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Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV off-road review

Daniel Gardner

A trip to Mitsubishi’s winter wonderland reveals a side to the Outlander PHEV’s character that few would believe

Good points

  • Outstanding traction
  • Surprisingly playful dynamics
  • Demonstrable toughness
  • Impressive character off-road
  • Lithe S-AWC technology
  • Maintains comfy on-road theme

Needs work

  • No Ralliart version…yet
  • Flaring engine revs
  • Gravel fun can disfigure rims
  • Limited ground clearance
  • Portly weight still noticeable
  • Engine loud in charging mode

Shortly before the second-generation Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV arrived in Australia, last August, I was lucky enough to grab the keys to a pre-production example and take it for a few laps of a private off-road course in South Australia.

At the time, it seemed a bit of an indulgence and a frivolous venture that would benefit me far more than anyone who read the resulting impressions.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 Japan test track

One would expect that no owner is ever going to tackle anything more challenging than an unsealed car park in their plug-in hybrid midsize-SUV, right?

But the new Outlander dealt with the series of steep dusty climbs, aggressive descents and thick boggy crossings with such stoic effortlessness that I eventually handed back the keys feeling a sense of unfinished business, and that this first taste warranted a lot more investigation.

Happily, the opportunity presented itself a year later.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 off road forest rear

This time, the Outlander PHEV was waiting for me at Mitsubishi’s Tokachi proving ground in Japan’s north. But despite the distance from home, the reunion vehicle was an Australian-market production example.

And instead of a short off-road loop, a 1000-hectare wonderland stretched out ahead.

Mitsubishi acquired the site in the early 1990s and spent five years building this incredible facility, which offers virtually every kind of torture test for prototype and production models alike. We started at the off-road course.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 off road forest

March in Hokkaido offers the first glimpses of spring and this year’s above-average snowfall had well and truly started to thaw. Temperatures were still close to zero but not cold enough for the mud to freeze, while the constant flow of meltwater kept the 2.5km loop in a constant waterlogged state.

At no point in the year does Mitsubishi’s off road course get any more challenging than this.

And yet, the car we’re hitting it in is identical to the version found 7000km away in Australian showrooms and in the Chasing Cars long-term garage. Including the Bridgestone summer tyres.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 off road S-AWC

While the choice of rubber mightn’t seem optimum for negotiating thick mud and water-filled ruts, the Outlander has a few tricks up its sleeve to find grip in even the worst conditions.

Super-All Wheel Control, or S-AWC, might sound a little hyperbolic but in practice, the system absolutely deserves to be described as super.

While the 2.4-litre petrol engine under the bonnet can send drive directly to the front wheels, it rarely does. Instead, the engine is almost exclusively used to generate electricity and feed a pair of electric motors.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 off road side close

The front axle has an 85kW motor while the rear unit is 100kW and both are completely independently controlled. And it’s this infinitely variable torque distribution that Mitsubishi says gives its system the edge.

It certainly makes sense in theory. Longitudinal-split all-wheel-drive systems that rely on electronic control and physical connection from engine to differentials via driveshafts are limited by the maximum capacity and variability of the distribution clutches.

Other approaches use a centre differential to share torque front to rear, but these systems are limited by a diff ratio that’s mechanically fixed at the point of production, creating a relatively narrow distribution band.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 off road mud rear

With no physical connection between the front and rear wheels, plus the added flexibility of torque vectoring through a combination of independent wheel braking and regenerative motor braking, this S-AWC system is very sophisticated and amazingly lithe.

This quickly became evident as the Outlander sank up to its axles in mud, but rather than revving hard and angrily spraying slurry in all directions – as most typical 4×4 would – the Mitsubishi remained eerily composed and quiet.

With a 20kWh battery, the Outlander PHEV can handle almost all duties without calling on the petrol engine, including some seriously daunting mud and ice. And the power to deal with it comes from silent electric motors.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 off road mud duo

The S-AWC system carefully applies torque to the wheel with the most grip and finds traction in the most weirdly stoic manner.

Only with a big stab of the throttle in the most challenging ruts was the dormant four-cylinder roused from sleep to deliver the grunt to make it through, but even then it merely purred away in the background at a constant 2500rpm.

