Mitsubishi as a brand has become synonymous with Japanese engineering and craftsmanship. The company has been making cars since 1917 and in the past 94 years it has gone on to become one of the world’s best known and respected vehicle manufacturers.
Many are most likely unaware that Mitsubishi Group is an enormous Japanese multinational conglomerate with core members including Mitsubishi Motors, Mitsubishi Electric, a bank, a steel manufacturer, a plastics maker, camera maker Nikon and even Kirin Brewery.
In fact, Lion Nathan (the Australian company best known for XXXX, Tooheys and Hahn) is 100 per cent owned by Kirin Brewery Co. Who says you can’t make beer and cars at the same time? In reality, the different arms of the company operate mostly separate from each other, however, it’s important to grasp the magnitude that is the Mitsubishi Group to fully understand the resources at its disposal.
In 2011, Mitsubishi Motors Australia Limited (a wholly owned company of Mitsubishi Motors Corporation) is celebrating its 30th year of official operations Down Under. During those three decades the Japanese company has sold 2.2 million vehicles, of which more than 400,000 have been four-wheel drives.
In order to celebrate the milestone and demonstrate the off-roading capabilities of the 2012 Mitsubishi Pajero, Challenger and Triton, the company brought us along to take part in an epic four-day event through the Flinders Ranges from Balcanoona to Leigh Creek, Marree to Lake Eyre and Oodnadatta to Coober Pedy.
Our trip started when we landed on a private airstrip in Balcanoona, part of the Gammon Ranges National Park. The choice of vehicle between a Pajero, Triton or Challenger is not an obvious one when you’re planning on a long, uncertain and challenging four-wheel drive route. The Pajero is the most civilised with more sophisticated suspension and creature comforts, but there is something special about off-roading in a Challenger or Triton, so we jumped behind the wheel of a Triton and began our journey to Mt Fitton ruins in Moolawatana.
Mitsubishi sells about 1500 Tritons per month, which is pretty impressive given the intensifying competition from the new Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50, Volkswagen Amarok and the revised Toyota HiLux. The 2012 update see the Triton receive ABS/EBD standard across the range, with ASTC (traction control) also standard for all diesel models. Other improvements include revisions to the interior, 245/70R16 wheels (from 205R16), three-point seatbelt and headrest for centre rear seat and bucket seats for the GL and GLX. Club Cab towing capacity is now a respectable 3000kg while the range-topping GLX-R gains a 4x2 version as well as a USB port.
The Mitsubishi Triton has always been a strong contender for the dominant Toyota HiLux. Nonetheless, in the 4x4 utility category the Nissan Navara outsells it by almost 2:1 and the HiLux by more than that (a great deal of Toyota’s sales are to fleets and mines). Even so, talk to private owners and they’ll talk to you for hours about how much they love their Triton. The HiLux might have that 'tough' reputation, but the affordability and reliability of Mitsubishi’s Triton has earned it a special badge of honour.
After a quick stop at Wooltana Homestead we set of to Mount Fitton ruins and on to Strzelecki Track (named after Paul Edmund de Strzelecki – the first European to climb the highest point in Australia, Mount Kosciusko), a part of the world made famous by cattle thief Harry Redford who, in 1871, stole 1000 cattle from Queensland and herded them to Adelaide to be sold. The locals were so fascinated by his daring feat that the jury found him not guilty, which resulted in the governor of Queensland withdrawing the courthouse’s (Roma) criminal jurisdiction for two years.
While we entertained ourselves with the history of the place, we took for granted just how easily our Triton overcame the challenging terrain before it. With a 33-degree approach angle (21-24 degree departure angle) and 205mm ground clearance, the Triton is by no means ever going to climb Mount Everest, but by the same token, you’ll really have to try and try hard to get it stuck somewhere.
Past through the Strzelecki Track we drove on to Lyndhurst, an old railway town lost to history. The 78km fast gravel road gave us a chance to explore Mitsubishi’s all terrain technology (MATT). The system can switch between 2WD high range, full-time 4WD, 4WD high range with locked centre differential, and when the going gets really tough 4WD low range with locked centre differential. The beauty of MATT is that it allows for quick shifting between 2WD to 4WD (high) at up to 100km/h. With limited weight in the rear and at speeds reaching 140km/h, our Triton’s traction control did tend to nudge in every once in a while when its rear-end was starting to lose grip. It’s a seamless process and a very helpful one.
From Lyndhurst our next destination was the little mining town of Leigh Creek, about 530km north of Adelaide. The unusually modern town is home to fewer than 550 occupants but is host to a brown coal mine site, which produces 2.5 million tonnes of coal each year. Despite the original town having existed for more than 100 years, it was moved 13km back in 1982 for mining expansion. With the outside temperature north of 35 degrees, we pulled in to Leigh Creek Tavern for dinner and overnight accommodation. The Triton was our car of choice for day one and it didn’t set a foot wrong.
The next morning we set off in a brand new 2012 Mitsubishi Challenger. Although it's based on the Triton platform (and shares a great deal of its underpinnings), it offers a much cheaper alternative to the Pajero yet is just as capable off road.
The 2012 model year update see the Challenger gain a 2WD version for folks that just need a practical SUV without off-roading credentials. There are minor enhancements to the exterior, and a convenience option pack adds everything from Bluetooth connectivity, reversing camera (integrated into the mirror) 17-inch alloy wheels and USB integration as well as side and curtain airbags and much more. The reversing camera is perhaps the biggest improvement to the big, tough-looking SUV as it’s now a much safer choice for families with young kids, or for those that can’t stand the thought of parking a big vehicle.
