Reincarnated, But Not Yet Perfected
Mitsubishi faced crucial decisions when redesigning the 2016 Outlander. Pushing design and performance standards when you’re a lower-volume automaker is a cruel and high-stakes numbers game. You can’t afford to splurge or move too far at once, but you can’t stay still, either, while the world’s leading brands spend exponentially higher numbers on R&D and marketing.
Mitsubishi has fought its way off the ropes so many times that it might eventually turn out to be a “Rocky”-style legend. In fiscal year 2012, Mitsubishi sold fewer than 50,000 vehicles in the U.S. In 2014 it was almost 75,000, a whopping 51 percent increase. But still tiny when compared with Toyota’s 2.2 million-plus in North America.
Enter the Outlander, Mitsubishi’s entry in the hyper-competitive-but-profitable midsize crossover segment.
Our complaints about the long-term 2014 Outlander we had at Motor Trend centered around three issues: generally unrefined feel of the interior and driving dynamics, quirky electronics, and back-of-the-pack performance from the four-cylinder.
Mitsubishi touted — and will be touting — the fact that the 2016 Outlander has seen more than 100 improvements. They claim most of these have gone to noise reduction and a more refined driving experience. The Outlander is visually more aggressive ahead of the A-pillars, but here are a few of the changes in the name of better handling:
- A more rigid crossmember on the front suspension and retuned shocks for better ride and handling. Also, the front suspension includes a damper to blunt NVH.
- The rear shocks are larger and retuned.
- The body has been made more rigid by adding three braces up front and one in the rear.
But road noise, one of the big drawbacks we remember about that long-term Outlander, was attacked in at least 31 ways, including:
- The windshield glass has a middle layer specific to noise reduction.
- The 18-inch wheels are thicker to transmit less road noise.
- Insulation in the front fenders and the leading edge of the front doors.
- Sound damping sheets added to all doors.
At Mitsubishi’s 2016 Outlander launch, we drove a four-cylinder SEL model and a V-6 GT (both engines are unchanged from 2015) on traffic-choked San Francisco streets and on the beautiful, scenic, and sometimes good-driving roads south of the city, past Half Moon Bay to the Thomas Fogarty Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
How did all the improvements add up?
Surprisingly, the V-6 wasn’t the more enjoyable of the two 2016s. The steering didn’t have any play on center and was weighted OK; it just transmitted no true feedback about what was happening.
The 3.0-liter, 224-hp, 215 lb-ft engine, unchanged from last year, was certainly willing, but despite weighing only about 100 pounds more than the 3,300-pound four-cylinder, it seemed a little plodding and unsure of itself. Around corners especially, there was substantial wheel hop over small and midsize bumps. Undulating pavement at speed led to a feeling that was just on this side of what you’d call stable.
Road noise seemed particularly present until we hit a newer stretch of highway concrete. So chalk it up to a few leaky window seals, maybe?
I don’t really know why you’d go for the V-6 unless you absolutely need the 3,500-pound towing capacity.
As for the interior, Mitsubishi proudly told us it had added softer materials in all models. In practice, this seemed to stop at the dash. There is a small soft insert on the front doors, but why not continue it forward closer to where driver and passenger hands rest? Replacing the faux-wood trim on the dash and elsewhere with gloss piano-black material was a modern choice, and it pays off.
Jumping into the four-cylinder Outlander was to notice a huge difference, not only from the 2014 model MT had but also from the V-6. The CVT-8, as Mitsubishi calls it, is a big improvement. It’s a CVT, but it steps down to simulate shifts. It’s less than 1,000 rpm each time, but it interrupts the droning cacophony normally associated with CVTs.
The I-4 produces 166 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. That’s not a lot, and it shows with all the work it has to do anytime you want to get going in a hurry. But even at 70 mph, it cruises along at about 2,100 rpm, making it relatively quiet at speed.
The front seats are definite improvements over the 2015 model, with a feeling you’re sitting in them rather than on them. The steering felt good, and it was honestly a little enjoyable, understeer and all, to push it around curves. I was surprised to find the V-6 only weights about 100 pounds more because the SEL was noticeably more nimble.
As for all those noise-suppression techniques employed: They seemed to pay off, with the exception of some noticeable wind noise in hilltop heavy-crosswind situations.
All Outlanders get a new, much-easier-to-use rear seat folding system that involves just a few pulls on loops (headrest, then back, then bottom) in sequence to maximize cargo space.
Mitsubishi has actually added buttons back to the 2016 Outlander’s infotainment system. Although many of us are getting used to the disappearing buttons, and I like Honda’s nearly buttonless system in particular, Mitsubishi says its customers were vocal about wanting buttons back for audio and navigation controls.
The safety systems seemed largely unobtrusive, with the exception of the forward collision warning, which seemed a little too sensitive in the crawl of heavy traffic.
So the 2016 Outlander is quieter and better-looking with an improved transmission on the four-cylinder. It starts (the ES FWD model) at a rock-bottom $23,845 USD including destination. That’s $200 USD less than the 2015 Outlander. The well-equipped SEL front-drive model starts at $25,845 USD, and the V-6 AWD is still a value at $31,845 USD.
Will all the improvements, plus the value, add up to more interest from U.S. buyers? They’d be wise to consider the new crossover for its value.
Mitsubishi plans an aggressive (for its size) ad campaign to support the 2016 Outlander, which will likely draw enough buyers to allow it to continue its latest comeback. It’ll have to get to work quickly, though, because the Explorers and Outbacks of the world will keep quickly pushing ahead.