, and at volumes that won't set off car alarms of adjacent vehicles, the Rockford Fosgate audio system is a step above your average premium audio option.
Easing out onto the freeway, we continued to be impressed by the V-6 engine's strong acceleration, complemented by quick, so-smooth-you'll-barely-notice shifts from the six-speed automatic transmission.
Popping the shifter into manual mode for a bit of fun with the magnesium paddle shifters borrowed from the Lancer Evolution X, we noted that the Outlander's automatic transmission seemed to transform. The smooth shifts were replaced by immediate and firm transitions from gear to gear that had us questioning whether Mitsubishi had snuck its SST twin-clutch tranny under the hood. Of course, it hadn't, but the Outlander does possess one of the finest slushboxes in its price range.
All was well with the Outlander, and suddenly the shine wore off.
True, the Outlander doesn't handle like an Evo--and to be fair, it shouldn't be expected to--but the two Mitsubishi vehicles, oddly, feature similarly harsh rides. This struck us as odd, considering that the Outlander should have tons more suspension travel than the sport sedan, but perhaps Mitsubishi dialed up the stiffness in an attempt to dial out some of the SUV's body roll. Whatever the case, the Outlander crashed and bounced over potholes and cracks in the road transmitting a great deal of vibration straight into the driver's spine.
The harshness of the ride makes the hard and hollow plastic interior trim pieces buzz and rattle in protest, particularly the extra cheap-feeling center storage bin and the top of the dashboard.
To overcome all of this new cabin noise, we had to crank the Rockford Fosgate audio system. While this stereo ranks as one of the loudest we've tested, it's far from the best sounding, with muddy midrange and highs, despite the fact that its nine speakers include discrete tweeters and a 10-inch sub.
In the cabin
At the heart of our Mitsubishi Outlander XLS' cabin tech package is the mucho-powerful 650-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system. Perhaps, it's too powerful for the hollow plastic interior panels. Rattles and buzzes abounded as the 10-inch powered subwoofer did its best to rip the doors off of their hinges.
The Outlander's 10-inch subwoofer feels too powerful for a vehicle with such flimsy interior panels.
Not only does the audio system overpower the interior panels, it also overpowers itself. Its overly loud bass drowns out the already muddy midranges and highs, even with the three-band EQ set to flat and the "bass punch" set to its lowest setting.
Available inputs include an MP3-compatible six-disc in-dash changer, Sirius satellite radio, and a set of RCA audio inputs located at the bottom of the center console. Why Mitsubishi chose to include RCAs and not the more standard 1/8-inch mini-jack is beyond us.
Those wanting to step up the tech can option a 40GB hard-disk navigation system with digital music server, which allows for ripping and storing of audio. The navigation has a neat feature called Diamond Lane Guidance that allows drivers to set the system to prefer carpool/HOV lanes. This is the same system we tested in the Editors' Choice-winning 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X MR and you can get a closer look in our full review of that vehicle.
Regardless of audio options, all V-6 Outlanders are equipped with standard Bluetooth for hands-free calling (available as an option for four-cylinder models). The hands-free system is completely separate from the audio system, requiring its own setup through voice commands, with no onscreen feedback. Fortunately, the system prompts you with suggested commands, making setup an easy process, if not a tedious one.
While on the whole, the Outlander's cabin is attractive, it feels as if it was designed by Mitsubishi's accounting department. Everywhere you look, corners have been cut in the name keeping costs down, from the hollow dash panels to the cheap-feeling climate controls.
However, the Outlander isn't without its good parts. The controls for the heated leather seats are tucked down between the seats and the center console and can be easily missed, but the seating surface is supple and very comfortable. The leather-trimmed steering wheel and shifter and magnesium paddle shifters are high quality--so much so that they feel out of place in sea of hard plastics.
Editor Antuan Goodwin squeezes into the Outlander's third row seating.
Behind the driver is an extremely configurable rear seating area, with second row seats that slide, tilt, and flip forward for maximum storage. There's also a third row of seats that pops out of the floor for when you need to carry more people (up to a total of seven passengers). With the second row slid forward, we were able to fit an adult male in the third row. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't comfortable, but at least the option is there.
Under the hood
Our XLS trim level Mitsubishi Outlander is powered by a 3-liter MIVEC V-6 gasoline engine that produces a healthy 220 horsepower (213 horsepower when equipped with the California emissions package) and 204 pound-feet of torque. On the road, this translates into peppy acceleration and a sporty feel, thanks to the V-6 Outlander's single option six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode.
When left in automatic mode, the Outlander slides smoothly from gear to gear. But slide the shift knob into manual mode and the transmission's character changes. Selecting a forward gear with the console-mounted shift knob or the steering column mounted paddle shifters results in quick, firm shifts.
The Outlander's paddle shifters were lifted straight out of the Lancer Evolution.
Toss a turn at the Outlander and its suspension betrays that old enemy of SUVs large and small: body roll. Fortunately, Mitsubishi has fought to control the Outlander's heft with an aluminum roof to lower the center of gravity and a firmer suspension. Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in the On the road section, firming up the suspension has resulted in a harsher ride than we think your average SUV buyer will be comfortable with.
Equipped with the V-6 and the front-wheel-drive power train, the Outlander XLS returns 17 city mpg and 25 highway mpg. Adding all-wheel drive to the mix drops the highway mileage to 24 mpg.
The Outlander is also available with a 2.4-liter MIVEC four-cylinder paired with Mitsubishi's CVT transmission. This configuration steps down to 168 horsepower and 167 pound-feet of torque, and steps up to 20 city mpg while maintaining the same 25 highway mpg.
The 2009 Mitsubishi Outlander starts at $20,095 for the front-wheel driven, four-banger ES model. Our XLS model adds the bigger V-6 engine and standard Bluetooth hands-free, bumping that price to $24,095. Oddly, the Luxury package, which adds HID Xenon headlamps and leather heated seats, and the Sun and Sound package, which includes the 650-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system and power sunroof, can only be added as a pair for a total of $3,260, bringing the as-tested total to $28,355 (including a $715 destination charge). Go ahead and add that hard-drive navigation system for $1,950 more to do the Outlander CNET-style for $30,305.
At that price, and if you can deal with the chintzy interior and rough riding suspension, the Outlander out-techs a similarly priced Mazda CX-7 Grand Touring and outprices a similarly equipped Nissan Murano LE by about $10,000. However, the ride quality and fit and finish of both of these vehicles put them in a class above the Outlander.