by Jonathan Yarkony
For most automotive brands, electric vehicles are seen as the next dominant technology, and most have stated their goals to electrify their lineups within the next decade. By electrified, some might be as mild as batteries that recoup otherwise wasted braking force paired with a combustion engine that provides all the drive power, all the way up to fully electric vehicle powered solely by batteries that charge at home, work, or a variety of charging stations starting to pop up around urban centres an between them.
However, we are still a long way from having enough chargers to satisfy all the miles logged by our car-crazy culture, and not enough cars provide adequate range to accommodate all the demands of a family car or commuter for a price attainable by most new car shoppers. In order to build toward a predominantly electric automotive landscape, we need infrastructure and affordable options for a variety of lifestyles. There are plenty of hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and Hyundai Ioniq that recharge as you go, but can only offer short bursts under electric power alone.
There are only a handful of small, affordable electric cars like the Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf, as batteries and development of entirely new electric powertrain are still so costly that there is little incentive to push them for companies driven by profit. The bridge between those two is the plug-in hybrid, with a larger battery than standard hybrids, an electric motor fed by the battery that can drive the car under its own power, and the ability to plug in and recharge overnight or during down time. Even if the battery is drained, there is a conventional gas engine that takes over to get you the rest of the way to your destination, and also means you don’t have to plan road trips around charging locations and times.
Shockingly, while various mainstream brands make a wide variety of plug-in hybrid cars, to date only luxury brands have offered plug-in hybrid SUVs and crossovers. Of all the brands already competing in the growing hybrid and electric vehicle market, Toyota, Chevrolet, Ford and Hyundai in particular, they have yet to offer a plug-in crossover, and Mitsubishi has beat them all to the punch with the 2018 Outlander Plug-in Hybrid. Not only is it the only plug-in hybrid, there are only a couple of hybrid SUVs in this, the RAV4 from Toyota and the Rogue from Nissan.
With consumers buying SUVs by the boatload and defection from cars at an alarming rate, winning the race to deliver an affordable plug-in SUV should be a coup for the small brand and help it grow in North America. On the other hand, if it’s an underwhelming vehicle overall, or poorly executed because it was rushed to market, it could just as well harm the brand more than it helps. The good news for Mitsubishi is that the Outlander PHEV is good. Of course, while the future-ready powertrain grabs all the headlines, a utility vehicle needs to be practical above all and the Outlander delivers reasonable cargo and passenger space.
It doesn’t hurt that the Outlander’s interior is attractive – straightforward and conventional, but with a touch of glossy piano black plastic, brown leather that felt fine to the touch and silvery accents splashed throughout likely mean no one will walk away because they hate the design. The brown leather seats are comfortable as well, power adjustable in only the basic directions, but well suited to a variety of body types. The rear seats were also spacious and competitive for the class, and can recline just a bit for a bit of comfort and more secure child seat installation, with high anchors in the back making it easier to attach the third tether.
Although the seats split 60/40 and do fold flat, it’s a two step process that requires folding the bottom cushions down first, then dropping the seatbacks. Because the Outlander is available with three rows of seating in some trims, there are extra cupholders in the trunk that cut in on cargo space, as does the big subwoofer, but cargo space is still very respectable for the class at 33 cubic feet in the back and a maximum of 61 (the batteries are under the floor between the axles, so they don’t eat into that cargo space). Class leaders boast almost 40 in the trunk and over 75 max, but not many of them have a household 110V outlet back there, which is a neat feature for the annual camping trip.
Getting to the campgrounds will also be an easy task as the Outlander is a pleasant cruiser. It’s a very mild-mannered vehicle without anything exciting going on, but it’s easy to pilot with good visibility, light steering, a decent turning circle, and all-wheel drive for good traction in any weather or season. A multi-view camera makes getting into the parking spot a lot easier as well. On the highway it’s not the most settled and stable ride as its tall, slightly boxy profile and soft suspension can make it susceptible to crosswinds and a bit of wandering.
The ride is pretty much all comfort and not much in the way of sporty handling, so it’s not a car for carving up country roads. Its ground clearance isn’t all that great either, so it’s not much of an off-roader but can still tackle mild trails to the cottage and eats up potholed roads in the city like a champ. And let’s not kid ourselves, the city and suburbs are its natural environment despite being an SUV. Still, the electronically controlled "S-AWC" all-wheel drive is informed by a variety of sensors, and even has a 4WD lock mode that simulates a locked center diff by controlling power distribution from the electric motor on each axle.
