Just over a year ago, Subaru was a niche automaker known for quirky vehicles that often lacked direct competitors. Led by the Forester for 2009 and then with the Legacy sedan and Outback wagon for 2010, Subaru’s product offerings have recently fallen in line with mainstream markets. Sales are still small in comparison to Honda, Toyota, and Nissan, but the company’s products have proven to have serious appeal. While the auto industry hemorrhaged sales in 2009, Subaru’s volume and market share increased.
Subaru’s recent and rapid ascension to the big leagues has undeniably brought the company success, but it also threatens Subaru loyalists craving something unique. To examine how Subaru has evolved, we collected the compact crossover segment’s two farthest outliers, the Mitsubishi Outlander and the Suzuki Grand Vitara, to pit them against the Subaru Outback. We had two questions: Do Mitsubishi and Suzuki have something to learn from Subaru’s success? And has the Outback’s move toward the mainstream undermined individuality and character?
All of our test vehicles were top-trim models with six-cylinder engines and all-wheel drive, and were equipped with leather, navigation, and keyless ignition. Each had the badge of a low-volume Japanese automaker on the tailgate, yet philosophically, these are three very different crossovers.
Mitsubishi Outlander GT
From the Outlander’s aggressive snout, new for 2010, it’s clear that Mitsubishi wants to sell the sportiest crossover on the market. The gaping trapezoid grille is virtually identical to that of the rally-bred Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and the Outlander makes a powerful impression when seen through a rear-view mirror.
Mitsubishi’s unique contribution in this test is a third-row seat. Only Toyota’s RAV4 offers seating for seven in a similar-sized package, and a small set of buyers will appreciate the Outlander’s versatility. But to most, it’s of dubious value. The first annoyance is the six-step process to raise the bench into position that requires a series of tugs, flips, and shoves that you need to relearn every time. Once it’s in place, you’ll be underwhelmed by the crude construction that shakes and rattles and a space that’s only fit for kids who tell their age by holding up the fingers on one hand. Fortunately, the seat folds (with a different but equally cumbersome six-step process) and conceals neatly in a low and flat floor, causing no noticeable compromise to cargo room. Anyone who uses seven seats regularly should be shopping for larger, more accommodating third row.
Our test car was priced at $32,990, placing it in the middle of our comparison. Equipment-wise, the Mitsubishi sacrifices little to the Subaru that’s about $2500 more expensive. The cabin reflects the sporting intentions with black and silver finishes. The navigation display is clear and well designed though our chief complaints are that surrounding physical controls aren’t the most friendly and few of the dash materials are a bit cheap.
Suzuki Grand Vitara Limited V6 4WD
While it’s built using the unibody construction that typically categorizes a crossover, the Grand Vitara has a lot in common with a more traditional SUV. Its boxy shape and general proportions suggest a vehicle that’s a downsized truck, rather than a hopped-up wagon. As its mechanicals indicate, it also has some off-road potential. There’s a low range, a locking center differential, and hill-descent control.
At $28,448, the Suzuki Grand Vitara is significantly cheaper than the other two crossovers here. However, it also comes up short on content, without satellite radio, a power driver’s seat, or a USB audio input. The navigations system is just a small, portable Garmin unit that’s tucked into a flip-up lid on top of the dash. It’s an affordable solution, but so is buying a Garmin from your local electronics store, and it can’t provide the larger screen and more complete features of an integrated unit.
The current-generation Grand Vitara was released for the 2006 model year and already it feels and looks tired and dated. The simplistic exterior design fails to stand out, and the cabin’s style and materials are more suitable for a $17,000 car. The interior execution is clean and well assembled, but the cockpit clearly lags behind the competition. For example, the faux burl wood accent pieces are both unconvincing and out of place in this Suzuki.
Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited
If Mitsubishi is building the sporty crossover and Suzuki has the off-roader, that leaves Subaru to cover the straight and narrow mainstream. Driving the Outback quickly shows how close Subaru has come to replicating what you might expect in a Ford, Honda, or Toyota.
For this test, we borrowed the Outback 3.6R Limited that’s part of our Four Seasons fleet. Priced at $35,541, it’s equipped with a moonroof, navigation, satellite radio, and all-weather floormats. Standard equipment includes dual-zone climate control, power and heated front seats, and a nine-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo.
Inside, the seats are wide and generously cushioned. The new Outback rides two inches taller than the outgoing model, but the driving position still feels lower and more car-like than the competitors here. The interior doesn’t exude much style, but controls are logically laid out and there’s plenty of space in every interior dimension.
On the road
To test our trio of Japanese crossovers, we took to Michigan’s rural back roads that offer a demanding mix of turns and broken pavement. The Outback was hampered by a set of Yokohama IceGuard ig20 winter tires, but that’s just one factor in its sorry handling performance. When asked to dance, the Subaru’s softly sprung suspension simply wants to sit out. The flipside of this setup is the plushest ride of the bunch.
In contrast, The Outlander performed admirably wearing a set of Continental ContiCrossContact winter tires. Mitsubishi’s Super All-Wheel Control apportions torque individually to the front wheels as well as shifting power between front and rear axles. If you crank the wheel far off-center and mash the throttle — as you might when pulling out from a gas station — it feels like a relatively unsophisticated system. But in smoothly executed turns at higher speeds, the advantages shine as the Outlander stays composed and planted when the other crossovers have convinced you it’s time to back down.
In one 50-mph bend, the Grand Vitara dipped its rear tire into a pothole and the body begins to seesaw from back right corner to front left corner. Body control this loose went out of style at least ten years ago. Granted, over most roads, the Grand Vitara’s ride is acceptable.
