Socket and see: Mitsubishi Outlander Plug-in reviewed

31 July 2014

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV side view

Outlander PHEV
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: Keenly priced, spacious, surprisingly refined
Bad: Wobbly in corners, annoying satnav, no 7-seater
Price: from £28,249 after the Plug-in Car Grant
New technologies often come with a lofty price tag. With outlay only likely to fall once economies of scale have kicked in, the result is often a cost chasm separating a breakthrough product from widespread success. If a manufacturer wants to grab an opportunity for leadership, sometimes it has to dig deep and tunnel under.

That certainly seemed to be the case with Toyota and its early adventures in hybrid propulsion. Way back in 2000, estimates suggested that Toyota was losing around £11,000 on every first-generation Prius it sold. Fourteen years and six million hybrids later, with the third-generation Prius a profitable best seller, those early losses seem like a canny investment.

I assume some of the same thinking is going on at Mitsubishi, because I can’t see how else it will make a penny from its Outlander Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV rear view

For a starting price of £28,249, after a £5,000 reduction courtesy of the Plug-in Car Grant, you get an awful lot of car compared to every other contender with a plug. The Outlander PHEV is a spacious, Freelander-scale off-roader, for roughly the same price as a Prius Plug-in. Or, indeed, for the same price as a diesel-powered Outlander of roughly the same spec.

By contrast a Volvo V60 PHEV, offering broadly similar capabilities in a less spacious package, starts at over £44,000 after the grant. True, the Volvo is more upmarket and stylish, but the gap in value is still pretty jagged.

Mitsubishi’s aggressive pricing seems to be doing the trick, with the Outlander PHEV now firmly established as Europe’s best selling car with a plug, after going on sale in various continental markets last October.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV under the skin

I’m assuming a lack of profit because under the Outlander PHEV’s expansive skin there’s a lot of expensive sounding hardware. Most noticeably, there must be at least £3,500-worth of lithium-ion cells sitting between the axles. With a 12kWh capacity, the Outlander’s battery offers half the reserves of a Nissan Leaf, or three times more than a Prius Plug-in.

The battery can power the Outlander as an electric vehicle at up to 75mph and for up to 32 miles, though not at the same time. And not in hot weather. With the air conditioning keeping summer heat at bay, I saw no better than 25 miles per charge.

It takes about five hours to recharge again from a domestic socket, or a fast charge will get you to 80% in about half an hour. The Outlander PHEV offers the same fast-charger socket as a Nissan Leaf. The battery never runs fully flat, to protect its own long-term health, but is treated as if empty when it hits 30% charge.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV charging

Two separate electric motors provide propulsion. Driving the front axle is a 25kW (34bhp) unit, providing up to 137Nm of torque. And driving the rear, the second motor offers the same power output but with deeper reserves of torque, of up to 195Nm.

When the battery charge runs out, the Outlander can keep going because under the bonnet you’ll find a 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder petrol engine. It provides up to 119bhp and 190Nm of torque, sups from a 45-litre fuel tank squeezed between the battery and rear axle, and is hooked up to a generator that can provide up to 70kW of freshly squeezed electricity.

The engine can work in series with the motors (feeding them juice on demand) or in parallel hybrid mode (driving the front wheels directly, either alone or in concert with the motors).

There’s also the ability to select all-wheel-drive on slippery surfaces and, unusually, there’s also an option to recharge the battery using the petrol engine, either while sitting still or on the move. This latter option isn’t a very efficient use of expensive fuel but should prove handy for those otherwise tricky situations when you’re heading for a mountain, or need to drag a trailer though a field of mud, and the battery happens to be flat. It's like having your own emergency electrical generator on board for topping up the battery, ensuring you can summon full power from engine and motors combined.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV boot

Squirreled away elsewhere under the skin are the hefty power control systems that supervise energy flows to and from the battery on the move and oversee charging from the mains. And thankfully there’s room left over for a full five-seater cabin and a 463-litre boot. Space for seven seats, available with diesel-powered Outlanders, has however been lost.

The driver and passengers enjoy the usual SUV assets of generous room for knees, elbows and heads, an elevated viewpoint that’s a boon in busy traffic, and a general feeling of unstoppable invincibility.

