The subcompact SUV category is booming, with sales growing exponentially and new models being added regularly. A shocking four upstarts arrived on American roads in 2015, almost doubling competitors to a total of nine, while two newcomers will arrive before the close of 2017. All I can say is it’s a shame Suzuki isn’t here to take part.
Many who remember the fun little Samurai will point to Suzuki as the subcompact SUV initiator, and while the tiny little off-roader deserves credit for reigniting America’s love affair with subcompact 4x4s back in the ’80s, going so far back might cause us to continue the trek through history in order to include the similarly sized original Willys Jeep that became popular after WWII. Yes, we’ve long been fans of small SUVs, the 1991-1999 Dodge Colt Wagon, Eagle Summit Wagon and Plymouth Colt Vista Wagon also worthy of mention if only because they offered optional 4WD and were all based on the Mitsubishi Expo LRV, a global and U.S.-compact MPV that was in fact the first-gen Outlander Sport, but in today’s modern era of car-based soft-roaders the first true subcompact crossover SUV was the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport we all know (and love, or not).
The Outlander Sport, which only shares its name with the Indonesian market (it’s dubbed RVR in Japan and Canada, plus ASX in most other markets), first went on sale throughout the U.S. in October of 2010 (as a third-generation global model), the same month the unorthodox Nissan Juke arrived, making both models first to market (we’re not counting days here) and instantly creating a subcompact SUV segment as part of the process. It wasn’t too long before others smelled opportunity, with the Mini Countryman arriving later that year, the Buick Encore jumping on board in 2012, the Chevrolet Trax hitting the market in 2014 (although it had been on sale in Canada since 2012), the Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X, Mazda CX-3, and Honda HR-V joining ranks in 2015, and the new Toyota C-HR, Nissan Rogue Sport, and Ford EcoSport slated to arrive later this year. Some consider the Volkswagen Tiguan, Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage part of this smaller-than-compact segment, but they’re sized closer to compacts and therefore should be classified with their larger rivals, whereas the Kia Soul isn’t available with all-wheel drive and thus doesn’t qualify as an SUV.
While the Outlander Sport was one of the first compact SUV’s to market and garnered strong sales from its first month onward, it’s received only minor updates since introduced. Fortunately for Mitsubishi it was nicely styled and well engineered from onset, so sales have grown steadily from 16,443 units in 2011 to 18,091 in 2012, 24,951 in 2013, and 31,054 in 2014, peaking at 36,966 in 2015, only ebbing slightly last year with 33,067 deliveries. It’s never been number one in the subcompact SUV class, however, initially outsold by the Juke and more recently by its newer competitors, the Buick Encore leading the pack until being passed by the Jeep Renegade, Honda HR-V and Chevy Trax last year, but the Outlander Sport still outsells the Juke, Mazda CX-3, Mini Countryman, and Fiat 500X, showing it still has strong appeal despite not being the newest kid on the block.
Mitsubishi spruced up its styling for this 2016 model year, however, which is probably why it’s seen a recent upsurge on the sales chart. That said I’m not bullish on the new look, mostly because it appears like a change for the sake of change refresh that’s made less appealing because its predecessor was so damned good looking. Come to think of it, all of Mitsubishi’s past designs looked better than their current lineup. Rather than showing up with something inspirational, like it did with the Concept X in 2005 that would eventually transform into the 2007 Lancer before the near identical and totally knee-weakening Evo X arrived for 2008. That design would be adapted for the 2010 Outlander (although its predecessor was easily as attractive) and the 2011 Outlander Sport (which all ride on Mitsubishi’s ubiquitous GS platform, also used for the most recent Delica van, a couple of Citroën and Peugeot models across the Atlantic, and a slew of past and current FCA products, the latter including the Dodge Journey and Jeep Compass/Patriot).
Fortunately for Mitsubishi, its engineering has always been very advanced. I first drove the Outlander Sport on its national press launch in 2010 and was impressed with everything from its styling, interior design and execution, overall roominess and great value. Fast forward seven years and the Outlander Sport ES 2.0 still a great deal at just $19,795, while the LE starts at $21,995, and SE 2.4 begins at $22,695, SEL 2.4 can be had for $24,195, and GT 2.4 AWC (Mitsubishi-speak for AWD) hits the road at $27,695. AWC can be added to all trims (other than GT, in which it comes standard) for just $1,500 over automatic equipped models (everything but the base ES), whereas the autobox costs $1,200 over the ES trim’s standard five-speed manual.
Of note, the 2017 Outlander Sport lineup carries over unchanged from 2016, its two available engines starting with a spirited 2.0-liter four-cylinder capable of 148 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque, and my loaner’s 2.4-liter four developing 168 horsepower and 167 lb-ft of torque. The latter engine only comes mated to the automatic, and rather than a conventional stepped-gear design the Outlander Sport uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Normally Mitsubishi provides a fully loaded example for testing, which makes my weeklong stint behind the wheel more enjoyable and gives me more to talk about, but this time around I received the near top-line SE 2.4 AWC, the extra power off the line making this very clear. Buffed up in Rally Red paint, this Outlander Sport stands out from the crowd thanks to plenty of chrome, satin aluminum and glossy black trim, plus large machine-finished 18-inch alloys with black painted pockets. Its frontal design certainly isn’t near as minimalist as the outgoing model, while its rear end looks mostly the same.
