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2011 Mitsubishi Outlander (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)
2011 Mitsubishi Outlander (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)

2011 Mitsubishi Outlander XLS

The Outlander: Mitsu's best-kept secret Add to ...

Mitsubishi's Outlander SUV is one of those vehicles that hovers on the sidelines while its smaller stablemate, the RVR, hogs the limelight. It trucks along, not setting the world on fire, but going about its business and maintaining the company's presence in the compact SUV market.

And for the record, Mitsubishi says that the Outlander is an SUV, where the RVR is a CUV.

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And therein lies the problem for the Outlander's relative anonymity. While it can stand up to just about anything out there, it has its work cut out for it, because the compact SUV market is arguably the most hotly contested segment in the industry.

You've got some heavy hitters here, including the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Chevy Equinox and on and on. Some of these models have been at the top of the heap for years and when it comes time to shop for a new compact ute, many buyers instinctively drift towards Honda and Toyota showrooms. The Outlander, while a decent enough ride, hasn't impacted these perennial top sellers.

Offered in four trim levels for 2011, it can be had with either a four-cylinder or V-6 engine. My tester, a fully-equipped, top-of-the-line XLS, had the latter. This engine can also be found elsewhere in Mitsubishi's lineup and, in this configuration, displaces 3.0 litres and develops 230 horsepower and 215 lb-ft of torque. It's mated to a six-speed Sportronic transmission, which, with the XLS, you can access via steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. The four-cylinder models. meanwhile, have a CVT and don't get the benefit of the six speeds.

Either way, I'm not a big fan of CVTs. They're best utilized in snowmobiles and tend to detract from a vehicle's drivability. Were I to purchase this kind of rig, I wouldn't even consider a CVT. Car makers tell us over and over again that the CVT is superior from an engineering standpoint, but my suspicion is that it's simply less expensive to manufacture. I'd like to check out a cost-benefit analysis of the production of a conventional gear-type transmission compared to a CVT, but I can't see manufacturers ever releasing that kind of information.

But back to the Sportronic. This gearbox was apparently designed by Getrag and is also utilized in Mitsubishi's formidable Lancer Evo. It makes all the difference in the Outlander, transforming it from yet another dull SUV schlepper to a reasonably interesting car to drive. Like many Mitsubishis, the Outlander's drivetrain may be its strongest point. On the downside, it requires premium fuel and delivers unexceptional fuel economy: 11.0 litres/100 km in town and 7.9 on the highway. Interestingly, this is very similar to that of the Toyota RAV4.

Elsewhere, there's seating for seven in the XLS - but the third row is more of a jump seat and it's snug back there. The four-cylinder models seat five. Total storage space is 2,056 litres with all the seats folded flat. This is just a smidgeon less than the CR-V and RAV4. One note here: the Outlander truly does have a flat floor when the seats are down.

One thing that distinguishes the XLS from the garden-variety versions is an upgraded 4WD system Mitsubishi calls its Super All Wheel Control, or S-AWC. Briefly put, this is all the various engineering bits of Mitsubishi's AWD and traction control systems rolled into one package. It comes with a hill start assist program as well as a centre console-located rotary dial that allows the driver to choose various modes: 2WD, 4WD Auto, and low-range 4WD Lock for serious off-road trolling.

The Outlander may lag behind industry leaders such as the RAV4 and CR-V when it comes to overall sales, but it offers much better off-road capabilities. This can be a serious little bush-whomper, should the mood strike.

In terms of creature comforts, the XLS has them all. Climate control, rear passenger compartment heater ducts, leather interior, power drivers' seat, heated front seats (standard equipment on all models, by the way), Sirius satellite radio, steering wheel-mounted cruise control and audio system controls. The only thing missing from my tester was the Navi package, which adds $2,500 to the price tag and has a back-up camera and Mitsubishi's "Diamond Lane Guidance System", which will map out the shortest route to a given destination via the Navi system.

In some ways, Mitsubishi reminds me of Subaru. Both companies seem to be run by engineers as opposed to accountants, and their products, while not setting sales records, always stack up favourably against the more mainstream manufacturers. They regularly put forward intriguing products that feature all kinds of cutting edge technology, and it's no coincidence that these two have also been fierce rivals in the rally sport arena and currently offer two of the fastest sport sedans on the market.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2011 Mitsubishi Outlander XLS

Type: Seven-passenger, compact SUV

Base Price: $34,498; as tested, $36,198

Engine: 3.0-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 230 hp/215 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.0 city/7.9 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda Tribute, Acura RDX, Nissan Rogue, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, Subaru Forester, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Volkswagen Tiguan, Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox

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