The Mitsubishi Pajero and Challenger together hold a strong position in the medium SUV segment, currently commanding 11.9 per cent market share. This is the best result for Mitsubishi since 2003, which is why it’s so vital for the Japanese company to keep the vehicles fresh and ahead of the competition.
For our drive from Leigh Creek to Marree, the Challenger was just as confident both on- and off-road as its ute brother. However, since it’s an SUV and not a ute like the Triton, the level of interior fine-tuning can do with more work, particularly in the area of engine noise. The 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel engine (also in the Triton) pumps out a respectable 131kW and 350Nm of torque, which proves a capable combination when mated to a five-speed automatic. It is noisy, however, and at times can be a little sluggish getting off the line, but for a family SUV it’s more than suitable.
Marree, just like many places in this part of the world, has a rich and fascinating history. This little town, which lies 685km north of Adelaide, is currently home to only 70 people, but there was a time when it was much more than that, being a central part of rail operations between major towns. The town is indeed littered with old trains and railway memorabilia.
The Marree Hotel is operated by a middle-aged couple that cater for passing tourists with wonderful food and a delightful attitude. Interestingly, Marree was once called Herrgott, but had its name changed during the First World War because it sounded too German.
The next leg of the journey was a 200km drive to William Creek, home to the well-known William Creek Hotel. This was by far the smallest town we visited during our trip, with just 10 people (and one dog) listed as its official residence, although it did have its own golf course and small airport.
Despite its rich history and walls littered in business cards and photos of those that have passed through over the decades, the owner could certainly do with a basic course in customer service. Nonetheless, we weren’t in William Creek for the food or hospitality, but for a flight over Lake Eyre.
Lake Eyre is massive. So much so that it covers one-sixth of Australia and when filled it takes the title of Australia’s biggest lake (18th biggest in the world). The saltwater lake is also the lowest point in Australia, about 15m below sea level. Our one-hour flight over the lake gave us a bird’s eye view of this year’s heavy rainfall, which filled almost 75 per cent of the lake.
The lake gives off a rather strange pink hue (caused by the same algae that makes carrots orange) and is incredibly reflective given its high level of salinity. It’s certainly worth seeing if you're planning a four-wheel drive expedition out this way.
Alas, it was time to camp at Lake Eyre north. This meant a 100km drive from William Creek out to the lake. It was by far the most demanding corrugated road we’d encountered and for this purpose we swapped to a Mitsubishi Pajero.
Despite the near $10,000 price difference between the Pajero and Challenger, it only takes 15 minutes behind the wheel to realise the significant advantage. Unlike the Challenger, the Pajero is designed from the ground up for family use as well as off-roading. It’s much quieter inside, offers a more pleasant interior and its air conditioner easily countered the 40-degree temperatures we endured. The multi-link rear suspension was also a godsend on these rough tracks.
The 2012 model year update for the Pajero include minor enhancements to interior and exterior with the addition of a reversing camera standard on GLX variants and above. Mitsubishi has dropped the V6 petrol in the GLS/VRX variants due to low demand. Not that it’s an issue given the 3.2-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel is the one you’d go for - every time. With 147kW and 441Nm of torque (available in five-speed automatic or manual), it leaves the Challenger for dead, providing that much-needed extra grunt for overtaking manoeuvres.
The super-bumpy road out to our camping spot presented some interesting circumstances. We originally engaged 4WD low in anticipation of mud but the consistent bumps resulted in our Pajero jumping out of low gear. Back in 4WD high range with locked centre differential and along we went. The easy and simple steering of the Pajero was also a welcome change from the Triton and Challenger, making the drive out to Lake Eyre north as simple as possible.
With a tonne of camping gear strapped to the roof and the rear weighed down with cooking equipment, we expected our Pajero to struggle both aerodynamically and dynamically but it surprised us in both regards. A few times when we hit big unexpected bumps at speed it took them without a fuss.
Overnight the sky opened up with heavy rain which, combined with ferocious winds, paved the way for a memorable night sleeping in tents. It also made the drive back in the morning far more challenging. Some of the other folks were heading to Oodnadatta through to Cadney Park but we decided to go straight for Coober Pedy.
On wet corrugated roads, our Pajero was doing its best to offer traction but the rear end was sliding with ease and the traction control light didn’t get much rest. In saying that, we averaged about 90km/h for most of the trip back and apart from a few close encounters with wandering cattle, we made it out unscathed.
Driving into Cooper Pedy with mud covering the wheels and the Pajero looking like it’d come out of an outback horror film, it was a welcome sight to see civilisation. The little opal mining town has gained a bit of reputation over the years, mainly as most of the interesting bits are underground. This includes hotels and churches. There is also a night-time golf course which makes use of glow-in-the-dark golf balls, not to mention the local pizza store claiming to have Australia’s best pizzas (they’re pretty darn good). Given the post-apocalyptic look of the town, it has been used as the backdrop for numerous well-known films, including Mad Max, Red Planet and Pitch Black.
Our quick stop at Cooper Pedy gave us some time for reflection. Although it’s hard not to take in the scenery and the history of the outback, the real story here was that all the Mitsubishi vehicles brought along for the expedition driven by folks with not too much off-roading experience easily made the journey completely problem-free.
With the 2012 updates across the Mitsubishi range, the SUV and ute range have shifted more focus to driver comfort and enhanced safety. The Triton may not sell as well as the HiLux but it’s gaining some traction in the mining industry and continues to be a favourite personal car for owners. The Challenger is arguably the most cost-effective family SUV with real off-road credentials, and as for the Pajero, well, after putting it through some incredibly unpredictable terrain it’s obvious why it continues to be a preferred choice for families with adventurous lifestyles.
As for the trip itself, if you’ve got a week spare and a family that loves the outback, it comes highly recommended. One we’re unlikely to forget anytime soon.