When the small SUV craze really kicked off in earnest back in 2010 or so, it was the canny – and cash-strapped – execs over at Mitsubishi who were among the first to latch on to the burgeoning market.

Not that Mitsubishi was alone in its lack of dosh – thanks to Bernie Madoff-with-all-my-money, no one had the bundles of cash necessary to go all out securing the bite-sized and burgeoning small SUV segment.

Yet, despite its difficult birth, the ASX was exactly what Australians seemed to want: the practicality of a hatchback or small wagon combined with the high-riding, I-go-kite-surfing-on-weekends SUV style.

And it worked; despite some initial rough edges and subsequent recalls, the ASX became a sales bonanza for Mitsubishi Australia.

Now, though, the ageing ASX faces a renewed onslaught from Mazda, Honda and Nissan, armed with much newer hardware in the shape of the CX-3, HR-V and Qashqai.

Design

The ASX’s angular lines are mostly unchanged since its 2010 debut, but they’ve aged well, to the point where the ASX really doesn’t look as old as it is.

In handsome metallic blue – a $550 option – and on standard 18-inch alloy wheels, the ASX XLS looks worth its $32,040 list price and more.

That said, it doesn’t take a lot of digging to unearth signs of Mitsubishi’s penchant for penny-pinching during its development.

The doors, for instance, feel too light and hollow, evidence of a lack of sound insulation. In the wet, spray from the tyres is announced throughout the cabin and it’s less than pleasant to be able to hear the radio blaring from the next car over, even with all the windows up.

Finally, the windscreen wipers feel cheap in their operation and the washers are of the old-school ‘spray and pray’ variety.

Inside, rear seat passengers have to do without their own air-conditioning vents, which may be why the climate control system is as overzealous as it is. Even on a moderate temperature setting, it insists on refrigerating the cabin to the point where condensation forms on the large panoramic sunroof.

The touchscreen multimedia system is logical enough, but struggles to connect via Bluetooth, even after persistent attempts and a full factory reset of both devices. When connected, it frequently fails to import media information.

Attractive piano-black and faux-aluminium inserts break up an otherwise dour interior beset by cut-rate plastics. The ASX’s centre console and various switches are perhaps the most obvious points of consternation; the indicator stalk in particular feels plucked from a Christmas cracker. And the cabin ambiance isn’t helped by various rattles that emanate from the dashboard, doors and ceiling.

The rear seats are only suitable for people who are called one of the following: ‘adorable’, ‘munchkin’ or ‘short.

In further evidence of cost-cutting, the driver’s window is the only one with automatic operation and the rear doors don’t offer drink bottle or cup holders. There is, however, a fold-down armrest in the back which supplies rear-seat amenities.

And even though the front seats are both heated and power-operated, they don’t even offer manually-adjustable lumbar support. When combined with shallow, unsupportive bolsters, it adds up to a fairly solid backache on longer trips.

The rear seats are only suitable for people who are called one of the following: ‘adorable’, ‘munchkin’ or ‘short’. In better news, they do come with two ISOFIX mounting brackets for child seats, which, for anyone who’s had to grapple with the old method of seatbelts and anchor points, is tantamount to the second coming.

About Town

The ASX offers a choice of two specifications, two engines and two methods for getting the power to the road.

In years past, making sense of the vague trim levels was actually a bit of a faff, with LS, XLS, Activ, Aspire and Platinum specs to try and sort out. No such burden these days, however, with just a base LS and top-tier XLS to choose from.

The petrol-powered ASXs are only available with front-wheel drive, with all-wheel-drive duties left to the torquier diesels.  

To reflect Australia’s anathema toward clutch pedals, Mitsubishi decided to offer the XLS petrol as standard with a clever automatic gearbox known as a Constantly Variable Transmission, or CVT.

In essence, instead of changing between pre-set gears, the gearbox adjusts the drive ratio by incrementally changing the size of the input and output pulleys.

It’s all terribly complicated, but the gist is that the transmission’s near-infinite adjustment can keep the 2.0-litre petrol on its torque curve for maximum efficiency and grunt.

Unfortunately, the old-tech engine in the ASX just doesn’t offer up enough low-down torque to help you dice through city congestion, no matter how hard the gearbox tries to whip it into shape.

Adopt a more relaxed driving style, however, and the ASX deals with the dull monotony of truly heavy traffic without lurches, bumps or histrionics.

On the Road

Outside the confines of city streets, the petrol-powered ASX fares better. It feels much happier on the move, rather than toiling against inertia in start-stop traffic.

The CVT keeps the engine bubbling along in the lower registers until it’s hard-pressed to overtake or climb steep gradients, which is where the CVT’s biggest bugbear is revealed.

Where a traditional auto or dual-clutch would see revs rising under acceleration and dropping back with every gear change, the CVT holds the buzzy 2.0-litre engine at a constant engine speed; it may be a very efficient way to go about things, but it does tend to sound about as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard.

Switching the CVT over to manual mode reveals a gearbox that's smooth and quick to react to changes on the steering wheel paddles. Shifting between the six preset ratios can sound a little slurry, which feels like a step backwards from the crispness of modern dual-clutchers, but in practice, it works well.

The engine really comes alive with revs on board, and it's easy – and surprisingly entertaining – to have a quick spot of fun on a back road. The engine becomes genuinely responsive in lower ‘gears’ to the point where it can feel almost too peaky and aggressive near the redline.

You can pedal the ASX along like a slightly gangly hatchback...

This isn't a problem with either gearbox or engine, as such; it's just an example of real feedback from a car that you'd never expect it from. You can pedal the ASX along like a slightly gangly hatchback, thanks to its light, low-mounted engine and front-drive architecture.

At backroad speeds, the steering is quick and responsive, if a little too light and over-assisted. The front end grips well, even though the highway terrain tyres start to protest almost immediately. On more severe mid-corner bumps and corrugations, however, the rear end can become unsettled and slow to react. It’s strange, considering that the rear uses a more advanced multi-link suspension setup and the front uses simpler MacPherson struts.