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The 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander
Trendy newcomer set to make serious waves
By Martha Hindes

2003 Mitsubishi OutlanderIt's more than a station wagon, but less than a true off-roader.

It drives like a car most of the time, but can take its lumps when the pavement runs out.

So how do we feel about Mitsubishi's new compact Outlander, being readied for showrooms this Fall with a 2003 model year label and an attitude to boot?

Our introduction came in rural Virginia, where gently winding roads, green fields with echos of historid battle, quaint little inns and 200-year-old villages seemed the perfect backdrop for what Mitsubishi wanted us to learn. Imagine cruising down gently curved roads, over narrow bridges and along old carriage paths with every curve in the road yielding easily to a gentle touch on the steering wheel. But that's getting ahead of ourselves a bit.

This is a vehicle for those who thrive in Mitsubishi style -- the young, trendy, hip driver image, "with it" enough to demand a punchy statement but smart enough not to break the bank in the process. This could be for the daughter or son getting ready for life beyond the limits of schooling, or a forever young professional smart enough to want the best of a good bargain.

And Mitsubishi seems determined to provide it.

CROWDED COMPANY

2003 Mitsubishi Outlander InteriorThis is the company's offering for an increasingly crowded segment called "crossover," "cute ute," or in a less complimentary fashion, "entry level."

That's a term some might use for the base Outlander since at just under $18,000 it undercuts most competitor prices. But forget any bottom feeder image.

This is way beyond such limitations.

Initially I found the Outlander quite attractive, a lower end offering with lots of eye candy pow and truly comfortable amenities, although it edges toward average in some ways when out on the road. And that, mind you, seems to be by design.

The only engine to power this small SUV is the same 16-valve, 2.4 liter, four cylinder found in the Galant sedan. While it churns out a respectable 140 horsepower and 157 pound-feet of torque with oomph during initial acceleration, it drew constant criticism at its summertime Virginia debut (admittedly in pre-production prototypes) for a lack of guts in some demanding driving conditions.

But despite repeated suggestions, Mitsubishi has no plans to put in anything heftier. That was made clear by Gael O'Brien, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America (MMSA), who staunchly defended the decision not to step up engine power in the foreseeable future. The company feels the Outlander is positioned "exactly where it should be," she said. And they don't want it to compete with the upcoming, larger and pricier V-6 Endeavor SUV due out as a 2004.

FINDING A LITTLE MORE POWER

2003 Mitsubishi OutlanderTo compensate, the only available Outlander transmission -- a four-speed automatic in both front-wheel and all-wheel versions -- adds a manual "Sportronic" shift mode. While it's undoubtedly there for those who like to play but don't know, or don't want to know, about stick shifts, I found it helped counteract one of the vehicle's few noticeable flaws.

When climbing over the area's hilly terrain, the Outlander struggled less and simply behaved better with the Sportronic mode engaged.

But despite complaints about wimp power, it had a surprising amount of control and stability for such a budget-priced entry. Digging into -- and out of -- sharp curves at the top practical speed was easy thanks to the vehicle's taut independent front and rear suspension and speed assist rack and pinion steering.

There was almost no loose steering wheel play -- what manufacturers' call a dead area -- to muddy up the road feel.

Mitsubishi seems to have scored with styling that is bold yet somewhat understated, both inside and out.

The Outlander has a strong, aggressive face, with a blunted V-shape nose in the hood anchored in front by the signature three-diamond logo.

It is sleeker and more aerodynamic appearing than some competitors, namely the Subaru Forester, redesigned for 2003 that barely inches into the SUV category heightwise. Having driven the Forester earlier in its life, I noticed by comparison the Outlander's distinctly more raised vehicle feel in addition to an obvious visibility advantage. Storage, however, is smaller although ample enough to haul pieces of furniture.

The Japan-built Outlander shares platform and stiffened chassis with Mitsubishi's sporty, entry-level Lancer sedan. It has the ride and feel of a car-based SUV, but hasn't lost the sense of being a higher center of gravity vehicle. That was evident one windy day during an extended driving test, and would have been more so with luggage piled atop the sturdy roof rails.

EYE APPEAL

That roof rack adds appeal to the Outlander's handsome exterior design, an option on the economy LS but standard on the pricier XLS model. Overall lines are smooth and supple with integrated head and tail lamps wrapping cleanly into the corners. A touch of European influence shines in optional side-mounted oval turn indicator lights. A slight running board makes getting in and out easier, and blends into exterior lines when the doors are closed.

A slight spoiler tops the rear hatch-style door, extending the vehicle visually. Accessing the flat rear storage floor is easy, as the deck's at about an average woman's hip level. For added trunk room, the second row seating folds flat as a whole or in 60 or 40 percent sections.

I've never been able to relate cubic feet with the space needed to allow for comfort. That's something I equate with carpet salespersons or real estate agents selling houses. But despite stats of 96.1 cubic feet for passengers (60.3 cubic feet max cargo space with the second row seats down), a body-on-leather test proved the bolstered front seats felt comfortable and roomy while rear ones were more than adequate. The front seat glide tracks extend back far enough to allow someone truly tall to have maneuvering room. An adjustable steering wheel and seat height controls help customize driving comfort.

2003 Mitsubishi Outlander Cargo RoomI really liked the reclining second row seatbacks that go from bolt upright to a relaxing incline, although presumably this wouldn't be exaggerated while driving. But I had to remove the unused mid-seat's headrest to gain a better sightline in the rear view mirrors.

Three-point shoulder harnesses are standard on this five-passenger vehicle. One of the two 12-volt power accessory plugs is in the trunk area where small stow-away wells hide under a flat cargo floor and a cargo cover, missing in the test model, would lend a finishing touch.

The Outlander's interior has two color palates, "grey" (the English spelling) and "sandblast." The grey, with charcoal insets and some brushed metallic-look edging, complements a silvery-toned XLS I tested and was one of the few times I actually preferred that color on a vehicle.

Nothing inside appears cluttered, but everything seems just right. The instrument panel is simple with a center-mounted quartz analog clock above the comfort and sound system controls. Round gauges are set into hooded instrument cluster wells. And the tachometer's red line is backlit in a catchy red check design, lending an "I'm here" touch.

LOTS OF AMENITIES

Mitsubishi has skillfully designed-in status while paring costs in both the LS and XLS models. Despite the ho-hum powerplant, a left foot rest for balance and above-door grab handles suggest a serious, power-boosted off-road capability. While the XLS version's Sound & Sun option package has a well-balanced, optional Infinity premium audio system, I couldn't adjust base or treble. Apparently what you hear is what you get. Both models use front disc brakes. But rear drum brakes peak through wide wheel cover gaps to diminish the overall look.

EPA mileage estimates are 21 city and 26 highway for the front drive version, with a loss of a mile each with all wheel drive. Options include Convenience, Appearance and Luxury packages and cover a range of goodies from heated leather seating and antilock brakes to side impact airbags, sunroof and 16-inch alloy wheels. A production vehicle sticker that arrived just before press time put a loaded XLS all wheel drive version at $24,470, including $580 in destination charges.

Overall, the new Outlander seems a standout in a field that includes the established likes of Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. It looked trendy and modern parked near a similarly-sized Grand Vitara. During test drives it drew attention from some young bikers and two men in a Chevy Blazer, and defied a guess at the price.

"That's a Mitsubishi," said one surprised admirer. "I thought it was a Mercedes."

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