While not quite invulnerable in reality, the Outlander at least performed with distinction during its EuroNCAP battering last year, earning a full five-star rating. The low-down weight of its battery might also make it less likely to topple over than other 4x4s, while elk-avoiding active stability control naturally comes as standard these days. There’s also a radar-based front impact avoidance system fitted to the top GX4hs trim level, which is apparently not an option for lesser cars.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV interior

My test Outlander arrived in that top trim and, thankfully, I didn’t get to verify that the emergency braking works. The GX4hs model costs from £34,999 after its grant and provides the unmistakable air of a mainstream model with luxury layered on, rather than something built to impress from the outset. It was pleasant enough nonetheless, with its ambience considerably lifted by the soft leather upholstery that comes as standard from the middle of the range, or as a £1,500 option for the entry level car.

If that’s the high-point of the cabin, then the central seven-inch touchscreen provides the low tide mark. Intuitive it is not. It took me five minutes of pointless prodding to establish beyond all doubt that the button marked “Navi Menu” will never lead you to a screen where you can input a new destination. For that, you need the obscure and fiddly little button marked with a chequered flag.

Once programmed and on the move, the satnav proved to be one of those slow-witted devices which almost, but not quite, shows exactly where you were 10 seconds ago.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV touchscreen

Still, at least the screen provides a reversing camera view in this top-spec model – handy in a big car with an elevated waistline – while navigation directions are repeated on the little screen in the middle of the instrument panel. The touchscreen also allows you to schedule charging times and cabin pre-conditioning, which can also be controlled via a smartphone app.

Driving sensations are all of the soft and muted variety. The throttle is languid, while the wheel is easy to twirl at any speed. Given the car’s relatively tall 55-profile tyres and soft off-road suspension it’s no surprise to find little appetite for biting at corners. You’ll sway and lean your way along a country road and will likely want to turn off the lane departure warning bleep too.

When you do need to stay within the lines there is plenty of grip, and while the brakes initially seem a little limp, that’s just the energy-regeneration phase. Push the pedal more firmly and the actual mechanical anchors arrive to pull you up smoothly and smartly. Despite the car’s 1.8-tonne bulk, or 195kg more than the diesel model, it feels reasonably lithe and lively. Zero to 62mph can be polished off in 11 seconds.

Slowing down again, you can select one of six levels of brake regeneration, using a pair of aluminium paddles behind the steering wheel. At its lowest setting – zero – the Outlander will glide along on its own momentum, gaining pace down inclines, while the most aggressive B5 level is enough to keep speed in check even on a relatively steep descent (though I didn’t get to try it off-road).

To be honest, six is probably three more levels of regeneration than I can imagine using. I’d be happy with just gliding, strong regeneration for hill descents, plus something in the middle with the feel of ordinary engine braking.

There are no gears to worry about, and the transmission selector is a spring-loaded stick clearly inspired by the equivalent item in a Prius.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV gearstick

Setting off with a full battery, the Outlander feels incredibly smooth, modestly powerful and uncannily quiet. Wind blast, tyre roar and transmission whine are all soothed away into low murmurs, with the soft suspension adding to the swaddled feel.

Once the initial mains charge has run down, the engine will hum into life. At low road speeds, the petrol engine will run at a constant level, quietly stopping and starting as you speed up or slow down to provide electricity for the motors. It too is incredibly quiet when running in this guise. At speeds above about 50mph, the engine starts to become a little more noticeable – though never to an intrusive extent – smoothly revving up when you accelerate and dying down to a burble again at a steady cruise.

At very low speeds, or setting off, the Outlander will tend to rely on batteries alone even if the initial mains charge has been spent, in much the same fashion as a hybrid without a plug.

A button by the gearlever provides the option to hold the battery’s charge at roughly its current level for later use, triggering an early contribution from the engine. This might be handy if you know there will be city driving or the need for 4x4 traction at the end of a longer journey.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV instruments

There’s also an Eco Mode button on the dashboard, which softens throttle response and tones down air conditioning to eke a few more miles out from each mains charge or tank of petrol. The change is noticeable but not severe, in a car that already has relatively subdued responses. The car reverts to normal mode between journeys.

Officially, the Outlander PHEV is rated at 148mpg and 44g/km. These win the car enviable tax benefits for company car drivers, zero road tax and exemption from the London Congestion Charge. Beyond these welcome virtues, the two numbers are entirely meaningless. The economy you achieve and the CO2 you emit will depend entirely on how often you can complete your journey on batteries alone. On longer journeys, with little contribution from mains electricity, consumption seems unlikely to better mid-40s miles per gallon.

From some angles, a 1.8-tonne SUV is not a very green car, even if blessed with batteries, motors and a mains plug. But if you need a big, spacious car with four-wheel-drive, and have somewhere to plug it in, Mitsubishi now offers an almost peerless proposition. As I noted at the start, the Outlander PHEV really does feel like a heck of a lot of car for the money.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV front view

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