April 22, 2019

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Mitsubishi’s technology flagship, the Outlander plug-in hybrid, has arrived in the United States nearly five years after it was originally due. The vehicle itself might look rather dated (as does the rest of the Outlander lineup), but the technology within is most definitely not. As a testament to how far ahead of its time the Outlander PHEV was a half-decade ago, it remains the plug-in SUV with the longest electric range, the only plug-in hybrid from a nonluxury brand with all-wheel drive, and the only plug-in-hybrid model of any kind to offer Level 3 fast charging.

So why hasn’t the Outlander PHEV been offered in America if it’s such hot stuff? Partly because Mitsubishi is a struggling carmaker trying to capitalize on a successful model. To paraphrase a former company spokesman, somewhat exasperated over several years of it’s-coming-next-year delays: Why sell them here when Mitsubishi is selling every one it can build, in Europe, at full price, where the company can get 10 grand more than it could in the U.S.?

That’s no exaggeration. Mitsubishi has sold 100,000 Outlander PHEVs in Europe alone, and over the past three years it has been the top-selling plug-in hybrid in that market. It’s also the best-selling crossover with a plug in the world, according to Mitsubishi—yes, better than the Tesla Model X and better than anything in China. In the Netherlands, for instance, the Outlander PHEV sells strongly at a base price equivalent to about $44,000. The Outlander PHEV starts in the U.S. at $35,590—for those who pay enough in taxes to claim the maximum $5836 federal EV tax credit, the effective price is just $29,754.

Two large 80-hp electric motors—the one at the front wheels produces 101 lb-ft of torque, and the one at the rear produces 144 lb-ft—lay the groundwork for an effective all-wheel-drive system. A 2.0-liter inline-four making 117 horsepower and 137 lb-ft is mostly employed to power a big 70-kW generator, which feeds power to the main battery and the motors. That’s not quite all, though: Mainly at higher cruising speeds, if it makes sense for efficiency, a hydraulic clutch will also engage the engine—at a tall, fixed gear ratio—while working one or both of the electric motors. The two propulsion motors also double up for regenerative braking.

If you’re familiar with the Chevrolet Volt, this Outlander shares some common traits in that electric motors provide primary propulsion, while the gasoline engine is there mostly as an onboard generator. The only disconcerting thing is that once you’ve depleted the battery’s charge, the engine cycles on and off seemingly at random, with revs rising and falling in a disconnected fashion as the system makes predictions about whether you’ll need more electric power. And yet, the system’s instantaneous response makes it more pleasant to drive than the numbers might suggest—it doesn’t suffer the delayed responses of many plug-in hybrids that employ more complex mechanical torque-split arrangements.

the last four-cylinder, AWD Outlander we tested but 1.6 seconds slower than a V-6 AWD Outlander and nearly a second behind the Toyota RAV4 hybrid. And 100 mph came after 26.8 seconds—almost double the time it took the Volvo XC60 T8 plug-in.

Stops from 70 mph took a reasonable 178 feet, although any abrupt braking is accompanied by dramatic nosedive. In general, this is a reasonably able handler, yet you won’t really want to approach its limits. Turn in sharply and, just as with other Outlander models, the PHEV lists ominously. Dynamically, the promise of the hybrid system and its higher-torque rear motor never fully pans out. On dry pavement, even in the tightest hairpins, the motor can’t quite muster enough might to aid rotation. With or without a charge, you can select a 4WD Lock mode that keeps torque flowing to both the front and rear wheels at modest speeds, whereas the rest of the time the system prioritizes whatever is more efficient.

Our test example weighed 4333 pounds, or 565 pounds more than the 2017 Outlander V-6 AWD. That and the soft suspension tune give a ride that’s forgiving, although too buoyant over rough roads. And the cabin is well isolated from both road and engine noise. The interior looks to be tightly put together and is rattle free, yet drab and cheap in the details.

Six levels of regenerative braking—called out as B1 to B5 plus a coast-for-blocks B0 mode—may be overkill, but it lets everyone find their favorite setting, with B5 being quite close to single-pedal driving (although still with forward creep when you lift off the brake). The level of regen is selected by a pair of paddles behind the steering wheel.

Once you have a charge, you’re faced with many choices—perhaps too many. The Outlander PHEV automatically chooses from one of three main driving modes: EV mode (self-explanatory), Series Hybrid mode (the gas engine powers the electric motors for additional thrust while charging the battery), and Parallel Hybrid mode (the engine directly powers the wheels along with the electric motors for maximum performance). The driver can also take additional control of how the Outlander PHEV operates. Press the EV Priority button on the center console and the Outlander PHEV will run solely as an electric vehicle—unless you exceed 75 mph, run the defroster, or (nearly) floor the accelerator. Hit the Battery Save button and it will run the engine as if you’ve used up your plug-in charge—but only enough to maintain your current state of charge, so you can impress your friends and pick them up for dinner in your “electric SUV.” The big Eco button farther up on the dash softens tip-in and reduces climate-control operation.

We ran through three full charges with the PHEV, keeping the engine off nearly the entire time. Over the first two charges, in a near equal mix of urban and freeway driving, we saw an unimpressive 15 and 17 miles of EV range from the trip odometer. Then, on a similar loop but turning off all climate control (using only the heated seats and steering wheel), we went nearly 25 miles before the engine kicked in. The big difference is attributable to Mitsubishi’s use of resistive heating in the PHEV—as with fully electric cars, it warms the cabin using an element like what’s in your toaster or hair dryer, rather than engine coolant. It allows you to precondition the cabin while the vehicle is still plugged in without impacting range.

In top-level GT guise as tested, the Outlander PHEV includes a strong set of comfort and convenience features, including a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system that’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible (no subscription required) and a punchy 710-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system. A standout feature is the included 1500-watt AC power supply with two outlets—enough to use small workshop tools such as a drill, or to bring the blender along for mid-road-trip smoothies. The adaptive cruise control works just fine, albeit a bit sluggishly, and while the available active-safety features check all the boxes, the tech is a little less sorted compared to that of its peers. The forward-collision warning system, for instance, would periodically panic over oncoming traffic on two-lane roads.

Ultimately, the Outlander PHEV leaves conflicting impressions. Its powertrain merits all the attention this vehicle has received overseas, but otherwise it struggles to measure up to the competition. After all, it’s largely just the same old Outlander. This is where the new alliance with Nissan (and Renault) may help Mitsubishi find a “right place” for this excellent system, which, by the way, is already evolving. Just as this model is reaching U.S. dealerships, Mitsubishi has revealed details for a revised version. The 2019 Outlander PHEV—at least in Europe—subs in a 2.4-liter inline-four and a larger 13.8-kWh battery, and it offers new Sport and Snow modes for the all-wheel-drive system. If the numbers are a little more favorable, maybe our impressions of the vehicle itself soon will be, too.

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