2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV first drive: winner by default

Remember Mitsubishi? Not the company that made your old projection TV or your air conditioning unit, but the automaker. Maybe you remember the Eclipse, Galant, or Montero (not that Mitsubishi Motors makes any of those cars now).

Perhaps sticking too closely to their appliance siblings, the automaker has been selling bland cars and enticing buyers with generous finance offers and ads with catchy songs. You’re probably more likely to get into a Mitsubishi elevator these days than one of its cars.

But it would be a shame if you ignored the 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV altogether, because it actually brings something useful to the US new car market: it’s a plug-in hybrid, all-wheel drive SUV that doesn’t cost all the money in the world.

While a plug-in hybrid SUV may not sound like a new concept — the BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz GLE, and Volvo XC90 all offer PHEV versions — the Outlander PHEV was revealed before all of them in 2013. It’s been on sale in Europe and Japan since then, but constant regulatory and quality delays and company scandals have kept it from the US until now. Even so, it might have been worth the wait.

The wait and scandals also took a further toll on Mitsubishi — so much so that Nissan took a major stake in the automotive division last year and brought it into the Renault-Nissan Alliance. But that also means the Outlander’s plug-in hybrid setup is destined to be the template for future global PHEVs from Infiniti, Nissan, Renault, and, of course, Mitsubishi.

In this Outlander, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine is paired with a generator up front to continuously charge the 12kWh battery and power the front wheels. Then a 60kW electric motor is placed under the cargo floor, sending power to the rear wheels, for a total of 197 horsepower when they’re all working together. Mitsubishi says the Outlander is the only PHEV with a DC fast charger, which will charge the battery from flat to 80 percent in as little as 30 minutes, or a full charge on a 240-volt charge in less than four hours, according to the company. If you have a standard 120-volt socket, Mitsubishi says the charger that comes with the car can replenish the battery that way in about eight hours.

Turn it on and the Outlander PHEV operates in hybrid mode when the battery is fully charged. Drive slowly and you’ll likely rely on the battery charge until more power is needed and the gasoline engine kicks on. Or you can use the buttons around the gear lever to either force the car into EV mode (a Charge mode to regenerate the most energy back to the battery), or save the charge for when you can best use it, such as in heavy traffic or at low residential speeds.

You can also manually select six different regeneration modes with the paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. In some situations, the highest level is enough to make the brake pedal nearly redundant. EPA figures are still pending, but the Outlander PHEV is rated at 33 miles in EU testing, and something in that ballpark seemed right based on our route.

As far as other plug-ins go, the Outlander switches through these modes fairly seamlessly, although our drive route was confined to speeds of around 25 mph on Catalina Island near Los Angeles. The dirt roads on the island revealed that the all-wheel drive system meant we were never unsure about making it up a hill. It may not scare Jeeps and Land Rovers, but buyers who have steep, snow-covered driveways in the winter might be relieved.

The Outlander certainly makes for a mixed bag upon first glance. The face is lots of brightwork and shiny black plastic trim; the grille gives of the impression of devouring small creatures in its path. Our test cars had optional decals stuck to the hood and rear doors that are probably best skipped. And while Outlander PHEV has a brash face, the rest of it comes off as an anonymous SUV from 2017.

At least that pays dividends inside. Gasoline-powered Outlanders come with three rows of seats and seating for seven, but the PHEV ditches that third row for a place to hold the electric setup, reducing seating to five. That’s fine, because unlike some PHEVs, the Outlander sacrifices little, if any, cargo space and flexibility for a battery pack. My six-foot-ish co-driver could fit comfortably behind a driver of similar height.

But this isn’t a luxury car. Having previously tested a gasoline-only four-cylinder Outlander, the quality of the PHEV seems to have taken a step up. It’s quieter inside, and the plastics appear to be put together with more care. Losing the small third-row seat also reduces interior rattles and the car feels more substantial. While it’s on par with what Nissan and Toyota are putting in their compact SUVs these days, Honda, Volkswagen, and even Chevrolet are better in this regard.

Conspicuous by its absence, especially for a car aimed at tech fans, is the driver assistance technology. Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and a 360-degree parking camera are available, but the Outlander PHEV lacks anything with the capabilities of semi-autonomous systems from luxury PHEV makers. Now that Mitsubishi is part of that Renault-Nissan Alliance, the company announced last week it, too, would be the recipient of technology pioneered in systems such as the ProPilot driver assistance that debuts on the 2018 Nissan Leaf. Expect to wait a few years before anything like the Leaf’s system moves over to the Outlander, though.

At least the Outlander PHEV is covered in the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto departments, as well as a smartphone app that allows you to remotely check the battery level, charging schedule, program the heating and cooling inside the car, and turn the lights on and off.

Photo: Mitsubishi

Mitsubishi says the Outlander PHEV will go on sale in January starting from $35,535, rising to $41,235 for the generously equipped GT model we drove. Outlanders will be eligible for much of the $7,500 federal electric vehicle tax credit. If you live in California, for example, count on at least $5,000 in applicable government incentives, taking the Outlander PHEV’s price to roughly what a similarly equipped gasoline model would cost. Mitsubishi officials said leases will be offered, considering plug-in customers predominately take advantage of subsidized three-year leases, but haven’t released specifics on the Outlander.

The company expects to sell between 3,000 and 4,000 of the PHEV models in the US next year, which seems low considering how little direct competition Mitsubishi has. Even after being endlessly delayed and not being the first plug-in SUV in the US, only the Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV4 are available as hybrids — neither of which are plug-ins to qualify for tax incentives to offset mid-$30,000 price tags. None of the PHEV offerings from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Volvo start lower than $64,000 and all have puny EV ranges. Perhaps the Outlander’s toughest competition comes from the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, a PHEV seven-seat minivan that’s considerably more refined and spacious, but more expensive and lacks all-wheel drive.

So by virtue of having a niche all to itself, the Outlander PHEV is worth a look if you want a spacious, all-wheel drive SUV that has the ability to get you 20-something miles on electric power only. And it’s also the reason you’ll think about Mitsubishi again.

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