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July 06, 2012

Mitsubishi's Outlander Sport: Family Crossover

2012 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SEBefore kids, I was a small car person. Besides being easier on the pocketbook, I thought it was better for the environment.

But recently, I’ve started thinking that the next time I go car shopping, I might want to get into something a bit bigger. For one thing, my daughter is now a teenager and we require a lot more legroom for her and her friends. And there have been some incredible breakthroughs in green technology, which are finding their way into vehicles of every class and price point.

So I was eager to try Mitsubishi’s Outlander Sport crossover vehicle, a small SUV that looks and feels bigger than it actually is -- a plus for a driver who is used to the maneuverability of a small car. The Outlander drives more like a car than a truck, and the back was large enough to comfortably seat three long-legged teenagers on a lengthy journey to the beach and back, with ample cargo space for towels, bags and snacks.

119_3139Interior: Few Luxury Features, But What a View

The Outlander Sport is not a luxury vehicle. The interior of the model we tested was pretty plain: cloth upholstery was good quality, but there were no power controls. Heated leather seats and padded leather dash do not appear to be options.

The seats were comfortable for short drives, but I felt achey after our long beach commute (between picking up passengers and dealing with traffic, it took us two hours to get there and then three hours back home). But I got no complaints from my young passengers, so that may be one of those things I need to chalk up to my age.

We were delighted by the panoramic glass roof, which makes the car seem roomier than it is. Especially nice on our long drive to the beach. The roof also has LED mood lighting; unfortunately this is a feature we did not use, as the long days of summer resulted in a week when we didn't need to turn on the headlights. (I have a feeling the kids would have loved playing with it.)

119_3155I am thankful that our family is no longer in the carseat stage, but if we were, it's good to know that today's vehicles come with the LATCH system. The back seat is 51" wide; something to consider if you need to install one or more carseats.

It was ample room for the three teenagers who accompanied us to the beach. 

The Sport has a bit less cargo space than its small SUV competitors: just 21.7 cubic feet with the backseat in place (compared with 36.4 in the RAV4 and 34.3 in the Ford Escape). Still, it easily accomodated my weekly shopping run.

Dashboard

Driving the Outlander Sport

This is one of those models that comes with standard pushbutton start. This means that I spent the first couple of days trying to remember how to start a car without an old-fashioned ignition key. (I'm a slow learner, and apparently don't remember things that well, because this is a learning curve I go through each and every time I am faced with a button instead of an ignition key.) I loved the feature once I got the hang of it.

The electronic dashboard display is colorful, concise and easy to read. 

My model also had a rear-view backup camera, which caused one of my teenage passengers to go "Whoa!"

I was a bit flummoxed by the metal paddles mounted on the steering wheel and had to comb through the manual to learn what they were. It turned out that my Outlander featured a Sportronic® 6-step Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which gave me the the option of faux manual shifting. The paddles allow you to shift gears with the tap of a finger.

I tried it out and it worked -- and I found that switching from automatic to Sportronic mode helped alleviate the little bit of acceleration lag I felt while the economic transmission found its footing.

So I was faced with a tradeoff: I don't care for simulated manual transmissions and don't use the one I have in my own car. And so I stayed in automatic mode and accepted the acceleration lag in this one.  

So I expected not to enjoy driving through the winding canyon route I chose for our beach trip. I anticipated that the Sport would struggle a little going uphill,  so was surprised at how sprightly it actually was. This was thanks to another standard feature called "Hill Assist" - gravity sensors that automatically give the car a little kick when needed. 

Fuel economy is the reason for the continuous variable transmission that causes the creation lag. A green ECO light on the dash lets you know when you're driving efficiently. Mitsubishi says that over time, this feature trains you in "how to maximize its environmentally friendly performance."

I found that the ECO light was on more than off, with me just driving as I normally do. Does that mean that I already have good fuel-efficient driving habits -- or just that the vehicle already has so many fuel-saving technologies that were designed with the way people tend to drive? Either way, we did a lot of miles this week on a single tank of gas.

The EPA rates the Sport I was driving as 25 mpg City and 31 mpg Highway, but the vehicle's own system stated that it was getting just 21 mpg (but that was for the entire history of the car). I felt like I was getting a lot more.

The Outlander Sport has seven airbags, anti-lock brakes, a stability system for safety. The NHTSA gives the vehicle an overall rating of four stars. This is a comfort to a mom with a kid who will be getting her own license in a matter of weeks.

FUSE Hands-Free Link System

The Outlander Sport comes standard with Mitsubishi's FUSE Hands-Free Link System with USB port. The model I tested also included the Premium package Fosgate 9-speaker sound system and a 40GB HDD Navigation system, with music server and real-time traffic.

I barely dented the possibilities of all this technology, because the first thing my teenage daughter did (after calling "shotgun") was to hook it up to her iPod. She spent the week playing deejay, and I ended up fighting to use the other features.

I can report that LINK's ability to handle voice commands is impressive; I was able to make and receive calls via voice on my very first try. 

The menus on the navigation system weren't quite as user friendly. I had trouble setting up a route with three stops on our beach trip, and ended up using the nav system just for one of those stops. I'm not sure that's an issue; I find most nav systems have their own quirks that result in a learning curve. If I were to own this vehicle, I'm confident I'd become an expert in very little time.

And that's the point: I ended my week with the Sport feeling like it was a car I'd be happy to own -- especially when I saw that the MSRP for the base vehicle is only $21,990 -- with the fully loaded model I was driving obtainable for $26,855. And it comes with a limited 10 year/100,000 mile warranty. This means I can own and operate the Outlander Sport and still have money left to put towards a car for the teen.

With that kind of value, I can live without my heated leather seats.

Donna Schwartz Mills is a Los Angeles-based writer who also contributes to CBS Digital Local Los Angeles and her personal site, SoCal Mom. 


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