We head to the snow in an all-wheel drive plug-in hybrid to see if there's still spark in the cold.
Warmer weather may be sweeping our continent right now, but a late ski season provided the perfect opportunity to utilise our Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV for one last weekend carve and for our second long-term update (LT2).
We wondered if an electric vehicle had ever visited the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, and the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV being all-wheel drive meant it wouldn’t need snow chains if the weather turned sour while we were up on the slopes. My current long-term Mazda 3 Maxx would have needed chains being front-wheel driven, so PHEV minder Matt kindly swapped with me to take the roomier petrol-electric Japanese SUV.
Plugging the Outlander PHEV into a powerpoint in Jindabyne should also mean picking the emissions-free fruit of the Snowy Hydro Scheme, which opened in 1972, instead of the dirty coal-powered generation used in Sydney.
Sounds like more than enough good reasons to take the Outlander PHEV, but yet another is the fact that being an SUV, Mitsubishi can shove the batteries that power the twin electric motors under the floor without ruining your boot space. Rival plug-in electric vehicle the Holden Volt has a much smaller boot and only seats four, where the PHEV has a bigger one and fits five.
In fact, the PHEV Aspire has the same-size boot as every other Outlander, although it loses its sixth and seventh seats compared with the diesel Aspire that is also $5600 cheaper.
We leave the urban grind early on Friday afternoon with a full battery charge thanks to the 15-amp plug newly installed at the CarAdvice office in North Sydney. We also have a half-empty boot and are travelling two-up until Canberra, where we’ll collect a couple of public-servant friends who will help really utilise the Outlander’s spacial benefits over the Volt, Nissan Leaf, etc.
Mitsubishi claims a charge will cost $3.50 and get us a maximum of 52km. It takes about that range to head south via our state’s expensive toll roads, including the Lane Cove Tunnel, M2 and M7 onto the free Hume Highway.
The Outlander PHEV purrs along on electricity, though it doesn’t take long to discover this is a more ‘mild’ hybrid than a Volt, for example.
Where the Holden has a sizeable-enough electric motor to always power it even when the accelerator is floored, the Mitsubishi will under maximum throttle kick in its 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine to help the electric motors – one each of which is positioned on the front and rear axles, handing it that four-wheel-drive capability.
After 50km of smooth freeway motoring, the Outlander PHEV is all out of charge. The petrol engine kicks in just enough on this early stint for it to claim 2.1 litres of unleaded per 100 kilometres – a touch higher than its 1.9L/100km combined cycle claim.
Still, it was nice to not contribute to the sheen of smoke haze over the Sydney freeway ringroads that cut through dense suburban areas almost in their entirety.
For the remaining 250km to Canberra and following 180km to Jindabyne, however, the Outlander PHEV would essentially turn into a Toyota Prius – using a petrol engine for the majority of the time, while when coasting topping up batteries and switching the petrol engine off.
Coasting can’t generate electricity like braking can, however, and because you’re rarely pressing the brake pedal on freeway driving, this sort of driving isn’t where hybrids thrive.
The Outlander PHEV, however, also has a ‘charge’ button that – like the Volt – uses its petrol engine to both power the car and charge the batteries, so I decide to press it for the remainder of the trip.
It takes just half an hour to give a maximum of 38km electric range for when we get to the nation’s capital for dinner, to use silent (local) emissions free running around urban centres where people won’t have to breathe in fumes. We could have also chosen to use the ‘hold’ function to store the original electric range until we wanted to use it – in, say, built-up areas – which is clever.
Working the engine to drive the car and recharge the batteries has contributed to 8.0L/100km economy according to its trip computer, however, with only 29 per cent of the trip so far done on electricity.
This is likely a far worse figure than the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder in the cheaper Outlander Aspire would do on the same trip, because unlike petrols and hybrids the low-revving and high-torque characteristics of a diesel make them efficient on the freeway.
The Outlander diesel’s combined cycle consumption may be 5.8L/100km, but we’d bet our house it would do better than that on the freeway.
That said, particularly with harmful NOx emissions, the diesel is far worse than the PHEV, and without even stop-start technology it will always be pumping fumes into the face of pedestrians around town.
