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.
Cabin tech highs and lows
The high point of the cabin comfort experience (literally, in this case) is the panoramic glass roof with LED mood lighting. Stretching from the tops of the A-pillars all the way back to nearly the rear hatch, this fixed, tinted glass panel really adds an airy and open feel to the Sport's cabin. In fact, once we'd retracted the roof's fabric cover, we didn't bother to close it again for the duration of our testing. Embedded along the edges of the panoramic roof are amber LED mood lights that can be powered on to add a bit of ambiance to night drives. It's not nearly as distracting in practice as it sounds, trust us.
Digging into the dashboard tech, our Outlander was equipped with the standard Fuse Hands-Free Link System with USB input. Mitsubishi's answer to Ford's Sync, Fuse rolls in voice commands for Bluetooth hands-free calling and the selection of USB-connected digital media players. The system recognizes commands such as "Play artist Weezer" or "Call Optimus Prime." The system did a fairly good job of recognizing our spoken commands. Even when it didn't, Fuse would present us with a list of possible options, for example, "Did you mean King Geedorah?" to which we'd answer yes or no.
Unlike Sync, Fuse doesn't offer any sort of onscreen feedback that we could find--for example, a list of available commands would be nice. Additionally, the spoken feedback's volume was fairly low relative to the volume of the audio or navigation commands and seemed to only be coming from the speaker in the passenger foot well. There may have been a way, but we couldn't find an obvious place to increase Fuse's volume.
You've no doubt noticed that we've made no fewer than two allusions to being unable to find controls for what should be basic functions. This is as good a place as any to bring up our beefs with the touch-screen interface of the Outlander's optional 40GB HDD Navigation System. Our issue being that nearly nothing is where you'd expect it to be. Of course, there are the obvious buttons for Audio and Navi that take you to the currently playing audio source and navigation system, respectively, but there are also separate buttons for Menu and Set, which take users to two very different menus. We spent about 5 minutes digging through these menus looking for Bluetooth controls before we found them hidden beneath a button labeled Info. That's just the physical buttons; we haven't even mentioned the array of soft keys found on the touch screen. It seemed that every time we went looking for an option, a frustrating 5-to-6-minute hunt would ensue.
Beyond the interface that was obviously designed by an engineer or committee, the Mitsubishi Multi Communication System--as it is called--is a modestly good cabin technology package. It checks a lot of the boxes we like to see filled with its HDD-based navigation with traffic service. iPod and USB integration is standard, while satellite radio is optionally rolled into the same premium package that gets you the panoramic glass roof. Of course, there's plenty of space on the 40GB HDD for the storage of ripped audio. Speccing the navigation package also nets a rearview camera, which takes advantage of the in-dash display when reversing.
We liked that the navigation system didn't lock out passenger inputs when the vehicle was in motion, but found ourselves continuously frustrated by the point-of-interest (POI) search process. When searching for a POI, such as "Target," we were presented with a list of locations for the entire state with no obvious way to know which was closest without knowing the city. In an area like San Francisco, where the nearest location is in a suburb of a different name, we found it nigh impossible to actually lock in the nearest store without a good deal of trial and error. Perhaps there was some hidden menu option for adjusting the display method for the POI search, but after nearly 20 minutes invested in searching the labyrinth of menus, we doubt it. Eventually, we deferred to searching for a location on a smartphone and entering the address into the Mitsubishi's nav. The process of entering an address was fine, thanks to the touch screen's lightning-fast registration of our inputs. For all of our complaints about the interface, we were never disappointed or left waiting for the system to catch up with our inputs or process a route.
However, the low point (literally, again) is the audio quality of the optional 710-watt Rockford Fosgate premium audio option. This nine-speaker system includes a 10-inch subwoofer prominently displayed in the rear cargo area and replaces the standard six-speaker rig in the SE trim level as part of the premium package that includes the glass roof. We wouldn't go so far as to call it a bad audio system. Rather, it's just a very specific one. Carrying the signature Rockford Fosgate sound, the premium audio option only really sounds good when listening to the sort of distortion-heavy, electro-pop bounce that's currently en vogue with the kids. While highs and mids aren't downright steamrolled by the bass, they are de-emphasized by this system, which does no favors to music requiring delicate acoustic sounds or vocals. If you're a fan of the songs that rely heavily on bass (for example, "Like a G6" by the Far East Movement), then you'll probably love this system. However, if you're looking for a more balanced sound from your music, then you'll find the thumpy Rockford Fosgate system to be an earful.
The Rockford Fosgate system does offer a number of options for adjusting the audio quality, including a four-band EQ with a dedicated Punch band (further emphasizing the brand's obsession with bass), a few virtual sound stages that are probably best left alone, and tone presets for a few different types of music, such as Flat, Hip Hop, Rock, Country, and Electronic. Curiously, we found that hip-hop music sounded best when using the Country preset, while our favorite country tracks were done no favors by any of the presets. Your tastes may vary.
Depending on your expectations going in, the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport is either a fairly good value or a slight disappointment. We're leaning toward the former.
At its most basic and least expensive configuration, the $19,275 Outlander features a five-speed manual transmission that's sure to provide more driving thrills than we experienced with our CVT and better fuel economy than the competing Honda CR-V and Kia Sportage. Stepping up to the CVT nets you even more efficiency if you can learn to live with the rubbery acceleration--and, to be honest, we think that most drivers can.
With or without the optional AWC all-wheel drive system, our SE trim-level tester comes bundled with a respectable set of standard features for its $22,475 entry point, including the handy Fuse Hands-Free Link System, paddle shifters, and the Fast keyless entry and start transponder system that allows you to enter and start the vehicle without removing the key fob from your pocket or bag.
As tested, our 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE AWC rolls off of the line at $22,995. Navigation and rearview camera systems are bundled into a $2,000 package. However, before you can even spec nav, you'll have to have already added the $1,800 premium package, which adds the very cool panoramic roof with LED illumination, but also adds the iffy Rockford Fosgate premium audio system. We'd recommend you get used to the tooth-rattling bass and make the plunge. All in and with a $780 destination charge, our 2011 Outlander Sport tips the scales at $27,575--not a bad price when you consider that a similarly equipped Honda CR-V costs $30,675 (and is in need of a serious tech update). On the other hand, the slightly larger and more powerful Kia Sportage LX slips in at about $2,000 less than the Outlander's MSRP.
|Model||2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport|
|Power train||2.0-liter MIVEC four-cylinder, AWD|
|EPA fuel economy||24 city/29 highway|
|Observed fuel economy||26.4 mpg|
|Navigation||HDD-based w/ traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||yes|
|Disc player||single-disc CD/MP3|
|MP3 player support||USB port, iPod, analog RCA auxiliary input, A2DP Bluetooth streaming|
|Other digital audio||Sirius satellite radio|
|Audio system||Rockford Fosgate premium audio|
|Driver aids||backup camera, cruise control|
|Price as tested||$27,575|