Mitsubishi's new Outlander PHEV is a remarkable car in a wholly unremarkable body, but perhaps the most impressive thing about it is how 'normal' it feels to drive. Combining the best of three alternative-fuel worlds it is a family friendly SUV that can achieve nearly 150mpg with emissions only bettered by fully electric cars.
In the Metal:
This is a classic case of never judge a book by its cover. The styling of the Outlander is at best inoffensive and at worst instantly forgettable, but the PHEV version (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) is a ground breaking car underneath. The PHEV wears a unique front bumper, new alloy wheels and an extra 'fuel' flap to differentiate it from its cousins.
It is a similar story inside with little to suggest that this is anything other than a regular Outlander - unless you are tall. To accommodate the rear electric motor the rear bench has been raised by 45mm, which does cut into headroom, and the boot floor is 15mm higher, but this only equates to a loss of 14 litres of boot capacity (463 litres compared to 477). Probably the biggest difference is the loss of the third row of seats - the Outlander PHEV is strictly a five-seater, which does put it at a disadvantage against rivals like the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain the Outlander PHEV is by comparing it to three distinct cars. Fully charged from a domestic power point the PHEV offers an electric range of 52 kilometres, which means it is unfair to compare it to traditional hybrid cars that struggle to hit double digits on EV power alone. Instead a fairer comparison would be a pure electric car like the Renault Fluence ZE. Unlike the Renault, however, the Outlander does not need a three-hour charge once the batteries are depleted; instead it fires up the 2.0-litre petrol engine on-board to act as a generator - or range extender - much like that of the Opel Ampera. In this 'series hybrid' mode the engine only provides charge to the battery pack, from which the twin electric motors (one on each axle for full time four-wheel drive) draw power. Note: the engine does not turn the wheels in this guise.
That is kept for 'parallel hybrid' mode, which kicks in at speeds in excess of 120km/h, or when the driver asks for more power than the 162hp maximum the electric motors provide. Then the Outlander runs much like a Toyota Prius - only in reverse. In a Prius, or most other hybrids for that matter, the engine is the main power source with the electric motors backing it up. In the Outlander the motors are always the primary propulsion source with the engine acting as back up. This all sounds very complicated, and from an engineering stand point it is, but the car does all the work itself - switching seamlessly between EV and series hybrid mode depending on the state of battery charge and the driving conditions. The only time you notice any difference is when the vehicle enters parallel mode as it must raise the revs of the petrol engine to match those of the electric motor before it can close the clutch.
For that reason the Outlander PHEV is as uncomplicated to drive as a diesel-powered version with an automatic transmission. Select D, touch the throttle and let the bank of computers sort things out. The driver can switch between 'Charge' and 'Save' modes via centre console toggles, which will either force the engine to top up the batteries or conserve what is in them for later - or they can use the wheel mounted paddles to modulate the amount of regenerative braking.
Recognising early on that little or no engine noise can lead to increased awareness of wind and road noise Mitsubishi has worked hard to insulate the PHEV further. The whole underfloor is covered in sound-deadening material, the front windows are 4mm thicker than usual and the windscreen itself is said to be soundproof. The effect is a remarkably quiet and refined drive. Thanks to the fitment of balancer shafts the engine only makes its presence known as you switch from series to parallel hybrid mode and only at motorway speeds do you become aware of wind roar. At normal speeds conversations can be had at a quiet whisper and the premium Rockford Fosgate sound system of our test car was wasted - a budgie chirping quietly in the boot would have sufficed.
Of course the weight of that sound deadening, not to mention the 200kg of lithium-ion batteries, does have an effect on ride quality. Even with retuned suspension the car tends to jar on rough surfaces. However with the batteries mounted between the wheels, the centre of gravity has been lowered, meaning the PHEV actually handles better than its petrol or diesel powered cousins. Steers better too thanks to S-AWC (Super-All Wheel Control). Acting much like torque vectoring the system uses the electric motors, anti-lock braking system, Active Stability Control and Active Yaw Control (first seen on the Mitsubishi Evo) to determine which wheel needs the most torque, leaving a very balanced drive.
What you get for your Money:
One of our main bugbears with advanced cars such as this has been the price, which puts them out of reach for most buyers. And with an expected price tag of €44,500 the Outlander PHEV initially looks like another expensive folly. That is until you realise that this only represents a 10 per cent premium over the current range topping diesel model with an automatic transmission. You do have to do without the seven-seat option of the regular car, but otherwise the PHEV matches it on spec with Bluetooth, leatherette seats, dual-zone climate control and a rear-view camera all included as standard.
As we've shown before (click here to read the full story) the price difference between diesel and petrol models can take years to recoup and it would seem a similar case between the Outlander diesel and PHEV models, but with emissions of just 44g/km and official fuel consumption of a scarcely believable 1.9 litres/100km the PHEV may pay you back quicker. By way of comparison a diesel automatic has emissions of 152g/km and consumption of 5.8 litres/100km. As ever, it's not easy to achieve official figures in real life.
Mitsubishi has stated that by the year 2020 up to 20 per cent of its fleet will run either EV or PHEV drivetrains. With this in mind the next PHEV model to come after the Outlander will be the Pajero. This model was previewed by the GC-PHEV concept at last year's Tokyo Motor Show and is said to feature the 'next stage' of PHEV development. Exactly what that is we will have to wait and see, though not too long as the car is slated to appear in 2015.
Shortly after that will come the XR-PHEV, a smaller SUV that will only be offered in front-wheel drive (though four-wheel is likely for conventionally powered cars). Scheduled to debut in 2016, it sounds a lot like the next-generation ASX to us.
From the outside it looks as if Mitsubishi has arrived very late to the hybrid game, but by starting PHEV development from an EV rather than petrol engine standpoint it (technologically at least) has surpassed established players. The Outlander PHEV offers an electric range that most rivals can only dream of and the car simply wants to run on electric power alone for as long as it can, firing up the engine when no other choice remains. It is a different way of thinking, but one that makes an awful lot of sense.