New, trendy hatchbacks just keep on arriving at showrooms.
The latest, the 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander coming next month, is Mitsubishi's first entry-level crossover vehicle and combines an adaptable, cargo- and passenger-carrying interior with high ride height and a car ride.
Think of the five-door Outlander as a tall station wagon. Or a hatchback with some expressive, sport utility styling cues. Or simply as another player in the busy, compact, versatile-vehicle segment populated by the Subaru Forester, Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix, Honda CR-V and Saturn Vue, among others.
Outlander will fill a niche between Mitsubishi's sedans, like the Galant and Lancer, and its sport utility vehicles like the Montero Sport, said Pierre Gagnon, president and chief executive officer of Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America.
Offered in two- and all-wheel-drive versions, the Outlander is some 7 inches longer than the Vibe and Matrix but is just a half inch longer than the CR-V and about a half inch wider than the Forester.
Like many competitors in the segment, its powered by a four-cylinder engine, and its starting price is in the teens. (Exact pricing won't be released until closer to the on-sale date, but Mitsubishi officials said the base Outlander LS will start around $18,000.)
The Outlander's front styling reminds me -- too much, I must say sadly -- of a Pontiac, while the large, tubular roof rack atop the tester gave a fun, Nissan Xterra flavor.
Meantime, at the back of the upscale Outlander XLS, clear lenses around the red taillamps are somewhat reminiscent of the Lexus RX 300.
I liked how Mitsubishi was restrained with the body cladding, preferring to dress the Outlander simply with gray bumpers and side sills that contrast nicely with every paint color save the silver and gray.
At first glance, the dashboard of the Outlander may seem a bit plain. The cowl sits up high, too.
But as the miles built up on a daylong drive, I appreciated the Outlander's simple, well-laid-out interior where everything was easy to find.
Knobs and buttons had a good tactile feel and didn't feel cheap. Wind and road noise were far less than I expected in a vehicle at this price. Note the big roof rack tubes didn't have crossbars.
Mitsubishi officials said the interior stays quiet in part because there's noise-canceling foam inside the Outlanders pillars around the windows and sound-deadening sheets of asphalt in the floor.
Best of all, the Outlander, which has car-like unibody construction, provides a modern, solid-feeling ride. The Outlander body, reinforced with strategic welds, didn't shudder and flex as the vehicle traveled over road bumps.
The Outlander is built on the Mitsubishi Lancer sedan platform. The MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link, trailing arm rear, however, are modified and standard tires are nicely-sized 16-inchers.
The power rack-and-pinion steering in the Outlander tracked well through curves and didn't require constant correcting.
Antilock brakes are an option on this vehicle. So are side airbags for the front seats. But all five riders in the Outlander have three-point safety belts.
Three adults sit close in the back seat, but large door windows that go down nearly all the way provide an airy feel.
Front- and rear-seat headroom lags that in many competitors, such as the CR-V, Vibe and Vue.
But the Outlander's ample front-seat legroom of 42.3 inches is greater than what's in the CR-V, Vibe, Matrix and Vue, according to automaker specs. The Forester offers a maximum of 43.7 inches of front-seat legroom.
Rear-seat riders get a maximum 35.5 inches of room in the Outlander, which is better than the Forester's 33.7 inches but not as much as what's in the CR-V, Vibe, Matrix and Vue.
With its rear seats in use, the Outlander's 24.4 cubic feet of cargo space is about equal to that in the Vibe and Matrix.
But with seats folded down, the Outlander's 60.3 cubic feet of cargo room compares with 57.2 cubic feet in the Vibe and Matrix and 72 in the CR-V, according to manufacturer specs.
The only Outlander engine -- providing 140 horsepower -- is a slightly modified version of the 2.4-liter, single overhead cam, inline four that's in the Mitsubishi Galant and Eclipse Spyder and Coupe.
Don't miss the Outlander's transmission. There's only one -- a four-speed automatic with Sportronic that lets the driver manually shift gears without using a clutch pedal.
It's a feature that has helped make automatics more popular in large, luxury sport sedans, and it did a wonderful job helping me manage my speeds in the Outlander via engine braking in city and highway driving.
I did find that once I was up to highway speeds, however, I had to plan ahead to pass as the Outlander, if I didn't downshift, lacked a bit of the oomph I wanted. Maximum torque is 157 foot-pounds at a low 2,500 rpm.
Note that competitors like the Vibe, Matrix, Forester, Vue and CR-V offer manual transmissions. The Vibe and Matrix also have a choice of four-cylinder engines -- a base with 130 horses and the top version with 180 horses but with a maximum of 130 foot-pounds of torque at 6,800 rpm.
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