We had a freak spring snowstorm that left our side street buried under half a foot of refrozen slush and snow, and the Outlander, helped along by appropriate winter tires, powered through it like a champ, hinting at the Evo origins of that S-AWC programming. The main appeal of a plug-in hybrid is a certain amount of electric-only range that allows for limited emissions free driving, but that range is only about 20 miles for the Outlander PHEV because of its modest 12.0-kWh lithium-ion battery. The Chevrolet Volt, the standard-bearer for plugin-in hybrids, offers an impressive 50+ miles.
Part of the reason the battery drains so quickly is that it is feeding two electric motors, a 60-kW electric motor making 101 lb-ft of torque on the front axle powering the front wheels and another 60-kW, 144 lb-ft electric motor powering the rear wheels. With that much torque feeding each axle individually, the Outlander is happy to scoot forward even in EV mode and has no trouble moving its 4,178 pounds. If left to its own devices – you have to specifically change it to EV mode for it to operate exclusively on electric power – the Outlander PHEV defaults to one of its two hybrid modes.
In Series Hybrid mode, the gas engine acts purely as a generator, feeding power to the electric motors and charging the batteries. In Parallel Hybrid mode, the modest 117-hp, 137 lb-ft 2.0L gas engine powers the front wheels through a trick clutch, and the twin electric motors are on standby when you punch the throttle or have to power uphill. To maximize efficiency, Eco mode will conserve energy in any of the power modes, whether running on electric or combustion, and there are modes to preserve battery or charge battery. Fully charging the 12-kWh battery will take 8-10 hours in a normal 120V household outlet, 3-4 hours using a 240V Stage 2 charger, and fast charging can take it up to 80% in about 25 minutes.
From the driver’s seat, you can generally just ignore all of these modes and you might even forget about all the trickery going on under the hood and between the wheels, because the power delivery and transition between power sources is almost completely undetectable, except for the faint purr of the engine starting up, or a louder groan under hard acceleration. Driven mildly and charged regularly, the Outlander PHEV should deliver the equivalent of 74 MPG, and the engine itself rate 25 MPG. Too late n the week I discovered that the trip computer was resetting after every trip, so I can’t tell you my exact consumption, but I can tell you that my fuel bill at the end of the week was only about a third of what it usually is.
What you might not enjoy is the weird shifter… well, weird if haven’t already been driving a Prius or a Leaf. It’s a super light joystick that you move left and down for drive or up for reverse, and the Park button is kind of hidden in front of it. I never liked that shifter on the Prius and I don’t like it here, but owners will likely get used to it over time. I hated it. But hey, it’s got paddle shifters, so there's that. To go along with the mellow driving experience, the cabin is an easy place to spend time. As mentioned, the seats are plenty comfortable, and the infotainment system is straightforward, with Apple CarPlay making the experience seamless between my iPhone and the car.
Because our vehicle had the upgraded Rockford Fosgate audio system, the music was loud and clear, and adaptive cruise made getting stuck in traffic just a little more tolerable and a lot less stressful. While electric vehicles are mostly another tier above their competitors in price, the Outlander is simply at the upper end of the compact crossover price range, ringing in at $34,595 (plus $995 Destination fee) for the base SEL PHEV, which is right around what a loaded CR-V or RAV4 costs.
Our model was the loaded GT trim $40,295 (plus $995 Destination fee), which is comparable to a fully loaded Chevrolet Equinox Premier with its efficient diesel, and in certain states you can factor in rebates to give it an even better value proposition. Warranties are a boring subject so we don’t usually mention them, but Mitsubishi has a good one, five-year/60,000-mile limited warranty on the vehicle overall, plus ten years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain, including the PHEV components and the Lithium-ion drive battery, and they even throw in five years of Roadside Assistance benefits.
The Outlander PHEV is not terribly exciting in any way (unless you are one to geek out on details of its twin-electric motor setup), but I enjoyed my time in it because it’s so easy to live with and did exactly what it is supposed to. The 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is practical and convenient, capable and comfortable, and it’s a massive leap in efficiency over anything in the compact crossover field. Mitsubishi won’t have big advertising dollars to put it on every screen, so it’s a hidden gem in this crowded, popular segment, but it’s about time somebody delivered the emissions-free and fuel-saving benefits of a plug-in hybrid in a vehicle type that people want.