Lacking the advertising budget and massive dealer network of much of its competition, Mitsubishi products are easily overlooked. For several of them, that's a shame. Case in point: The Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, a compact SUV that does everything well.
Aside from the pricey-but-worth-it Lancer Evolution, the Outlander Sport is probably the best vehicle Mitsubishi builds. The company didn't do itself any favors by naming it the Outlander Sport, which suggests it's just a sportier version of the Outlander SUV. The Outlander and the Outlander Sport share the same 105.1-inch wheelbase, but not much else — the Outlander is about 14 inches longer, so it can squeeze in a tight third-row seat, giving it a theoretical capacity of seven, instead of the Sport's five.
The two vehicles have different engines, too: the Outlander has a 2.4-liter four-cylinder or a 3-liter V-6, while the Outlander Sport has a 2-liter, 148-horsepower four-cylinder. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the bigger Outlander feels a little dated compared to its competition, and the Outlander Sport doesn't.
You might suspect the Sport's small engine isn't up to the task of providing adequate acceleration for a 3,000-pound SUV, but it does surprisingly well, thanks in part to the transmission. I'm typically not a fan of the CVT, or continuously variable transmission, which — unlike a conventional automatic — doesn't have a set number of gears, but uses a system that changes gear ratios in tiny, incremental steps, so you never feel the transmission shift. I still prefer a good six-speed automatic in a vehicle like the Outlander Sport, but this CVT is less intrusive than most, and the engine and transmission do produce some commendable fuel economy results — 25 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway on regular gas.
Inside, the Outlander Sport has a clean, functional interior with comfortable front bucket seats and a rear seat that is reasonably roomy for two adults, cramped for three. Cargo area behind the rear seat is usually 21.7 cubic feet, but our Sport had the optional 710-watt Rockford-Fosgate sound system that included a big rear-mounted subwoofer that trimmed cargo space to 20.1 cubic feet. The rear seat folds down, more than doubling the space in back.
The Outlander Sport comes in two flavors: The base-model ES, which has as standard a five-speed manual transmission, and the SE, like our test model. The ES is front-wheel-drive, and the SE comes in front- or all-wheel-drive. Our tester was front-wheel-drive. Really, with the advent of electronic aids like stability control, I wouldn't spend the extra money for all-wheel-drive unless I lived in the snow belt, or in a place with hilly terrain that gets more than its share of bad weather. The Outlander Sport is a car-based "crossover" SUV, and even with all-wheel-drive, it isn't designed for serious off-roading.
The test Sport SE was loaded with optional equipment that sort of negated the attraction of a smaller, economical sport-ute. The Premium Package added a "panoramic" glass sunroof, Sirius satellite radio, an auto-dimming mirror, a backup camera and the aforementioned premium sound system. That, plus a navigation system, added $4,345 to the price, and with shipping, the $21,995 base price ballooned to $27,150.
The regular SE already has all the important stuff — just add the satellite radio, and I'd be happy. Safety features are well-represented, too: There are front, side and side-curtain air bags, as well as a knee air bag for the driver.
On the road, the Sport matches or exceeds the competition with a smooth ride on all but the roughest surfaces. Handling is considerably better than average, with precise electric power steering, minimal body roll on sharp turns and a highway presence that make the Sport seem bigger than it is, which is a compliment.
The Outlander Sport will be updated slightly for 2013, and beginning in July, production moves from Japan to the Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill. Front and rear styling will change slightly, but aside from some changes to the rear suspension, the 2013 Sport is mechanically similar to the 2012.
Outlander Sport among Mitsubishi's best
2012 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE