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.