It takes a bit gf getting used to, but once you understand the engine’s role in the hybrid system, its strange behaviour and apparently illogical revving makes a lot more sense.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 off road wheel close

Finding enough grip to complete the unforgiving course with 20-inch wheels and tyres designed to stay on the road was enough of a triumph, but to do it all without apparently breaking a sweat was truly impressive. And the only preparation necessary was a flick of the driving-mode dial to ‘mud’.

Mitsubishi resisted the temptation to include a ‘sport’ driving mode, instead favouring a more humble ‘tarmac’ setting, though this is clearly a mode for a driving enthusiast looking to let their hair down in the Outlander.

This was most apparent in a motorkhana set out for us in a large open area in the centre of the proving ground used to develop and evaluate ride, handling and the behaviour of stability systems on a variety of friction surfaces.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 Japan track 3

For a family-focused midsize SUV with a drivetrain designed for frugality, the Outlander PHEV has a remarkably playful side to its personality.

Tipped into a long fast corner, the SUV exhibits the same lift-off oversteer you’d expect from a front-drive hot hatch, while the clever traction control grabs a front inside brake and tightens turn-in before understeer has a chance to ruin the fun.

As you might expect, there’s a bit of body roll, though the general attitude and composure is unusually good for a vehicle in this class. The Outlander is remarkably easy to position on the road when driving in a spirited manner.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 off road track skid

There are also very few SUVs that will allow the same degree of flexibility in the stability control allowing a lot of fun behind the wheel, but the system is still capable of gathering everything up if pushed too far.

A few laps of the facility’s cross-country loop highlighted the Outlander’s ability to maintain a respectable pace on a winding country road. However, a curious ride and handling difference between two apparently identical vehicles was attributed to one vehicle clocking up more kilometres.

We suspect one example was being used to test a revised suspension tune, although Mitsubishi wouldn’t confirm this.

The highlight of any visit to a proving ground is ordinarily the meeting of a new vehicle and a glimpse at a fresh product that won’t hit Australian shores for many months. However, this particular trip was made particularly memorable by a very old Mitsubishi.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 Japan test track 2

Available alongside the selection of new Outlanders was one of the very first of the latest generation that Mitsubishi’s engineers had been testing on the various courses for an astonishing 460,000km.

Despite the protracted odometer reading, Mitsubishi confirmed that the Outlander development car had been treated with only routine maintenance and had required no repair work during its incredibly tough life. Perhaps more amazingly, they let us drive it.

While there was a little more body roll from the tired dampers and springs, and perhaps a touch more pitch under hard braking and acceleration, the mile-hero Outlander was surprisingly good to drive. It exhibited no strange knocks or rattles that you would certainly hear from a Melbourne taxi with the same kilometre reading.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 off road front slide

But a few laps of the proving ground gravel course was the icing on the cake. With the drive mode now set to ‘gravel’, the hardworking Mitsubishi got around the course like no sensible SUV should.

The relaxed suspension and accentuated attitude made the Outlander a complete joy to throw into corners. Back off the throttle and it allows its tail to swing around in a graceful, predictable manner.

Hard braking couldn’t phase the excellent stability either, with the S-AWC system sharing brake force around to each corner and enabling a smooth line to be adhered to despite the constantly changing surface.

Small stones blasted the inside of the arches with an alarming din while revealing just why this test car’s rear wheels were completely devoid of paint, while the four-cylinder started revving hard for the first time all day.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2023 off road rear slide

It almost felt wrong to subject someone else’s car to such shameless abuse, especially one that had already led such a hard life. But it’s only through this punishment that Mitsubishi can produce vehicles that have a chance of withstanding the rigours of daily life and over many years.

This particular example is, in my eyes, a bit of a hero.

It’s almost a bit disappointing to think that it’s very unlikely you’ll ever see an Outlander sliding sideway across a carpark, crawling out of a bog, or spraying gravel through a forest. But after a visit to Mitsubishi’s automotive Disneyland, I’ll never look at the model quite the same way again.

More excitingly though, the capability that exists in just the ‘standard’ PHEV provides a very strong base for the resurrected Ralliart brand. And if Mitsubishi chooses to treat the Outlander range to a new flagship, it’ll be one of the most exciting Mitsubishi models in decades.

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