The Outlander PHEV became the first vehicle I’ve ever driven to Jindabyne that couldn’t make the trip from Sydney on a single tank of fuel, though. Because of the space taken up by the batteries, the PHEV only gets a 40-litre fuel tank, down from 60L in the diesel. That contributes to a total freeway range of just 471km, even with the initial 50km of electricity and subsequent 38km recharge.
The trip computer was dead accurate – 8.0L/100km was its actual figure.
Because the Outlander PHEV has a 15-amp plug, its lower prog is longer than that of regular plugs and thus won’t fit in a regular powerpoint. This was a problem in Jindy, as we found. The only option would be to hire a caravan site for $36 per night, but that would mean paying a substantial cost just to get the Outlander PHEV charged for 50km of driving the next day.
It’s a 60km round trip from Jindabyne to the Perisher ski fields, and we’d be doing that trip twice, so if we had camped it may have been ideal. But the warmth of a lodge won out because the days of mates and I being cash-starved uni students are long gone.
The Outlander PHEV also needs to climb from 915 metres above sea level to 1720m, then at the end needs come back down, and this is where things became interesting.
With skis and stocks packed neatly through the ‘40’ bit of the 60:40 split-fold rear-seat, and lots of boots filling the rest of the, erm, boot, we were away.
On the big climb the petrol engine was frequently heard roaring away in the background, and by the time we unloaded our gear at the top the Outlander PHEV had used 16.8L/100km. Yep, it was working hard.
But after a dowdy grey day of skiing – great snow, average visibility, but the big win was short queues – a few sore bodies headed home. And downhill was where the Outlander PHEV loved life. It cruised down using just 2.8L/100km, while munching on coasting/braking regeneration to provide 5km of electric-only range.
The transmission lever has B3 and B5 modes for more aggressive engine braking, meaning downhill you need to use less of the brake pedal. Simply come off the throttle and the car will slow. It works well.
The following day, with a bit of extra traffic and time, our Mitsubishi long termer cruised downhill at 6.0L/100km but provided 12km of completely free electric only range.
These are terrific figures.
As we continued to push the odometer from 5720km to 6670km for this trip, two other tanks levelled out at 8.0L/100km and 9.0L/100km, each again with sub-500km range.
It’s a shame, though, that we couldn’t use any of the Snowy Hydro’s recycled-energy goodness. If only the Outlander PHEV had a normal plug, or if only our country’s infrastructure was such that fast charging stations were positioned along the way and in Jindabyne, because this Mitsubishi is clearly not built to run solely on petrol power.
In many ways the Outlander PHEV is too advanced for a first-world country whose third-world leader firmly believes coal is the future – but I’ll hold up on getting too political.
On the way home we pass the Snowy Hydro Scheme museum and head office, then towards Canberra, a big sea of solar panels at Royalla followed by a wind farm at Lake George. Everywhere around us had places creating properly clean energy, yet few places were suitable and practical to recharge the PHEV.
Although this Outlander acts like a normal car, it is not the most economical or relaxed tourer.
In other ways, while the tech beneath the PHEV is expensive, it is also built down to a price in terms of its unintuitive entertainment system (that forgets your phone, and in USB mode always reverts to the first song in your music device); finicky voice-activated Bluetooth connectivity; lack of illumination on the joystick-like transmission shifter; and multiple bings and bongs from a clearly OH&S-obsessed engineering department – the PHEV beeps if you have the ignition on, turn the car on, have the door open, stand for too long behind it, put the tailgate up and down, or sit in the driver’s seat for too long without your seatbelt on.
Along with regular refills, not to mention the sometimes jittery ride thanks to increased weight over the regular Outlander, some of the shine was removed from the silken and flawlessly reliable electric driving experience.
The PHEV, however, is an outstanding technical achievement at a relatively affordable price with fewer packaging compromises than most of its competitors … if only we could have used our nation’s renewables to capitalise on this SUV’s greatest strength.
Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Date acquired: August 2014
Odometer reading: 6670km
Travel this month: 3553km
Consumption this month: 8.0L/100km