Mitsubishi's hot CUV blends into the crowd
by: NORTHWEST AUTOMOTIVE PRESS ASSOCIATION The Outlander GT A-AWC impressed many seasoned automotive writers at the annual Mudfest competition that tested SUVs both on and off the road.

Except for its huge front grill, there is nothing special-looking about the 2012 Outlander GT S-AWC. From the side or back, it could be any number of compact or midsize crossover utility vehicles.

Nor is the interior distinctive. In fact, the dash and console are so simple they border on spartan.

But as area automotive writers discovered at the 2010 Mudfest competition, with Mitsubishi's largest CUV, looks are deceptive. The annual event pits CUVs and sport utility vehicles against each other on local roads and specially-prepared dirt trails. A 2011 Outlander GT S-AWC handled the on-road portion of the test like a sports car. And it easily scampered over the most severe off-road trail without a problem.

The 2012 model is virtually unchanged from last year, meaning it retains all of its strengths and weaknesses. Aside from the generic styling, low points include too much hard plastic and inexpensive-feeling controls. But the GT S-AWC is so much fun to drive, such flaws are quickly overlooked.

The secret of the Outlander's success is its Super-All Wheel Control all-wheel-drive system. Similar to the systems in the rally-oriented versions of the company's Lancer sedan, it offers tenacious grip on dry surfaces and two options for wet weather and off-road driving. The Snow mode is great for ski trips and the Lock mode locks the differentials for dirt (or worse) trails.

Power is provided by a 3.0-liter V6 that seems unremarkable when loafing around town but produces ample oomph when needed. Compared to many if not most other V6 engines, Mitsubishi's power plant feels unsophisticated, but it was well suited to the six-speed automatic transmission in our test model. It hunkered and shot forward down when the gas pedal was punched. Cornering was flat at high speeds, even though the Outlander is relatively tall. Although 215 foot pounds of torque is not much by today's standards, it was more than enough to push us easily up the steep and deeply rutted hills that qualify as streets in outlying neighborhood around here.

The Outlander is one of many vehicles that is hard to classify as either a compact or midsize these days. Some compact crossovers are shorter and some midsize ones are larger. Although rear seat room is cramped when the front seats are all the way back, the Outlander also has a small third row of seats that fold flat into the sizeable cargo compartment when they are not needed.

The cheapest four-cylinder, two-wheel-drive Outlander starts at a little more than $23,000, with the least expensive all-wheel-drive model beginning at around $24,000 and the lowest-priced GT S-AWC at about $27,000. Our fully-loaded test model hit $35,000, however. Options included packages featuring leather seats, a powerful stereo, a navigation system with rear-view camera and a rear-seat DVD player with remote control and wireless headphones. That's pretty high, considering the interior quality issues, but the base GT S-AWC is well worth considering by anyone looking for a performance-oriented CUV that doesn't call undue attention to itself.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model: 2012 Outlander GT S-AWC.

• Manufacturer: Mitsubishi.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front and Super-All Wheel Control all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door hatchback CUV.

• Engines: 2.4-liter inline 4 (168 hp. 167 ft-lbs); 3.0-liter V6 (230 hp, 215 ft-lbs - as tested).

• Transmission: Continuously variable-speed automatic (CVT); six-speed Sportrontic shiftable automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 23/28; 19/25 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at around $23,345 base ES model ($35,300 GT S-AWC filly optioned model as tested).

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