Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid review | first drive

Meet the SUV that changes the electric car forever, and may even convert the harshest cynics. It's a family car that can travel more than 50km on battery power alone (covering the daily commute for most motorists), drive from Sydney to Melbourne on one tank of petrol, or make its own electricity.

It sips less than 2 litres of petrol per 100 kilometres, or travels almost 150 miles per gallon in the old money. With two electric motors (one for the front wheels, and one for the rear) its all-wheel-drive grip means it quite literally knows no bounds.

Significantly, this is not an experiment on four wheels. The Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid will be in local showrooms early next year priced from less than $50,000, in the middle of luxury SUV territory. In our exclusive first Australian drive, we didn't just take the Outlander for a lap around the block, we took it to the place where buyers will likely choose its electricity to be made.

We ventured 200km north of Adelaide to the nation's largest wind farm, the AGL site at Hallett, which supplies more than one-fifth of South Australia's energy and more than half of the whole country's wind power. I just wish someone reminded me to bring a jacket. It can get pretty windy up there. Go figure.

VALUE

New technology always comes at a cost, but it's becoming within reach as each milestone passes. Twelve years ago, when the cockroach-shaped Honda Insight became the first hybrid car on sale in Australia, it cost $50,000 despite its rather rudimentary petrol-electric system (which, incidentally, hasn't advanced much since).

There was amazement when the first Toyota Prius came in at $40,000 one year later. That was a lot of money for a sedan the same size as a Corolla, but at least it was $10,000 cheaper than the tiny Honda two-door from the year before.

Fast forward to two years ago, and the Holden Volt once again tested our conviction in this new fangled technology. The Volt can drive on battery power for up to 80km before its petrol engine stretches driving range to 400km, but $60,000 was regarded as a big ask for a four-seat sedan the same size as the Holden Cruze on which it's based.

So imagine a family-sized SUV with leather seats, touch-screen navigation, radar cruise control, a premium sound system, and other gadgets you'd expect on a $50,000 SUV -- that just so happens to have plug-in as well as petrol power. Mitsubishi is yet to confirm price, but Australians won't have to imagine much longer. The Outlander PHEV is due in local showrooms next April.

TECHNOLOGY

Mitsubishi might not have outright copied GM's homework (mirroring the Volt's initiative of using petrol to create electricity) but it may have peered over its shoulder a few times, executing GM's idea in a different way and used unique technological solutions.

In the Outlander there are two electric motors, one for the front wheels and one for the rear. They work at the same time, providing all-wheel-drive traction all of the time.

They are powered by an onboard lithium-ion battery pack (mounted under the floor) that can be recharged by the petrol engine or from a power point. The only catch: unlike the Holden Volt which uses a household socket, you need to upgrade the power source at home or work from 12 amps to 15 amps to recharge the Mitsubishi. It involves a call to an electrician who'll probably bill you about $200 for the upgrade.

Cleverly, you can charge the battery pack to 80 per cent of its capacity in just 40 minutes using the petrol engine either on the move or when the car is parked. It uses about 3 litres of fuel in the process.There are three driving modes. In "electricity-only" mode, it will only use the stored energy (maximum range more than 50km). In "series hybrid" mode the petrol engine will automatically charge the on-board battery pack as energy depletes or if the driver floors the throttle. In "parallel hybrid" mode the petrol engine will assist with driving the front wheels, but typically only at freeway speeds.

Cleverly, even though the electric motors have in effect only one "gear", Mitsubishi uses shift levers behind the steering wheel to allow the driver to increase the level of regenerative braking, which provides the effect of having five lower gears in a conventional gearbox. Other neat tricks: you can switch to petrol power if you want to save electric energy for later in your journey, and the "fuel gauge" will also predict battery recharge time. Why doesn't my phone do that?

DESIGN

The box-shaped Mitsubishi Outlander isn't likely to win any beauty pageants, but the plug-in hybrid's unique front bumper and large alloy wheels have improved its appearance. A little.

SAFETY

The regular Mitsubishi Outlander comes with seven airbags and a five-star ANCAP safety rating. The plug-in hybrid version will likely be awarded the same score even though it weighs 1810kg (about 200kg more than a diesel Outlander and about 300kg more than a petrol Outlander).

DRIVING

Electric cars are eerily silent, but compared to tiny EVs the Outlander tends to sneak up on people like an elephant. It's recommended you proceed with caution otherwise you can give pedestrians quite the fright.

Once you're clear of car parks you can hear the gentle whirring of electric motors and whatever else is necessary to run a test lab on four wheels. Trying to detect when the petrol engine starts and stops, though, nearly sent me around the bend. The switch is so seamless I began to blame bumps in the road.

Ah, the bumps. The suspension is way too firm, especially over potholes, or lane markers. Clearly most of the effort and innovation went into the petrol-electric drivetrain. Room for improvement then.

Don't go too far off-road either. Ground clearance is lower than the regular Outlander and there is no spare tyre (it comes with an inflator kit). The Outlander PHEV also doesn't feel as toey as other electric cars. Because they deliver peak power from rest (and then taper) electric cars tend to take off like a slingshot.

The Outlander's performance was still acceptable, and it accelerated with the same feel as a regular SUV. Perhaps Mitsubishi limited the power so as not to shock mums and dads on the school run. Get it? Shock.

We managed to eke out about 40km of petrol free driving -- well beyond the Adelaide city lights -- before the petrol engine kicked in, having started the journey on about 80 per cent battery. I reckon achieving the claimed 50km would be a snack on a full charge.

For the rest of the 400km round trip (half its maximum driving range) the Outlander's petrol engine topped up the battery pack as required and, after a while, once we tired of watching the graphics on the dash display, I almost forgot I was driving an electric car.

VERDICT

The electric car has a new hero. Who'd have thought it would be an SUV for the masses? Who'd have thought it would come from Mitsubishi?

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Price: $50,000 (estimated)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and two electric motors
Power: 89kW/186Nm (petrol engine), 60kW/137Nm (front electric motor), 60kW/195Nm (rear electric motor)
Transmission: Each electric motor drives through a fixed-ratio, single-speed transaxle
Economy: 1.9L/100km combined
Weight: 1810kg
Safety: Seven airbags, stability control, five-star ANCAP rating
Cargo space: 852 litres back seat up, 1741 litres back seat down
Spare tyre: None. Inflator kit
Turning circle: 10.6m
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km
Battery warranty: Five years/100,000km

This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling
 

SPECIFICATIONS

  • Price From $47,490

Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid review | first drive

WHAT WE LIKE

  • Green
  • SUV
  • Efficient

WHAT WE DON’T

  • Still more than other Outlanders
  • Economy climbs on highway
  • Dreary handling

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