Trying to shoehorn a family into a car without making them feel like sardines in a proverbial tin can is a tricky task for vehicle designers. Let's face it, some do it far better than others.
Finding the perfect family wagon can be a real headache for buyers who want an affordable solution that offers cargo space and seating for up to seven without back seat passengers digging elbows into each other, or having their legs and knees bent into unnatural yoga positions.
There are plenty of dedicated people movers in the market some of them still van-based and while they tick some of the wish list boxes, few can offer all-road capability as well. So, thinking outside the square, why not a seven-seat SUV as the family taxi?
One of the better offerings in the family market at present is Mitsubishi's Outlander. This softroader is finding plenty of smart buyers and was one of the top five best selling medium-sized SUVs sold around the country last month.
RANGE / PRICE
The Outlander family has been extended to both two-wheel and all-wheel drive models and seating from five to seven. There's also a choice of a petrol engine or for the first time a diesel, a five-speed manual, CVT auto or 6-speed auto (for the diesel) and four grades of equipment. So there's plenty on offer. Prices range from $28,990 to a hefty $45,490.
The range-topping Aspire Premium gets a superb 710 Watt Rockford Fosgate audio with nine surround speakers plus a thumping sub woofer. Bluetooth with voice control is standard even in the base model as is cruise control, climate control air conditioning and steering wheel controls.
Parking sensors are in the base model but you have to buy the mid-spec LS, as tested, to get a rear view camera. If you have small kids, a rear camera is a must. Mid-range versions gain a complete keyless system from unlocking the doors and tailgate to push-button engine starting so you don't even have to take the key out of your pocket or handbag.
The safety features are a veritable grab bag of acronyms: HSC (hill start control), ASCX (active stability control), ATC (active traction control), ABS (anti-lock brakes) and EBD (electronic brake force distribution).
You don't really have to remember what they stand for, but they are there all quietly working in the background if you need to stop in a hurry, swerve around an animal on the road or are trying one of those white knuckle moments when you have to negotiate a very steep and slippery hill.
Seven airbags are standard, which is on par for today's new cars, but the Outlander also offers (in the top-line version) two more acronyms -- ACC (adaptive cruise control) and FCM (forward collision mitigation) which together look at vehicles in front of you. If the Outlander thinks you are about to ram the car in front up the bum it will automatically prevent the wagon from getting too close.
DESIGN / STYLE
The third row in the Outlander folds flat to the floor and like most of its ilk, the rear pew is strictly for the little ones because leg room for adults is tight, although access to the rear is not bad thanks to the folding middle seat. Access to the mid row is also good for those putting youngsters into child seats or baby capsules. Up front, mum and dad are spoilt by comfortable seats, a good dashboard layout and plenty of storage bins.
I'm still not convinced the Outlander, especially in a copper paint scheme, is a handsome wagon but I was out-voted on that front by friends who looked, sat, probed and poked it. The cabin and boot area (providing the third row is not being occupied) are both spacious and well designed, although the cabin décor is a tad sombre in tone.
ENGINE / TRANSMISSION
The Outlander develops 110kW for both the 2.0-litre petrol and 2.2-litre diesel and 124kW for the larger 2.4-litre petrol version. The big difference is in all-important torque. The smaller petrol model makes do with 190Nm, the bigger petrol version has 220Nm to play with while the diesel has a superb 360Nm of pulling power, available from a low 1500rpm to 2750rpm.
The all-wheel drive system is a lot smarter nowadays and has three modes in the Outlander: Eco fuel saving mode which leaves the wagon in two-wheel drive mode for most of the time, auto which decides for itself when added traction is needed and 4WD Lock which locks in all-wheel drive.
Where the Outlander wins over conventional people movers is that it is equally at home doing the school run as well as tackling muddy forestry tracks, snow covered roads to the ski fields or drives to the beach. Personally, I would go for the 2.2-litre turbodiesel version, but I've spent a week or so in the 2.4-litre petrol model and came away more than impressed.
It got ticks for ease of driving in the city, fuel economy (about 8.5l/100km city driving), value for money and safety features. It also got a big thumbs up for having an eco gauge which encourages the driver to be smooth to keep fuel consumption to a minimum. In Eco mode it changes the engine mapping and output from the air conditioning to save precious fuel.
The Outlander performs well, being smooth and quiet although the electric-assist steering seems a bit lifeless which is typical of these over-assisted systems and the petrol engine is not as good in terms of punch as the diesel. Still, the family will be happy.
A true alternative to the family car and people mover.
Mitsubishi Outlander 2.4 petrol
Price: from $32,890
Engine: 2.4-litre 4-cylinder petrol, 124kW/220Nm
Transmission: CVT, 4WD on demand
Thirst: 7.5L/100Km, CO2 174g/km