Second opinion: Outlander's success a pleasant surprise

by Kelly Taylor  . Dec 14 2018


Mitsubishi has sold 5,052 Outlander PHEV models so far in 2018, which the company says is the first time a plug-in hybrid has surpassed 5,000 sales in Canada in one calendar year.

If that number surprises you, it should. And it shouldn’t.

It should, if only because if any carmaker was going to do that, I wouldn’t have guessed it would be one of the country’s smallest. It shouldn’t, because the Outlander PHEV is actually pretty darn good.

First, aside from the badging, clues that this is any different from the gas-powered Outlander are few: there’s the extra filling door on the passenger side for the charging port, the shifter is a joystick instead of a traditional PRNDL stick and the instrument panel has details on the powertrain the gas model doesn’t.

It’s entirely the same vehicle in terms of passenger and cargo space, with the battery pack hidden beneath the floor and the electric motors under the hood and on the rear axle. There’s no intrusion into cabin space to accommodate the electrics at all.

For average daily use, it’s extremely economical. My second chance to drive one was in Truro, N.S., where my son and I spent a week competing in the Canadian National Archery Championships. Our daily driving was about 30 kilometres a day and the hotel featured a free CHaDeMo charging station: 25 minutes of charging and the battery was full.

Had this been in a home, a 240-volt charging station would have done the same in about 3.5 hours, or 13 hours at 120 volts.

When we didn’t leave Truro, we didn’t burn gas, or at least burned so little it didn’t move the fuel gauge at all. It’s that simple.

And when we did drive to Halifax or Peggy’s Cove, we did so quite economically. The first 30 kilometres or so was entirely electric, and then we averagedabout nine litres per 100 km once the gas motor kicked in. Even when I thought it was getting thirsty, having drained seven-eighths of a tank, the resulting fill-up was a surprise: only about $40.

Outlander PHEV operates in three different modes: electric, where it behaves as though it had only electric power; series, which is also known as range-extender mode, where the gas engine does nothing but power the generator to provide electricity; and parallel, in which the gas and electric motors share propulsion duty.

There are a few twists worth noting, as well. If you know you’re going to be on the highway for a while and want to run in EV mode when you get into a city, you can select “save” mode, which minimizes battery exhaustion. It’s perfect for highway driving, where the benefits of any hybrid evaporate very quickly, but preserves hybrid functionality for the city, where hybrids shine.

“Charge” mode will use the gas motor to charge the battery, either while parked or while driving. Again, it helps on the highway where you can restore some of the EV capability for when you get into a city.

The PHEV also provides a variation on Mitsu’s Super-All-Wheel-Control system: in gas vehicles, this system operates with driveshafts and clutches to send torque to the four wheels in varying proportions. In the PHEV, the gas and main electric motor are connected to the front wheels only. An electric motor on the rear axle provides rear-wheel torque when needed, and a computer directs torque from side-to-side as needed.

You can engage 4WD Lock, which even in the PHEV, which has no mechanical link between front and rear axles, simulates locking the centre differential.

So, how does it drive?

First, forget everything you thought you knew about Outlander. Yes, the original model to use this body had atrocious handling, with what I’m guessing was severe rear sub-frame flexing that made hard cornering quite the adventure.

Those days are long gone; the Outlander now rides and handles as well as any mid-size SUV in its class. The seats are comfortable, vision is excellent and the interior design is quite well done.

There are a few things Mitsu could do better inside, and that’s integrating components better. It’s a minor thing, I’ll admit, but having the odd outlier button or knob or control that’s not anything like the others screams of parts-bin raiding.

The touchscreen display for audio control is quite busy, and the crowded placement of control areas means you need to concentrate on the display when doing something. It does have an actual volume knob. A tuning knob as well would be perfect.

Does the Outlander PHEV save so much money in fuel you should choose it over, say, a Honda Fit or Mazda3? No. The economics just don’t work out. Where it does make sense is if you’re already shopping in the mid-size SUV market: many models with similar prices won’t come close to its fuel efficiency.

That it’s a plug-in, with 35 kilometres of EV range, means many Canadian drivers can do their daily driving on nothing but electricity. Mitsubishi states each 100 kilometres of EV driving takes 27.7 kilowatt hours of electricity for charging. In Manitoba, that works out to $2.36 per 100 kilometres, compared to $10 to $12 per 100 km with gasoline.

Now do I have your attention?