Executive Wheels: Great Base Vehicle, Suspect PHEV System

Car reivew of the 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander Phev GT S-AWC

Before I get into the nuances of the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV GT S-AWC, let me state for the record that I really enjoyed driving the car and overall had a wonderful experience on a week-long test drive. But it’s an odd vehicle, to be sure, and there are many reasons to think it is not going to be most people’s cup of tea. The Outlander itself – available in a gasoline engine format – just might be the ticket for someone looking for a mid-sized SUV, but this PHEV – Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle – is another matter. Read on.

I was afforded the luxury of driving this Outlander for more than a week on a recent holiday trip to Michigan, and it proved to be an auspicious happenstance. We auto journalists often request that of local press pool operators when we travel, but what we end up with is all of matter of availability and timing. My contact in Detroit was very accommodating, and getting an all-wheel-drive SUV for a trip from Detroit to Petoskey, some four hours north on Lake Michigan, proved to be just the right thing given its storage and seating capacity, and the potential – nay, the inevitability – of winter driving conditions. On all those points the Outlander proved more than excellent. I felt safe, secure, comfortable and in control at all times. And yes I did encounter some tricky, snowy and icy road conditions.

Since it was winter (the week in between Christmas and New Year’s), I did, of course, have to use the car’s heater, and I can attest that it was a cut above good. It heated up surprisingly quick each and every time, always a plus, held its temperature well, and the heat channels – feet, shoulders, windshield – proved to be remarkably powerful. And it was quiet. Couple this with excellent two-temp (high and low) heated seats and a heated steering wheel, and I was warm and toasty. If I had any complaint it is one that applies to nearly every vehicle similarly equipped: the heat in the steering wheel is mostly at “3” and “9” and not much at all at “12” and “6”. Still comforting. Over all, the climate controls – separate in the dashboard and not part of the ubiquitous infotainment screen – were easy to use and not distractive in any way.

There was plenty of seating, what with the comfy buckets up front and the 60/40, three-seat rear that had plenty of leg room and was wide enough to accommodate three normal size adults for even a long drive. What was particularly interesting was that, unlike many SUVs with All-Wheel-Drive capability, this Outlander had no hump running down the middle to bring the transmission to the rear axle: it features front-wheel-drive with the gasoline engine and an electric powerplant under the hood, and then, apparently, there is a second electric motor to operate the rear wheels. This vehicle is capable of running in an all-electric mode , but it is also a traditional hybrid so even if it isn’t plugged in and fully charged at a charging station, it generates charging through such actions as deceleration and braking, not to mention the gasoline engine providing juice, so even if you haven’t plugged it in on every drive the hybrid electric system still operates. In any case, it provides that middle seat passenger the same leg/foot room of any rear-seat passenger. In the way back there is plenty of room for storage – luggage, ski gear, odds and ends – so the three of us on the trip always felt we had plenty of space for both sitting and storage. Yes, we did fold down the “40” part of the rear seat back to easily make the skis fit in the vehicle, and we still could easily have held four people and all the skis and poles and gear. (We might have been the only people in history to travel from Colorado to Michigan to go skiing, but there you go. It was very nice.)

The Outlander debuted at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, in early 2001 as a 2002 model, so it’s beginning to enter the venerable stage. But I remember driving it in the early years, and I thought it was top heavy – skinny and tall, and it felt like it would tip. I remember taking most of my family when the kids were teenagers and younger in a seven-passenger Outlander for a Christmas outing and it was crowded; the third row was very tight and even the middle row wouldn’t have been good for a long trip.

To be fair, the Outlander has gotten bigger, like just about everything else on the market. I have driven the Outlander over the years and I can attest this 3rd generation version (since 2013 with some updates since) is roomy. My test-drive version was a five-passenger (all PHEVs are five passenger) while the gasoline Outlander seats seven. I would guess the difference in capacity has to do with where the hide the batteries and the rear-wheel electric motor.

I can also attest the all-wheel-drive system (called AWC, all-wheel-control at Mitsubishi) is excellent. While I was up north, as they say in Michigan, I drove on snowy, slippery roads and also on a few back road covered in snow, sometimes deep, and I could feel the control. I never slipped or slid and had great traction – where it was needed – in each any every case. If you like AWD SUVs, this Outlander won’t disappoint.

