First Drive: 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

Mitsubishi recently allowed us to sample preproduction versions of its forthcoming small crossover, the Outlander Sport. The Sport is slated to go on sale this October with a base price of under $19,000. Mitsu hasn’t yet finalized pricing, but we’re told to expect fully loaded models to hit showrooms with a sticker price of less than $26,000. And that’s with navigation, keyless entry, heated seats, four-wheel drive, a 710-watt sound system, HIDs, and a CVT automatic.

Judging on looks alone, that seems like a bargain to us. The Sport brings some of the Lancer sedan’s good looks to the party with its now-trademark aggressive trapezoidal front grille. Around back is the big surprise-unlike the Sportback (the quasi-station-wagon version of the Lancer), the Outlander Sport doesn’t go all strange-looking. In fact, it’s quite good looking from all angles.

If the rear overhang looks particularly short, it’s because the Outlander Sport shares its 105.1-inch wheelbase with the “regular” Outlander, which is almost 15 inches longer. Whereas the Outlander seats seven, the Sport only seats five, but the rear passengers have more than ample legroom. The seatback is a tad on the vertical side, but there’s plenty of cargo room behind as a consolation prize.

The underhood dimensions aren’t quite so prodigious. Whereas the regular outlander is available with a 168-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder or 230-hp 3.0-liter V-6, the Sport’s sole engine is the Lancer sedan’s 148-hp 2.0-liter four. Before you write off the Sport completely, though, check the scale: the base, two-wheel drive CVT model weighs in at only 3098 lb. That’s almost 300 lb less than the 2WD Outlander-and impressively, only about 100 lb more than a Lancer sedan.

So while acceleration isn’t exactly blistering, it’s not bad, especially with the manual transmission. The five-speed stick is available only with front-wheel drive, and it’s a pleasure to drive, with a light-effort shifter and communicative clutch that makes smooth shifting a pleasure. Torque steer is well controlled, and on our short drive, we were pleased with Mitsubishi’s first-ever electric power steering. The four-banger takes on a purposeful note as redline approaches, but its torque curve is broad enough to make those high-rpm forays less necessary than you’d think.

Things are a little different with the all-wheel drive CVT model we drove. No final weight specs have been released, but we expect the extra axles and differential to add somewhere around 150 lb. Combined with the CVT, the Sport seemed, well, less sporty. Not dog slow, mind you, but brisk acceleration, especially up hills, resulted in lots of Osterizer sounds from under the hood.

The tradeoff for the smaller engine, of course, is fuel economy, and Mitsubishi is betting on highway EPA numbers as high as 31 mpg for the two-wheel drive models.

Like the Outlander, with which the Sport shares its all-wheel drive system, the driver can select between 2WD operation and two AWD modes: “4WD Auto” and “4WD Lock.” Both modes can vary the front-to-rear torque split as conditions warrant, but “Auto” mode limits the amount of torque sent to the rear for greater efficiency, “Lock” sends more power rearward for greater grip at the expense of efficiency. We think Mitsubishi should just call them “Eco” and “Traction” — and then come up with a real “Auto” mode that routes power wherever it needs to.

Our time in the preproduction Outlander Sport was brief, but we look forward to spending more time with a full production version. Given the styling, equipment levels, and price points, we’re pretty confident that this little cute-ute will help put Mitsubishi back on some shopping lists.

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