Can I Start, Coach? By John DiPietro With an ever-increasing amount of new SUV models being released, it's getting tougher for a car company to get its product noticed. No sooner does a model debut to the oohhs and ahhhs of the general public than another comes out, bum-rushing the spotlight and rendering the other rig yesterday's news. Mitsubishi's new mini-ute, the Outlander, has its work cut out; it showed up late for tryouts when there's already a strong starting lineup with players such as the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester and Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute twins. So how does the Outlander compare? With a wheelbase of 103.3 inches and a weight of 3,461 pounds (with all-wheel drive), the Outlander is roughly the same size as the CR-V and Escape, which spec out at 103.1 inches, 3,318 pounds and 103.1 inches, 3,457 pounds, respectively. Like the CR-V and Forester, the Outlander's sole engine is a four-cylinder; there is no V6 option as in the Escape/Tribute or Saturn Vue. At 140 horsepower and 157 pound-feet of torque, the Mitsu's 2.4-liter four is down on power compared to the Honda (160 horsepower, 162 lb-ft) and Subaru (165 horsepower, 166 lb-ft). The Outlander does, however, have more power than the four-cylinder versions of the Escape/Tribute. Two trim levels, both with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive, are offered. There's no stripper here as even the base LS comes with power windows, locks and mirrors; AM/FM/CD audio; air conditioning; a tilt steering wheel; and cruise control. Nor is there a confusing laundry list of options for the LS, just two available packages: a Convenience package adds keyless entry, roof rails, floor mats and a cargo cover; while an Appearance package includes alloy wheels and tinted windows. Those looking for more of an upscale feel will want the XLS, which adds alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, white-faced gauges, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and upgraded cloth upholstery. For more luxury, there are the XLS' optional packages: the Sun and Sound package that adds an Infinity audio system and a sunroof, and the Luxury package, which is detailed below. For 2003, pricing (including destination) ranges from $18,577 for a front-drive LS to $21,370 for an all-wheel-drive XLS. Perhaps the most distinguished aspect of the Outlander is its prominent proboscis. Most staffers liked the aggressive nose, a split-grille arrangement with a strong central hood bulge that continues down to the bumper. But some folks thought it was too much; one wag (who might watch too much of the Animal Planet channel) said it reminded him of a duck-billed platypus. The Outlander's clean flanks are accented with muscular wheelwell arches and the clear-lens taillights reminded more than a few folks of a Lexus RX 300, which we suppose isn't a bad thing. The Outlander's handsome cabin drew more of a unified response; it was a hit with virtually everyone who either climbed behind the wheel or rode in the backseat. The instrument hoods (which recall the dash of an old Alfa Romeo Spyder) house easy-to-read gauges. The center stack sports the simple three-knob climate control setup we prefer, and an analog clock is mounted, a la Infiniti-style, up high in the center of the dashboard where it's clearly visible. There's plenty of storage on the Outlander. In addition to the console's deep two-tiered covered bin are a couple of small, open compartments that are ideal for a cell phone or garage door control. Two large cupholders in front and two in the fold-down rear center armrest are well-positioned and functional; they don't block controls when in use and are deep enough to avoid worries of spilt sodas. Our tester had the Luxury package that took our Outlander uptown with leather seating, an auto-dimming rearview mirror (with compass and outside temperature display) and heated front seats and side mirrors. That package also bumps up the safety factor as it includes front side airbags. The firm bucket seats are well-shaped and the driver seat boasts a lumbar support control with a wide range of adjustment. The 60/40-split rear seat was lauded for its abundance of legroom, reclinable backrest and flip-down center armrest with cupholders. With the rear seats up, cargo capacity is rated at 24.4 cubic feet. Flip them down (which is a breeze; it can be done with the three headrests in place and the front seats all the way back) and capacity is increased to 60.3 cubic feet. Comparison shoppers will note that this is around four to eight cubes less than the Outlander's chief competitors. Even the petite Toyota RAV4, at 68 cubes, has more cargo volume. But the Mitsu does provide more room for its rear occupants than the RAV, so it's essentially a trade-off. A number of handy features are found in the cargo area, such as a power point, tie-down hooks (for an optional cargo net) and a couple of shallow compartments hidden under the floor. No manual gearbox is offered; all Outlanders have a four-speed automatic with the Sportronic manual-shift capability. The lone transmission offering is in contrast to most of the competition who typically offer a choice between a manual or automatic box on their SUVs. This is probably not an issue here in the States, where most folks, short of hard-core driving enthusiasts, seem to prefer automatics. Around town, the Outlander jumps when the whip is cracked, furnishing quick off-the-line response that comes in handy when dealing with the cut and thrust of metro traffic. Mitsubishi claims that this engine is torque-rich, and it is, making its maximum twisting force at just 2,500 rpm. At higher speeds, such as when preparing to merge onto the freeway, the Outlander gets winded as the velocity climbs. To its credit, the engine never sounds coarse, and once up to speed it will cruise at 75 all day long without a whimper. Under the scrutiny of our instrumented testing, the Outlander took 11.5 seconds to run from zero to 60 mph. With most small SUVs dispatching this sprint in anywhere from the high 8s to low 10s, it puts the Outlander out at the back of the pack. The gearbox makes the most of the engine's available thrust, downshifting promptly when needed. The tranny is also liquid smooth — even under full-throttle acceleration, but it seems that somewhat slushy upshifts are the price paid for its seamless operation. With a front disc/rear drum setup and without the benefit of ABS (it's optional), braking distances were on the long side; hauling the Outlander down from 60 mph took 145 feet, a number more closely associated with full-size SUVs. The pedal is linear and easy to modulate under normal driving, but under hard braking it wasn't easy to bring the binders to the point right before they locked up (called threshold braking). As always, we recommend getting ABS if it's available and surmise that, had our vehicle been so equipped, it would have posted a stopping distance five to 10 feet shorter. An independent suspension consisting of struts up front and a multilink, coil spring setup out back holds up the Outlander. Whether you go with an all-wheel-drive or two-wheeler Outlander, the tire size (225/60R16) is the same, though the tires themselves are different brands. The Yokohama Geolanders found on our front-driver provided the requisite stance, plenty of grip in the corners for this class of vehicle and a quiet ride at freeway speeds. Through the winding sections of our test loop, the Outlander felt composed with light but precise steering and, even when driven somewhat aggressively, a minimum of body roll. Zipping through the slalom, our test jockey noted that a few times the steering's power assist lagged a bit as he quickly flicked the wheel left and right. Though the Outlander was stable, its 58.6-mph trip through the cones makes it a few mph slower than the Escape and CR-V. Obviously, unless one plans on running autocross events with their Outlander, this minor deficit should be unnoticeable. A major benefit of this type of SUV ("car-based" with a unibody architecture as opposed to being "truck-based" with a separate, heavy-duty frame) is more comfortable ride quality, which the Outlander delivered overall but the sharpest impacts. Running at 70 mph on the freeway, the Outlander is fairly quiet save for some wind noise around the A-pillars, which is typical for an SUV. Although it lags behind the class leaders in outright performance, the Outlander is not without its virtues. Its unique looks, classy cabin, pleasant ride characteristics and user-friendly functionality will win over its share of fans. For the reasons that folks buy mini SUVs, such as to handle the daily commute and to haul playthings (like snowboards, mountain bikes and kayaks) to the playgrounds (the mountains, trailheads or lakes), the Outlander should prove more than adequate.