So before going to the downside, let me recite some of the things I liked:

  • The outside mirrors: Yes, they were large and offered a great view, as they should, but my favorite thing was when you locked the car (by key fob or a button on the door handle) the mirrors folded in; wonderful (I detest loud beeps to show the car understood your message).
  • The sound system: Well, it’s really more of the brains of the car rather than just the sound system, and it’s controlled by a 7” “smartphone link display audio system. The radio itself – AM, FM and Satellite — was HD and an excellent 710-watt Rockford Fosgate premium audio with 9 speakers, and very easy to use. The rest of the system had apps – Apple CarPlay/Android Auto – and all the necessary hook-ups to your smart phone for music or podcasts, and significantly no navigation because that’s already on your phone anyway.
  • With reservations, a great console and dashboard: the console had the requisite things – cup holders, USB/ACC/PWR ports, an armrest cubby – and they worked well. But they had deficiencies. First, the USB etc. was up front, but there was scant little room or a notch to put your phone; it needs a small shelf. Second, the armrest cubby had no hook-ups. This was offset by the fact that right behind it, facing the second row was a small console for the rear seat passengers featuring a USB and a 120-V plug.
  • Standard multi-view camera system: up front, rear view, bird’s eye, you can easily figure out what you doing or want to do.
  • Outlander app: Download the free Outlander PHEV II app to your smartphone to control vehicle functions over Wi-Fi. Preheat or cool the cabin, set the most efficient charge times and more from the comfort of your own home. Kinda cool.

Of course, one of the major benefits of hybrid technology in vehicles, and even more for PHEV vehicles, is that the government still allows for tax credits – not deductions, but straight tax credits – for the purchase or lease. This Outlander PHEV for the tax year 2019 qualifies for a $5,836 federal tax credit, and a Colorado tax credit of $5,000 – both subsidy levels, federal and state, are phasing out over the next few tax years. But, really, if you are anticipating a tax bill to the feds and state for this year (for taxes due in 2020), they being able to count the $5,836 and $5,000 against what you owe is substantial – and, of course, it reduces the cost of the vehicle.

This last point is significant because the 2019 Outlander PHEV has a beginning base price of $34,595 – compared with $24,695 base MSRP on the gasoline Outlander. So the tax credit pretty much evens things out. The real question is whether the PHEV is worth $10 grand more in the first place.

The answer is no. I’ve already mentioned that it has two fewer seats than its gasoline sibling, but the real reason for the “no” answer on value has to do with the PHEV system itself. Underneath the back storage deck is a compartment that houses the charging cord, and it connects to charging ports on the side of the vehicle in the back under a flange like the cover of a gas tank. That much is easy. Mine was equipped with a 120-V system, but apparently you can get a 240-V adaptor easily. At your home or wherever, the 120-v will fully charge the vehicle for electric-only use in about 8 hours, and the 240-V in some 4 hours. You can also hook it up to a DC Fast Charging3 station (some exist and others are coming apparently) for 80% of charge in about 30 minutes. Sounds good, right?

Ah, no. Fully charged the Outlander PHEV only has a range of 22 miles. Yes, 22 miles. And my experience with electric cars is that each and every one overstates the range, and besides range varies with weather, time of year, road conditions and the like. So maybe you could count on 20 miles – tops. That would barely get half the people I know to work and back in the Denver area. Range anxiety indeed. Oh, but there’s the handy gasoline engine – a 2.0-liter four, with some 117 horsepower – to cover your anxiety, sort of. The gas tank is only 10 gallons, and with 25 mpg combined fuel economy in the gas-only mode (less in city driving), you have to stop quite often for gas. I drove the vehicle primarily on the highway to go Up North, obviously in gas-only/hybrid for the most part, and it proved to be the only vehicle I have ever made that drive in that needed a gas refuel along the way. It worked out fine, though: turns out its range in gas only matched perfectly with my wife’s ubiquitous need to make a pit stop, so I was pulling into a gas station already in any case and in any car. For the record, the 117-hp, coupled with the two electric motors in the hybrid system that adds approximately another 80 hp to the mix, this vehicle was plenty powerful and zipped right along. And, oh – not that it matters for 22 miles – but in full PHEV mode the Outlander is rated at 74 MPGe.       

The base model of the PHEV Outlander is the SEL, and it comes nicely equipped with, of course, the Twin Electric motor system and the All-Wheel-Control system. My test-drive vehicle was the top-of-the-line GT S, and on it they added advanced safety features such as Forward Collision Mitigation, Lane Departure Warning, the Multi-View Camera System, and two AC outlets with a combined 1500W power supply. And, of course it has leather seats, power seats, etc. – it wants for nothing. The MSRP here – and almost everything is standard – is $41,495. For some reason, they add in all this whiz-bang stuff as standard, and then they have the temerity to charge $135 bucks for carpeted floor mats. Go figure. Add destination charges, and the bottom line is $42,625.

I actually loved this vehicle, but why go through the hassle of taking a tax credit of $10 grand when for $10 grand less I could buy the gasoline version to begin with? If the electric range was much greater, or much more useful, then maybe, but all this PHEV Outlander is now is a brightly-badged billboard for “I am an ECO warrior” without really any of the eco benefits.

If you want a great SUV, get an Outlander. If you want a great PHEV or electric vehicle, go somewhere else.


Categories: Industry Trends, Transportation