RUNNING changes to Mitsubishi’s plug-in hybrid SUV make it slightly better than it was before.
WHAT IS IT?
It’s the third significant tweak to Mitsubishi’s only plug-in hybrid SUV since its launch in Australia in 2014.
WHY WE’RE DRIVING IT
It’s a bit of a curiosity in terms of its low, low sales numbers, but it’s shaping up as the best-driving Outlander in the range. The petrol-electric hybrid formula, sending drive to all four wheels, remains almost the same, but it introduces new exterior looks, revised suspension and greater control over whether you burn hydrocarbons or electrons.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
We were already something of a fan of the surprisingly good way the plug-in Outlander drove, and tweaks to the suspension, brakes and the engine/electric motor interface only improve it.
LIKES: Decent ride and handling; quieter cabin; future-proofed recharging; better control over batteries while driving
DISLIKES: Now more expensive; big premium for safety tech; carries over the the usual hybrid car compromises
THE WHEELS REVIEW
THERE’S a TV ad for a certain energy drink company with the tagline: “The massive hit that improves you a bit.” It plays up the image of someone meeting their slightly better self, and coming away from the experience feeling, let’s say, slightly downcast.
As of today, you can apply that to owners of Australia’s most affordable plug-in hybrid SUV, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Just like the ad suggests, the Japanese carmaker’s running update has improved it a bit.
Most noticeable is the new face that has already rolled out across the conventionally-engined Outlander range, Mitsubishi’s Dynamic Shield design language. Parked next to a slightly larger Mitsubishi Challenger, the Outlander PHEV is almost indistinguishable from the front. What does make it stand out, though, are large “plug-in hybrid EV” badges that adorn both front guards and the tailgate.
The MY17 Outlander PHEV keeps the same drivetrain as before – a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine driving the front wheels, and a pair of electric motors tapping a more expensive lithium ion battery (not a cheap, bulky nickel metal hydride one, we should note). This time around, though, Mitsubishi has decided to future-proof the Outlander for a future where an 80 percent recharge will take 25 minutes, not five hours. Each Mitsubishi PHEV now comes with DC fast-charging compatibility, even if there’s only a handful of the stations scattered around Australia. More will come one day.
The 87kW petrol engine acts either as a generator to recharge the 40 amp-hour battery packed under the high boot floor, drive the front wheels, or sit silently while the twin electric motors do all the work. Two new buttons on either side of the gear selector, and located close to the “EV” button that forces the Outlander into full electric mode, add more control over how the driver uses the mix of petrol and electrons. One, “CHRG”, makes the engine recharge the battery – handy on the loping, country road stretches of our drive around the outskirts of Adelaide where burning hydrocarbons makes more sense – and another called “SAVE” that will hold battery charge at a certain level – handy if you know you’re going to want to tap it a bit later on in the commute.
A decent change has happened under the bonnet. No one at the launch of the plug-in hybrid’s launch was able to tell us exactly what the tweaks to the drivetrain were, but previously the plug-in Outlander’s transition from full electric to engine-assisted propulsion was a bit crude. Stirred into life by a decent push on the accelerator pedal, the engine would flare angrily and the PHEV would surge forward before setting. Now, the transition is much smoother, almost seamless.
It’s also quieter. More sound-deadening throughout the cabin and thicker rear glass has turned the plug-in Outlander to a comfortable coarse-chip cruiser. If anything, it’s that good inside that the Outlander’s six-speaker audio system now sounds tinny and cheap.
Much was done to improve the Outlander’s ride and handling, too. The front struts have had a makeover, re-tuned damping helps to keep the SUV more settled, the rear suspension has a thicker anti-roll bar, underbody bracing is improved and new motor mounts help to reduce vibration. The front brakes step up to two-pot calipers, and the brake master cylinder is larger than before so the brakes feel less woody when combined with the five-stage regenerative braking system – the force of which can be altered by the steering column-mounted paddles.
So it drives slightly better than it did before. The feeling from behind the wheel was a strong suit for the previous Outlander, but ride control over our mostly rural loop was at the better end of the class, even on dirt. The steering has the same decent weight and feel despite being electrically assisted, again putting it higher up in its class.
But there are carry-over compromises that come with the plug-in lifestyle. While the rest of the Outlander range can cart five adults and two children confidently, the PHEV is only a five-seater. The boot is slightly smaller because it houses the electric motors’ batteries rather than a spare tyre (even if there is still an under-floor cubby space). And if you’re going to tow, the PHEV is rated at 1500kg braked, so 500kg less than the conventionally engined SUV.
Despite all the sound- and future-proofing adding an extra 50kg to the Outlander PHEV’s already portly kerb weight, official combined fuel use has fallen 0.2L/100km to an impressive-on-paper 1.7L/100km, while emissions are rated at just 41g/km. The fall in fuel economy is all down to those mystery petrol/electric interface tweaks.
But just like the ad, there’s something slightly annoying about the new, improved Outlander PHEV: it’s copped a $3000 price rise over the old one. Part of this is down to the cost of the battery – in contrast with other car-related tech, battery prices have remained high rather than lowering over time – as well as the addition of the rapid-charging tech that most owners won’t be able to exploit until the specialised charging infrastructure becomes more widespread.
Despite the improvements to the Outlander PHEV, it is likely to remain a niche seller. Bagging only 1660 sales since its launch in 2014, it accounts for less than two percent of Outlander sales. Of those, nine out of every 10 sales are skewed towards the now $50,490 entry-level model that, among other things, uses cheaper cloth seats instead of heated leather, and lacks a sunroof, powered tailgate and the bulk of the driver-assist tech (that will now auto-brake for pedestrians) compared with the $5000 more expensive Exceed.
How does it go? If you’re happy with the slightly higher sticker price hit, Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV has improved a bit.
Mitsubishi Australia is asking its Japanese parent company if the plug-in Outlanders sold here can be modified to include a 240-volt power socket. Mitsubishi’s plug-in cars in Japan have the option of connecting an inverter to the SUV’s charging port, drawing enough electricity from its batteries in an emergency to power a house for up to five hours, or critical infrastructure such as traffic lights. As a live demonstration, Mitsubishi used the system to run a coffee machine at one of the stops along the Outlander PHEV launch route.
Model: Mitsubishi Outlander Exceed PHEV
Engine: 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, 2 electric motors
Max system power: 120kW
Max system torque: 332Nm
Transmission: Single speed
Fuel economy: 1.7L/100km (combined)
On sale: Now