- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

Talk about your David vs. Goliath fantasy. Check out Mitsubishi’s 2007 Outlander crossover sport utility vehicle.

As originally conceived, the Outlander was a compact, car-based SUV designed to compete with the four-cylinder Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Saturn Vue and Ford Escape.

But time and automotive design march on, and crossover vehicles are proliferating, as well as getting larger, faster and more expensive. The once-tiny RAV4, for example, now is available with three rows of seats and V-6 power.

The original 2003 Outlander XLS seated five, was 14 feet 11 inches long, weighed 3,461 pounds, had passenger/cargo space of 94/24 cubic feet, and was powered by a 140-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. It got 20/25 miles to the gallon on the EPA city/highway cycle. The 2007 Outlander XLS seats seven (tightly), is 15 feet 8 inches long, weighs 3,791 pounds, has passenger/cargo space of 103 and 36 cubic feet (with the third seat folded), and is powered by a 220-horsepower, 3-liter V-6 engine. It gets 19/26 mpg.

Whoa. The 2007 Outlander doesn’t look much like a compact SUV, and it isn’t. It continues to compete with the compacts but also intends to step up and take on vehicles such as the midsize Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. Both the Highlander and Pilot have V-6 power, can seat seven and together should account for more than 250,000 sales this year.

That’s where the fantasy comes in. Mitsubishi has experienced hard times and is crafting a renaissance. To take on big guys such as Toyota and Honda in a territory they dominate takes guts, if not hubris.

But the new Outlander has some bones. The third-row seat, though cramped and useful only for small children, gives it credibility. It is about the same size and weight, with about the same power and fuel economy, as the Highlander. It is the same length as the Pilot, but has less passenger space.

The V-6 engine and a new six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode (the Highlander and Pilot have five-speed automatics), amount to a state-of-the-art power train. Enthusiasts will enjoy the available magnesium manual-shift paddles. They are mounted on the steering column instead of the steering wheel, which makes manual shifting easy.

The so-called flexible four-wheel-drive system, controlled by a switch, has three modes: front-wheel drive, automatic all-wheel drive and lock. In the lock setting, the system sends up to 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels to provide better acceleration and high-speed stability in adverse conditions. The all-wheel-drive setting is less aggressive, feeding smaller amounts of power to the rear wheels as needed.

Front-wheel drive aims at improved fuel economy.

There are five versions of the Outlander: the base front-drive ES, which has a starting price of $21,995; the LS in two-wheel and four-wheel drive, at $23,035 and $24,395, and the XLS, also with two-wheel or four-wheel drive and sticker prices of $24,275 and $25,635.

Standard equipment on all models includes side air bags and side-curtain air bags for the first two rows of seats, active skid and traction control, antilock brakes, tire-pressure monitoring, air conditioning with air filtration, driver’s seat height adjustment, cruise control, remote locking, prewiring for Sirius satellite radio, power windows and mirrors.

Options vary depending on the model. They include a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, a hard-drive-based navigation system, leather upholstery, heated front seats, a motorized sunroof, power driver’s seat, an upgraded audio system with six-disc in-dash CD player and satellite radio. The tested fully-optioned 4WD XLS had a $30,615 sticker.

The third-row seat is only available on the XLS, but all the models have some new wrinkles. Most intriguing is the so-called flap-fold rear tailgate, which is disguised as the rear bumper. After you open the hatch, it extends and folds down flush with the rear cargo floor to aid loading and provide a perch for tailgating.

On the models without the third-row seat, there’s a shallow storage area beneath the rear cargo floor. The second-row seat has plenty of head and knee room in all three positions, although the center perch offers less comfortable seating.

All of the Outlanders have roofs made of aluminum, which makes them less top-heavy and gives them a lower center of gravity. It’s not something you’d notice without being told. But the Outlander does have carlike handling, as well as a comfortable ride.

With 220 horsepower on tap, the Outlander does not feel challenged on the highway. The six-speed automatic shifts easily and finds the right gear for the situation at hand.

Inside, the optional leather seats in the XLS are firm to the point of being borderline uncomfortable, but provide decent support. The cloth seats are softer and more yielding. Keeping matters family-friendly, the Outlander features nine cup holders and 13 storage bins.

A big question is whether the new Outlander will outshine its garage-mate, the Mitsubishi Endeavor, which is a five-passenger crossover that competes in the midsize class against the likes of the Nissan Murano.

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