The 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander is a reinvented compact crossover wagon that Tony Laframboise thinks should slice into the leaders' share of this immensely important chunk of marketplace.
Of course, Lamframboise is a little on the biased side. He's the vice-president of sales and marketing at Mitsubishi Canada. All he wants is a bigger piece of the action, not all of it. A tall order.
Canadians buy Ford Escapes, Honda CR-Vs, Toyota RAV4s, Hyundai Santa Fe Sports and all the rest in massive numbers. The minivan may be on life support, or close, and it has been replaced by tall wagons with available all-wheel-drive – the crossover.
Mitsu, well, Mitsu gets only the tiniest bit of attention here. During a typical month, the company might sell about 350 Outlanders and perhaps another 700 or so RVR crossovers. Ford of Canada, meanwhile, does 4,000-plus Escapes a month. Honda, 3,700-3,800 CR-Vs. Toyota, perhaps 3,500 RAVs, give or take a hundred.
Hyundai might sell 2,500 Santa Fe Sports in a normal month, perhaps more. Nissan expects to do 1,500 Rogues a month and on down the line: Kia 1,200-1,300 Sorentos a month; Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain to the tune of a few thousand a month; Volkswagen's Tiguan at around 700 every 30 days or so. Compact crossovers stand out as the third-largest chunk of the Canadian new-vehicle marketplace. Obviously, Canadians have oodles of choices here.
Undaunted, Lamframboise is making an outsized Outlander pitch. Fuel economy for the 2.4-litre four-cylinder (166 horsepower) is up there at the top of the class (7.3 litres/100 km combined). This fourth-generation Outlander – the first came in 2003, followed by 2007 and 2010 – is, he says, lighter (by 100 kg), sleeker (0.33 drag coefficient), and loaded with technology.
One interesting gadget is the driver-activated ECO mode, which will save gas. You can dress up the Outlander with adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning, and a power rear liftgate, too. The design is a planted, powerful look and the cabin looks richer than some of the big contenders, such as the latest version of the RAV4. Starting price: $25,998.
That pricing is in the game, but it's not an eye-popper. The cheapest Escape starts at $21,499. Toyota Canada sells a starter RAV for $23,790 and Nissan has a Rogue for as little as $23,978, minus discounts. Mitsu seems to have aimed its base pricing at the CR-V ($25,990).
Truth is, Mitsu can't compete against the big guns here, not purely on pricing and discounting. This year, Mitsu Canada might sell 20,000-plus vehicles in Canada, while Toyota and its Lexus premium brand might do 10 times that. Honda is way bigger in Canada, as is Ford, General Motors, Hyundai, Kia and the rest.
Mitsu will settle for a slightly larger piece of the pie and Laframboise argues his brand is deserving of a look. The Outlander does, indeed, have a story. The small engine is the four-banger, but if you need more power, there's a 227-horspower V-6. It's a good one, too, nice and smooth. If you want an Outlander with the third row of seating, the V-6 is a must.
Out driving – dealing with traffic in the city, highway speeds and even unpaved roads the sort of which you might find on the way to a rustic cottage – the Outlander is the equal of any in this class. The engineers have packed in a load of high-strength steel to give the Outlander a beefy structure. The offshoot of that is a suspension tuned for performance.
And I'm not talking performance on the race track, but in real-world conditions. That is, at 110 km/h, everyone inside can talk in a normal voice. More impressive is how the Outlander manages nasty stretches of road that have never seen an asphalt covering. Wicked rocks, loose gravel, potholes – there's little pounding and bouncing, as long as you stay away from goat paths. The Outlander is not a serious off-roader, but the ride quality is impressive.
Inside, the cabin is a lively place and pleasant over several hours of travel. Thankfully, the seats are firm and properly padded. You can see in all directions without pillars blocking the view unduly. And there is a simplicity and straightforwardness to all the controls and instruments that fiftysomething buyers will love.
Like other car companies, Mitsu has been beavering away at how to help drivers achieve real-world fuel economy that approaches the numbers on the window sticker. This is where ECO Drive Support comes into play.
In ECO mode, the computer brain does its best to manage engine performance, the air conditioning and the all-wheel-drive system to save fuel when possible. On top of that, a visual readout tells you how efficient you're being with your driving style – using leafy displays and a bar graph indicating fuel economy. If you opt for the navigation system, you get even more detail about your driving habits and how they are affecting fuel consumption.
All nice. And the Outlander should be safe enough, too. Credit that to all the available safety nannies, including seven airbags. Still, Mitsu can't hang its hat on Top Safety Pick scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety – not up to the 2013 model, at least. Perhaps for 2014.
Truth is, if there's a challenge for buyers sizing up the Outlander and all Mitsubishis, for that matter, it's what to make of the vehicle and the brand. A test drive sorts out how the Outlander and other Mitsus behave on the road. Laframboise argues a core value is sportiness and he has a point.
Yet Mitsu's rivals have carved out far more well-defined brand positions. They also have more money and more history – Mitsubishi has been in Canada for only 10 years – to push their message into the consciousness of consumers.
Toyota and Honda, for instance, are associated with quality. Case in point: Toyota is ranked seventh overall in the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, Honda No. 8. The CR-V, in fact, is the top-ranked compact crossover in that study. The RAV and CR-V are always leaders in resale value, too.
Ford has positioned itself as a technology and design leader, and the Escape is a perfect example. Hyundai says the Santa Fe Sport is reliable, stylish, modern and a stunning value. The Rogue is a sporty best buy, though a little small for the segment and GM's Equinox and Terrain are fuel efficient, comfortable, safe, reliable and built in Canada – like the CR-V and RAV4.
Outlander? Like Mitsubishi, this useful family rig is looking for more recognition – for a way to stand out in a crowded field. Call it an "ow, wow" factor. Mitsu people say the "wow" comes from doing a lot of things well, and looking good in the process. Call it a decathlete, not a sprinter.