2017 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV review: Ice driving in Norway

The 2017 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is about to hit Australia. But here we drive the car in Norway, where tax incentives have made it the market’s number-two vehicle behind the Golf. Why? Read on…

The updated 2017 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV plug-in hybrid crossover is about to launch in Australia, but to properly understand this car in context you have to go where alternative-fuel vehicles are more than tokens and novelties.

That’s why we were lucky enough to visit oil- and gas-rich Norway last week – between the snow-capped mountains near Gol and the Fjords near Aurland – to drive the PHEV in a market where it is the number-two selling vehicle of any type behind the VW Golf.

That’s a pretty remarkable statistic, and one that’s driven by the near-unanimous support across the spectrum of Norwegian politics for the rollout of greener vehicles – and the eventual phasing out of internal combustion passenger vehicles by 2025.

The Norwegian government applies prohibitive progressive taxes on cars’ weight and CO2 emissions, and a linear tax on NOx, on all internal combustion vehicles. So high are these charges, the locals claim to “buy one car for themselves, and one for the government”.

On the other hand, those who buy an electric car or a plug-in hybrid get a substantial discount, making something such as the Outlander PHEV viable on cost before running costs and environmental politics are taken into account.

In fact, the PHEV is substantially cheaper than the Outlander diesel variant in Norway.

Then there’s the free parking, reduced registration and dedicated fast lanes for EVs and plug-ins, and the large charging infrastructure on tap. It’s no great wonder in this context that 50 per cent of new cars sold in Norway last year had drivetrain electrification.

Is this all motivated by the goodness of Norwegians’ hearts? We asked many locals who of course often took pride in their nation being a world-leader in EV proliferation. Yet none said they weren’t motivated by the tax breaks. They’re not super-humans.

Nevertheless, this is all clearly setting Mitsubishi in good stead in an advanced market. Naturally, and of course opportunistically, its European division wants to sing this scenario from the rooftops. Hence our hosted visit, fully disclosed.

Those who’ve been reading us for a while may recall we lived with an Outlander PHEV on long-term loan for a while a few years ago, and reported mixed thoughts. But was that the car’s fault, or Australia’s? And does a rethink offer new areas of credibility?

For those not ‘across’ what Mitsubishi’s pioneering – not a word many would apply to the company of late, it must be added – PHEV crossover offers, here’s a quick recap.

Under the regular Outlander body sit two 60kW electric motors, one on each axle (the rear unit offers great torque output) that can provide impetus independently and almost instantaneously in lieu of any locking differentials, since both ends’ are fully open.

These are fed by a protected 12kWh/300V lithium-ion battery array in the floor and a 89kW/190Nm 2.0-litre petrol engine paired with a generator and single-speed gearbox – one ratio only is needed as the engine works independently at high speeds.

The net result is a genuine electric range of about 50km, and batteries that can be recharged by the engine, by manually adjustably brake energy regeneration, or by plugging into a power point (five hours) or a fast charger (about 25 minutes to 80 per cent).

And of course the car still runs even with flat batteries, either through the petrol engine generating charge to the array which in turn spins the wheels (series hybrid mode), and by the engine directly powering the front wheels itself under greater loads (parallel hybrid mode) – the latter while leveraging any surplus power to charge the cells simultaneously.

Range anxiety? Not here, which has always made theoretical sense in Australia, with its vast distances and almost complete lack of public charging infrastructure (sorry, Tesla).

Mitsubishi’s PHEV staple also offers a fairly interesting twin-motor AWD system called Super-All Wheel Control (S-AWC), incorporating active yaw control driven by each axle motor, plus individual-wheel brake torque vectoring.

The result? We hit a controlled ice circuit, flicked off the well-sorted ESC, and were doing controlled drifts in no time flat, using the throttle to counter understeer by powering the rear outside wheel, while the system braked the inside-front.

Rally drive Jari Katomaa took a different tack, engaging the 4WD Lock mode that basically imitates a locking centre diff. But unlike yours truly, he’s a real driver.

