Hybrid Outlander a ride for all seasons

·5-min read

If you're thinking of dipping your toe in the electric vehicle pond, this might not be a bad place to start.

Mitsubishi's Outlander PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) offers a perfect try-before-you-buy opportunity to test how an electric car fits your life. In fact it offers all three power sources to the modern motorist: pure electric power, petrol-electric hybrid, and when necessary, full fossil-fuel mode.

We went one better in our research, driving not only the Outlander PHEV but also the conventional petrol-powered Outlander that has kept this clever Mitsubishi close to the top of the sales charts for years.

It was the ultimate back-to-back test, a bit like when my auntie used to make me and my cousin stand back-to-back every time the families got together. I was always taller, but he went on to become an Olympic high-jumper. So let's call it even.

Our automotive back-to-back provided a crystal-clear demonstration of the difference, and the superiority, of electric power.

Actually, this plug-in hybrid format is not new. It first emerged on the Outlander almost a decade ago, which made the car something of a trailblazer. The same technology has since been adopted by a number of manufacturers, including Volvo, which offers a plug-in option on virtually every vehicle in its fleet.

When I first heard of it, I was convinced it wasn't much more than a gimmick, offering just under 50km of electric-only motoring range between recharges. Why bother?

Well, because a majority of inner-city residents (many of them SUV-owners) rarely venture much beyond their neighbourhood, and rarely to the extent of the car's electric range.

So each day, when they get home, they can plug it in and it's ready to go again when you wake. That can mean emissions-free driving for your weekday needs.

Even when the batteries are depleted, the PHEV switches to a hybrid mode and the engine acts as an 80kW generator, feeding the batteries rather than putting its power directly to the road. That means a combined fuel consumption of less than 5L/100km. And unlike most normal cars, it's actually cleaner, and more economical, in stop-start city driving than it is on the open road.

The Outlander also offers a third drive option, when the petrol engine provides most of the power, assisted by the electric motors, when the driver demands maximum output.

That engine has been bolstered in this recently-updated model, with a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder unit replacing the previous 2-litre version.

The petrol-powered Outlander also gets that new engine, coupled to a normal automatic transmission, making it a pleasant and practical car, with modest thirst, decent driving dynamics and most importantly, an ability to accommodate seven people (provided two of them are relatively small).

You'll pay a premium of $20k, and as little as about $10k, for the PHEV version over pure petrol models - with three trim levels available - ES, GSR and Exceed.

That translates to a drive-away price of $51,990 for the base-model ES, which will get you reversing camera and sensors, forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning and adaptive radar cruise control. The $56,490 GSR (tested here) adds premium Bilstein suspension, black highlights including roof, plus the clever Super All-Wheel Control that blends the electric and petrol inputs to achieve optimum grip. The $60,990 Exceed further adds leather trim, electric seats and sunroof, rear cross-traffic alert and multi-around monitor.

How do they stack up?

Somewhat surprisingly the PHEV, despite sharing its design and many of its components with the petrol model, is an entirely different driving experience than the petrol Exceed.

And not just because of its electric capability. Its trim and finish is more plush and more refined than the normal model - no doubt in keeping with its substantially higher purchase price

Naturally in EV mode it's quieter, smoother and generally more engaging to drive. But even when it defaults to petrol power, the PHEV feels a cut above its less sophisticated sibling.

The PHEV feels incredibly sturdy and quiet regardless of the road surface. It's fun to drive in city traffic with its instant throttle response, so much a part of the electric experience.

It is substantially heavier than the petrol model (thanks to the weight of the rechargeable batteries built into the floor) which probably explains why it feels more solid and grounded.

Regardless of engine and spec levels, the Outlander's popularity comes as no surprise. It ticks all the boxes required by the modern family - relatively spacious, economical (particularly in electric form); and it combines the practicality of a seven-seat design with solid, if not exciting, driving dynamics.

The Outlander is endlessly competent, efficient and practical. And a bit boring. No problem - good family vehicles always have been.

Adding electric propulsion - with the silent, responsive and highly-enjoyable experience it delivers - turns the Outlander into a vastly more interesting vehicle, as well as being decidedly better for the planet and at a relatively approachable price.

That should be enough to enlist a few more buyers to the electric club, if only in a half-committed way.

MITSUBISHI OUTLANDER PHEV

* How big? Compact on the outside but it is cleverly designed to seat seven, at a pinch, in its three-row seating configuration. Cargo space is a generous 463L

* HOW FAST? Not particularly, regardless of what engine combination your choose. But in electric mode it is zippy, responsive and fun around town

* HOW THIRSTY? When driven in EV mode (with 50km range) it uses no fuel at all. Beyond that point expect to average a bit below 5L/100km

* HOW MUCH? While conventional Outlanders can be had for a tick over $30k, the PHEV variants start from $51,990 drive away, up to $60,990 for the luxury Exceed. Our GSR model costs $56,490.

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