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FIRST DRIVE

November 20, 2002|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Mitsubishi's 2003 Outlander is a competent addition to the ever-growing small sport utility vehicle segment and the first of these car-based crossovers to be marketed for what it is -- a minivan for people who don't see themselves as minivan drivers.

The company's current outdoor advertising campaign plays on the Mitsubishi brand's attractiveness to young buyers but makes no pretense that the Outlander is anything but a minivan substitute.

It is the first of two crossover SUVs from Mitsubishi -- the mid-size Endeavor will debut in January -- and Pierre Gagnon, president of the company's North American operating unit, says it is critical to Mitsubishi's goal of nearly doubling U.S. sales in the next few years.

Outlander sales have just begun, with 2,240 sold in October, the first full month of U.S. sales, so there's no way yet to tell how well consumers are reacting. Mitsubishi says its goal is to sell 40,000 vehicles a year once the marketing program is ramped up.

After two stints behind the wheel, my impression is that Mitsubishi will do well with the Outlander, although it won't set the SUV world afire. Outlander provides a nice alternative for shoppers, especially those who don't like the idea of driving the same car everyone else has, but it doesn't lead the segment in any of the most important measurements.

For many, especially in the youthful buyer category Mitsubishi draws from, the 3,200-pound Outlander's biggest drawback may be lack of oomph from the smallish 2.4-liter, 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. A four-speed automatic with manually selected "sport" mode is the only transmission offered.

Fuel economy for the two-wheel-drive version is estimated by Mitsubishi at 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway. The optional all-wheel drive subtracts one mile per gallon in each category.

On a daylong drive last summer in the mountains near Bend, Ore., switching among several pre-production models, I found the Outlander's handling and ride, the quality of the fit and finish, and the comfort and roominess of the passenger compartment to be impressive. But this SUV doesn't like altitude.

At one point on a moderate incline at an altitude of about 7,000 feet, I put my stopwatch to work while accelerating. With the automatic in the "drive" position, it took a nervous 13 seconds to scoot from 60 to 80 mph, an eternity given that the exercise also involved passing a car on that mountainous road. When I switched to the transmission's "sport" mode and held it in third gear, the acceleration time dropped to seven seconds, better but still not great.

When Mitsubishi made production models available for testing this fall, I grabbed an Outlander and put it through its paces near sea level.

Although still no racer, it seems more at home on the urban roads and freeways of Southern California. I had no problem accelerating up an onramp and hitting 60 mph in time to merge with the traffic; there was no problem cruising in the fast lane on the Ventura Freeway at 80 mph, which seems to be the mandatory speed these days, and certainly no problem keeping up with surface street traffic at anytime of the day.

My notebook also reveals the following information: "Seats very firm and well-bolstered. Nice footrest for driver. Still quiet at 100 mph -- just a little wind noise. Good back seats, roomy and they recline in three positions. Corners pretty flat, with little body roll even at 80."

All those features, more than the ability to climb steep mountains in a burst of speed, probably are important to most of the target buyers. After all, hardly anyone who buys an SUV these days uses it as anything but a family car.

So comfort while idling in a traffic jam on the Santa Ana Freeway is of more benefit than the ability to leap logs on a dirt track in the high Sierra.

The redesigned Toyota RAV4 still leads the small SUV pack in sporty good looks, but the Outlander, with its Formula 1 racer-inspired prow and flared flanks, won't have to hug the wall while the others get asked to dance. Outlander's styling is racier than the boxy Honda CRV and Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute twins.

There are several other small, five-seat SUVs on the market. The Subaru Forester, Land Rover Freelander and new Kia Sorento come to mind, but because of higher prices and equipment levels, they may not be practical alternatives for an Outlander shopper.

But when compared with the RAV4, CRV and Escape/Tribute duo, Outlander provides a number of standard features for the front-wheel-drive LS model's $17,997 base price, including power locks and windows, air conditioning, a 140-watt stereo system, 16-inch wheels and cruise control.

There's even an industry-first feature that everyone should copy: a hidden storage area under the cargo floor specifically for the optional roll-up rear cargo cover that in every other SUV gets in the way when the rear seats are folded flat to make room for bulky cargo.

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