CORNWALL, N.Y. — The 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander SE is an extraordinarily ordinary compact crossover-utility vehicle — much improved over its previous self, but still lacking the chutzpah to make it a first-class competitor.
That isn’t good news for the Outlander’s marketing prospects. But it is good for bargain hunters looking for solid value in a small family hauler.
The problem is that the Outlander’s rivals are discernibly better in styling, performance and overall feel. And the rivals are many, including the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX5, Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Rogue and Kia Sorento.
There is nothing horribly wrong with the Outlander — nothing wrong at all, in fact. Exterior styling, completely redone for 2014 in the service of aerodynamic efficiency, is attractive enough. Interior redesign, aided by improved materials, is commendable — with the notable exception of flimsy third-row seats that should be discarded altogether.
But “nothing horribly wrong” is not good enough to set you apart in an arena where so many rivals are doing things exceptionally right.
For example, unless perhaps price is a big factor, it is difficult for me to imagine someone walking away from an excitingly styled 2014 model such as the Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V or Ford Escape and toward a new Mitsubishi Outlander.
And if price is the issue, the smartly designed Kia Sorento LX, with a 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine (191 horsepower, 181 pound-feet of torque) and an arguably better looking interior, would give the new Outlander a run for the money.
The 2014 Sorento LX starts at $24,100. At this writing, the 2014 Outlander SE, also equipped with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine (166 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque) starts at $23,795.
Both vehicles run quite well on regular gasoline. Both offer what nowadays passes for reasonably decent fuel economy — about 25 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway for the Outlander SE and 20 city and 26 highway for the Sorento LX.
But the proof is in the driving. And the Sorento, with its more powerful four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission, simply feels better than the Outlander SE with its more modest four-banger linked to a continuously variable automatic transmission that feels a bit like a wind-up toy.
The new Outlander appears to suffer from what might be called “conglomeritis” — a condition affecting many multinational conglomerates trying to do too many things.
A cursory look at the company’s international Web site tells the story. Tokyo-based Mitsubishi is into everything — consumer electronics, commercial electrical equipment, major industrial equipment, real estate, elderly care, other medical services, temporary employment services, and banking and other financial services. And it also makes cars and trucks.
The latter suffer from a stepchild effect evident in the Outlander SE’s presentation. The vehicle is presentable enough. But if you’ve driven any of its major rivals, you know that something is missing.
There was a time, a decade or so ago, when the largest division of General Motors was the laughingstock of the automotive world. That was back when GM was trying to be everything to everybody, everything except a premium car company.
Even the first-generation Outlander, introduced in Japan in 2001 as the Mitsubishi Airtrek, outclassed similar offerings from GM, such as the Chevrolet Equinox, which was introduced three years later.
But Chevrolet did something that Mitsubishi has yet to do. It decided it wanted to be a car company. It decided it wanted to be known for the quality and imagination of its work on cars and trucks. The proof of that turnabout in corporate thinking is in GM’s latest slate of products — the new Chevrolet Impala, Chevrolet Cruze, Chevrolet Silverado pickup and, for the purposes of this column, the very attractive Chevrolet Equinox crossover-utility vehicle.
Someone at Mitsubishi should take a close look at what has happened and what is happening at GM and Chevrolet. They should pay close attention to what changes occur when a car company decides that it is, after all, a car company.
Maybe, then, Mitsubishi will give us an Outlander that is a first-class example, instead of one that is overjoyed at the prospect of earning a C-plus and passing to the next grade.
A C-plus is okay. But really Mitsubishi, is “okay” the best you can do?