We drive the world's first plug-in hybrid SUV with some surprising results
The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV may look just like a regular Outlander, but behind the anonymous façade is the most technologically progressive SUV on the market.
‘PHEV’ stands for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, and as the name suggests it means this Outlander can be fuelled by electricity from a household power plug to power electric motors that are supported by a petrol engine.
Two electric motors each drive the front and rear axle independently, making this the only four-wheel-drive SUV plug-in hybrid available, while the batteries allow 52km of real-world electricity-only driving at up to 120km/h.
Beyond that speed, or should the battery pack drain to less than 30 per cent of its charge, a front-mounted 2.0-litre non-turbo petrol engine automatically kicks in. It acts as a generator to help the Outlander PHEV have a total driving range of more than 800km on a full tank.
While that’s a decent range, it falls shy of what the best turbo-diesel-engined compact SUVs claim, such as the 1000km-plus Kia Sportage.
In addition to being the world’s first plug-in SUV EV, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is also the most fuel efficient four-wheel drive on the market and the second most economical vehicle on-sale.
The only two other plug-in hybrids currently on-sale are the $60K Holden Volt and $300K Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid. The Outlander PHEV claims a combined fuel consumption average of 1.9 litres per 100 kilometres, placing it behind the front-wheel drive Volt (1.2L/100km) but ahead of the also-all-drive Panamera (3.1L/100km).
The Mitsubishi’s claim is especially remarkable for a family-size SUV that tips the scales at a hefty 1810kg, seats five in greater comfort than the four-seat Volt, and is $12,500 cheaper than the Holden overall.
The entry-level Outlander PHEV is priced from $47,490 (plus on-road costs), while the top-spec Outlander PHEV Aspire costs from $52,490. Both leapfrog the previously range-topping $45,490 Aspire turbo diesel that uses almost three times the fuel (5.8L/100km).
As a world first, the Outlander PHEV also has no direct competitor. The closest SUV offering a hybrid powertrain in the SUV segment is the Lexus RX450h from $82,900, though it can’t be recharged via a powerpoint and can’t run on electric power alone.
Befitting their premium status in the Outlander range, the PHEVs are very well appointed with 18-inch alloy wheels, HID dusk-sensing auto headlamps, seven-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation and reversing camera, dual-zone climate control rear parking sensors and seven airbags.
The Aspire adds a power tailgate, electric sunroof, leather trim, heated front seats, as well as active safety features including adaptive cruise control and forward collision mitigation. (Click here for a more complete list of specifications.)
If you’re used to a regular car, it’s going to be a strange experience the first time you gently nudge the tiny joystick over to the right into ‘D’ and drive off in eerie silence for the first time. Even heavy prods of the throttle produce the same level of silence, though that has its rewards - the six-speaker audio unit is ordinary, so at least there’s plenty of clarity in this ultra-quiet cabin.
Off the line, the PHEV isn’t as quick as we might have hoped given the totals generated – only 60kW from each electric motor, but a hefty 195Nm of torque from the rear and 137Nm from the front. Initial acceleration suffers due to its additional 200kg kerb weight (battery and electric motors) over the standard Outlander.
When extra power is needed for full-throttle acceleration or when higher speeds are reached on the motorway, the PHEV automatically (and seamlessly) switches to parallel mode – when the 87kW/186Nm petrol engine provides direct drive to the front wheels. It’s what differentiates the PHEV from the Volt, where its smaller 1.4-litre engine is isolated from the wheels and acts purely as a generator to charge to the battery.
However, motorway cruising at high speed is effortless under electric drive, though sustained travel in this way can deplete the battery quicker than the maximum range Mitsubishi quotes.
When you need to recharge on the run, all you need to do is hit the ‘Charge’ button behind the joystick, which fires up the four-cylinder engine to charge the battery.
The steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters have been re-purposed to take advantage of the PHEV’s regenerative braking to slow the vehicle down (similar to engine braking), while also charging the battery.
It is, however, much easier to let the PHEV choose the optimum source of propulsion to use, because it switches between electric and petrol power seamlessly. The noise insulation is so effective that it is sometimes difficult to know if the engine is actually running.
A single charge via a powerpoint takes five hours, which could cost you less than a single dollar depending on the hours you choose to plug in to the grid, or if your domestic electricity supply is subsidised by solar power; although you’ll need to install a dedicated 240V 15-amp power outlet that mates with the lightweight charge plug that comes with the vehicle storing neatly under the boot.
By our quick calculation, an average of 15,000km per year translates to just over 40km per day – well within the PHEV’s EV range – so you could conceivably drive solely on electric power for the entire life of the vehicle on the original tank of petrol.
Inside, it’s pretty much standard Outlander layout except for the aforementioned joystick-style selector and charging buttons, while the tachometer has been replaced by a power meter, which shows when you’re charging the battery, using the battery, or using the engine as well.
The centre screen also displays additional graphics such as how the power is moving around the vehicle via a very cool engine-flow indicator, which also illustrates the level of battery charge remaining.
While there’s no loss of luggage space – at 463 litres – you do miss out on the third row of seats due to the reworking of the PHEV’s platform to incorporate the battery, as well as crash safety requirements.
Ride comfort is also marred by the PHEV’s additional weight and 30mm lower ride height. Any kind of bump is felt as a firm-ish thud throughout the entire cabin. The firm seats don’t help either, though they’re well bolstered.
Body control, though, is well sorted for an SUV of this weight, as the Outlander PHEV benefits from Mitsubishi’s Super All-Wheel Control (S-AWC) a system originally developed for the Lancer Evolution X that ensures maximum vehicle stability when cornering.
Unfortunately the Outlander PHEV doesn’t share the Evo’s steering and handling prowess – it’s regular Outlander here, which means slow and mid-weighted steering, and average handling.
It also doesn’t share the Mitsubishi five-year or 130,000km warranty – all electric vehicles get the same time coverage but to 100,000km. Servicing intervals are every 12 months or 15,000km, at a cost of $360 for the first service, and $470 for the following three services.
Unlike Mitsubishi’s overpriced and poor selling all-electric i-MiEV, the Outlander PHEV has all the hallmarks of a game-changer.
While the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV isn’t inspiring and has some suspension issues, it is practical (despite losing two seats), efficient and relatively affordable, and should find favour beyond the early adopter set.