Inside, my SE 2.4-trimmed Outlander Sport was downright opulent for its subcompact SUV class, with a soft-touch instrument panel and equally pliable front door uppers. A cross-stitched leather-wrapped sport steering wheel gets some inky piano black lacquered highlights, but unfortunately they were already badly scratched so maybe not the best idea for this application, but the steering wheel switchgear was very well executed with extremely tight fitment and excellent damping, while made from good quality composite, the circular rocker switch that actuates the audio system via the infotainment screen especially impressive.
The Outlander Sport’s digital interfaces include a high-resolution color multi-information display with very attractive graphics set between two bright, backlit chrome-rimmed motorcycle-style analog gauges, while the large 6.1-inch color touchscreen infotainment display on the center stack nears the best in the class with good depth of contrast, bright colors, and a nice, simple, easy to understand graphical layout.
SE 2.4 trim comes with a number of upscale features, some not yet mentioned including illuminated vanity mirrors, tilt and telescopic steering, a leather-wrapped shift knob, micron air-filtered single-zone auto climate control, chromed interior door handles, a matte carbon black audio trim panel, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity with streaming audio, a rearview camera, heatable front seats, and a folding rear center armrest with integrated cupholders, while the soft-touch upper instrumental panel and door skins aren’t available on lower trims, but it doesn’t include the SEL or GT models’ luxuries, like a powered driver’s seat, leather upholstery, sunroof, or powered liftgate, let alone features like navigation, a big-name audio system with a thumping sub, or any of the latest active safety features like autonomous emergency braking, lane keep assist, etcetera.
Of course, its $24,195 entry price wouldn’t allow for such premium-level niceties anyway (move up to the GT AWC if you want all the goodies), its seats instead covered in particularly nice premium fabric upholstery with contrast stitching around their edges and the same color used to highlight its otherwise black seat inserts, the driver’s of which is nicely contoured to fit one’s backside in all the right places and six-way adjustable to fit most body sizes and types, and the seat heaters, while just two-way with “LO” and “HI” settings are capable of getting toasty warm when mid-winter chills require. Even the 140-watt six-speaker stereo sounded a lot better than its specs implied it should (although its all relative compared to the Rockford Fosgate Punch display audio system that comes with the aforementioned GT, boasting 710 watts and nine speakers including a 10-inch sub), and as noted the quality of its digital interfaces and the switchgear used to control them was above par.
I must say my favorite SE 2.4 feature was the way it went down the road. I wasn’t surprised, the Outlander Sport’s fully independent front MacPherson strut and rear multi-link suspension with thick anti-roll bars at both ends always a cut above most in this class, providing a level of high-speed stability and overall control that defies its diminutive size, all combined with a very comfortable, compliant ride.
Likewise the Outlander Sport’s DOHC, 16-valve four with Mitsubishi Innovative Valve-timing Electronic Control (MIVEC) actually lives up to its pretentious name, with strong performance off the line, smooth linear power as speed ramps up, and smooth operation right up to its 6,500 rpm redline, while the rally-bred Japanese brand’s AWC all-wheel drive has always been well-engineered for making the most of available grip. It even comes equipped with a “4WD” button on the lower console that locks both axles for climbing out of slippery situations like banked snow, while it defaults to an automatic mode that chooses the appropriate drive configuration for road and weather conditions, plus it has the ability to switch into fuel-saving front-wheel drive in dry conditions. Unlike the Suzuki mentioned earlier and plenty of Mitsubishis that have come before, the Outlander Sport is not suitable for intense off-road conditions, but take note its 8.5 inches of ground clearance is higher than all of its peers (except Subaru’s Crosstrek, although the Subie is a compact crossover that’s probably better compared to something in the Outlander’s class). The Outlander Sport’s CVT gets its fancy Sportronic INVECS-III name due to six sequential “gears” that feel more like a conventional automatic than they have a right to, while still benefiting from the low-friction design of a CVT.
This focus on fuel economy, and a relatively light 3,285-lb curb weight helps the Outlander Sport SE 2.4 AWC eke out a respectable 22 mpg city, 27 highway and 24 combined EPA rating, while the thriftiest ES FWD model is good for a claimed 24 city, 30 highway and 27 combined.
As noted the front cabin is roomy and its seats superb, while those in the rear are plenty comfortable too, with room enough for average sized adults when similarly normal folks are seated up front. When I set the driver’s seat for my five-foot-eight frame I still had about four to five inches ahead of my knees and nearly four inches over my head, while shoulder and hip space was more than adequate. I didn’t have to contort my body to fit inside either, with my legs normally positioned (instead of forced upward at an awkward angle like some in this class) and lower back support very good. Even the center armrest was ideally positioned for comfort.
Those rear seatbacks are split 60/40 for expanding the cargo compartment’s 21.7 cubic-foot dimensions to a maximum of 49.5 cubic feet when fully laid flat.
Yes, the Outlander Sport ticks off most of the boxes subcompact SUV buyers are looking for, which is reason enough that it’s still a strong seller despite being more than six years old under the skin. Mitsubishi will want to completely redesign it soon, and probably will bring something to market along the lines of the eX Concept that debuted at the Tokyo auto show in 2015 or GT-PHEV Concept introduced last year in Paris, but being that the Outlander Sport is the brand’s second-most popular model in the North American market, and also factoring in the number of newer models with big marketing budgets that it’s up against, a redesign couldn’t come soon enough.
Until then, consider the Outlander Sport seriously as it’s still a worthy offering and you’ll likely get a very good deal on an already well-priced subcompact SUV, while its five-year, 60,000-mile (mostly) comprehensive, and 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranties can’t be beat.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Mitsubishi Motors Copyright: American Auto Press