Either way, tipping a PHEV sideways like a RWD was intriguing – if a little irrelevant – and following the digital display showing the actions of the constantly variable brake and yaw control on each corner was more than little distracting. Watch out for snow banks…

But we’ll bring you more than that particular experience later. For now we’re focused on the road loop, which comprised driving through mountainous, snow-covered roads. Relevant to Australia? Maybe not. Though ball-bearing gravel isn’t far removed…

Our drive from our accommodation, into the town of Gol, and then through and out the other side to the Fjords and back again, took place at low speeds. Perfect to hit the EV button near the console, which overrides the hybrid system and orders the car to run solely on batteries at speeds below 120km/h, regardless of throttle pressure.

After this 40km stretch our batteries were getting low, so we engaged the Charge mode, which encourages the engine to devote more effort to charging the cells. This, in collaboration with the five-stage ‘engine’ brake regeneration controlled by flappy paddles, allowed us to add significant charge back into the array.

We then engaged the Save mode at the higher-speed next stage, which started the engine and kept the battery-charge level stable, because in this context the engine and single-speed 'box are at their most efficient, and the batteries their least. Better to save the EV drive for town.

You can watch all this via a nifty digital diagram on the centre screen, showing on a constant basis what the complicated dual-motor/generator/engine combination is doing. You start playing along, trying to eke out the miles.

The result was a 341km drive (with three occupants and gear) with average fuel use of 6.6L/100km: good, though not diesel matching, while the system said we were relying on EV drive 53 per cent of the time.

On long cruises, this economy, and the smallish engine (supplemented by motors) means the PHEV isn’t a rocket ship. But where it shines is in town. You could easily manage your 40-50km daily commute using only battery power, and then go out of town on weekends relying on engine power, stopping at a servo to top up the old fashioned way.

At your destination, plug it into your wall (which it now can) or a DC fast-charger, and you’re sorted, able to charge for a few bucks. There’s also a supplied cable for a wallbox.

The compromise and complexity is obvious, but the upside remains strong, and while Mitsubishi has scarcely updated the drivetrain since 2013, it remains a cheaper (around $50,000) and larger alternative to the Audi A3 e-tron and BMW 330e, and costs scarcely more than an Outlander diesel considering its high level of specification.

These specs include leather seats, a touchscreen (Australia will thankfully get the Display Audio system that’s miles better than the horrible Rockford Fosgate unit in our European tester, and which was previously offered in Australia), electric tailgate, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and with no real loss in the SUV’s cabin practicality.

While MMC hasn’t changed the drivetrain, it made changes to the body stiffness and suspension components for the update that’ll hit Australia in the next few weeks, resulting in better directional changes via the well-weighted steering, and a more cosseting, yet controlled ride that absorbs hits well, though still occasionally jars over sharp edges.

It drives better than before, there’s no doubt.

The big issue for Mitsubishi’s local arm is communication, which again must have prompted it to extend this invite. Does PHEV tech resonate in Australia? The sales figures clearly say no, not yet.

Yet the lack of incentives and infrastructure are precisely the reason why a PHEV makes some sense in Australia, even if its only a long-term bridging technology, and destined to be a footnote once batteries improve. And it’s hardly a car brand's fault that we still rely on coal power plants rather than hydro or other in many parts of the country.

Loads of Australians spend around $50k on a crossover – the 2017 PHEV’s price will be announced soon, but it’ll be there or thereabouts, like the old car – and if they understood you could have one that does all daily commuting as an EV, but has a counter to range anxiety, it might get cut-through.

What we will say is that nobody could accuse Mitsubishi of not being ahead of the mainstream curve, and it’s good to see the conservative and oft-derided brand still committed to the odd spot of innovation.

Whether it can capitalise and build on this development is up to its own internals politics, and market resonance alike. But it’s not wise to squander a lead by forgetting the decisions that got you there in the first place.

Was the PHEV rethink worthwhile? It was for this writer. This rating here is a smidgen higher than we’ve given the car previously, but like all things, context makes a huge difference.

Comment below and tell us your thoughts, please. Does PHEV make sense for Australia? Have you experienced living with one? Have I just drunk the Kool-Aid?