The Outback’s steering further compounds the crossover’s handling abilities. The absolute lack of feedback is magnified by a hyper-light effort that makes precise placement of the Subaru difficult. The Grand Vitara’s steering doesn’t disappoint, but it’s hardly exceptional. The Mitsubishi, on the other hand, delivers a steering setup that exceeds our expectations for a crossover. Turn-in is quick, the effort is even, and there’s enough communication to point the wheels perfectly every time.
While we’ve expressed disappointment with the Subaru to this point, the tone changes when talking about powertrains. Subaru’s horizontally opposed six-cylinder is smooth and powerful in a way that sets it far apart from the Mitsubishi and Suzuki V-6 engines. The Outback’s 256-hp boxer eagerly spins to redline with a controlled, satisfying thrum. Trying to mimic that same move, the Mitsubishi’s 3.0-liter produces a discordant babble with relatively pokey acceleration. The Grand Vitara’s 3.2-liter engine is rated at the same 230 hp as the Outlander, but is much more agreeable in its effort, even if it’s not any quicker. The engine note in the Grand Vitara isn’t quite as strained and power delivery is more refined. Fuel economy for the group is tightly clustered as Subaru leads with an 18/25 mpg rating, followed by Mitsubishi at 18/24 mpg and Suzuki at 17/23 mpg.
The Subaru’s gearbox is also more pleasant than those in the competition. It swaps through its five forward gears with casual ease and provides prompt downshifts when needed. Suzuki’s five-speed automatic is almost as noninvasive, though shifts aren’t quite as polished as those in the Outback. Mitsubishi offers one more gear than Suzuki or Subaru, though the benefit goes unnoticed. Instead, Outlander downshifts are occasionally met with a slight lurch. Drivers looking for engagement, though, will enjoy the large, column-mounted, magnesium paddle shifters that are borrowed from the Lancer Evolution.
Pick your poison
While we have our reservations about the Subaru Outback, it’s the clear winner here. Yet we could justify each of these cars for a different buyer. The Grand Vitara’s charm lies in its old-timey SUV feel with excellent outward visibility and a can-do attitude. However, that also means the Grand Vitara feels less civilized than either the Outlander or the Outback. Considered with the dated interior and modest driving behavior, it can only be recommended to those who insist they need its off-road ability.
Subaru is the safe choice with hardware and dynamics suited to the comfort-oriented family driver. While the Outback is a bit soft for our likings, it is a practical package for moving four people. The interior is excellent and the engine is without competition in this group. Mitsubishi’s Outlander does live up to its sporting intentions with impressive steering and handling that imbue it with an eager-to-play liveliness. However, the coarse, sluggish V-6 and a few interior rattles are distinct drawbacks.
Subaru has proven that it can build a very competitive product, but chasing a mainstream market has compromised the Outback’s underground appeal and dulled the driving dynamics. The Outlander and Grand Vitara are understandably on the periphery of the compact crossover segment for a lack of polish in this demanding market. To follow ambitious Subaru, though, Mitsubishi and Suzuki don’t need to shed their identities, but address the shortcomings that keep unique vehicles from becoming standouts.
2010 Mitsubishi Outlander 3.0 GT S-AWC
- Base price (with destination): $29,990
- Price as tested: $32,990
- Size: 3.0L SOHC 24-valve V-6
- Horsepower: 230 hp @ 6250 rpm
- Torque: 215 @ 3750 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic
- Drive: 4-wheel
- L x W x H: 183.7 x 70.9 x 66.1 in
- Wheelbase: 105.1 in
- Legroom F/R: 41.6/36.8 in
- Headroom F/R: 39.8/37.5 in
- Cargo capacity (behind third/second/first row): 14.9/36.2/72.6 cu ft
- Curb weight: 3780 lb
- EPA rating (city/highway): 18/24 mpg
- Wheels/tires 18-inch aluminum wheels
- 235/50HR-18 Continental ContiCrossContact winter tires
2010 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited
- Base price (with destination): $31,690
- Price as tested: $35,541
- Size: 3.6L DOHC 24-valve flat-6
- Horsepower: 256 hp @ 6000 rpm
- Torque: 247 @ 4400 rpm
- Transmission: 5-speed automatic
- Drive: 4-wheel
- L x W x H: 188.2 x 71.7 x 65.7 in
- Wheelbase: 107.9 in
- Legroom F/R: 43.0/37.8 in
- Headroom F/R: 38.7/39.3 in
- Cargo capacity (behind third/second/first row): 34.3/71.3 cu ft
- Curb weight: 3658 lb
- EPA rating (city/highway): 18/25 mpg
- Wheels/tires 17-inch aluminum wheels
- 225/60RR-17 Yokohama IceGuard ig20 winter tires
2010 Suzuki Grand Vitara Limited V6 4WD
- Base price (with destination): $27,794
- Price as tested: $28,448
- Size: 3.2L DOHC 24-valve flat-6
- Horsepower: 230 hp @ 6200 rpm
- Torque: 213 @ 3500 rpm
- Transmission: 5-speed automatic
- Drive: 4-wheel
- L x W x H: 177.2 x 71.3 x 66.7 in
- Wheelbase: 103.9 in
- Legroom F/R: 41.3/37.2 in
- Headroom F/R: 38.2/38.2 in
- Cargo capacity (behind third/second/first row): 26.6/70.8 cu ft
- Curb weight: 3876 lb
- EPA rating (city/highway): 17/23 mpg
- Wheels/tires 18-inch aluminum wheels
- 225/60HR-18 Dunlop Grandtrek AT20 all-season tires