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Say goodbye to the Mitsubishi Challenger, and hello to the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport — the company's new-generation, Triton-based off-roader that launches in Australia in December this year.
But that’s weeks away. We’re here in the now and have spent a brief window behind the Pajero Sport’s wheel in Japan, following this week’s Tokyo motor show — a reflection of how important this new model is for Mitsubishi.
Always more of a niche sold on price than anything else, this iteration — which ditches the established Challenger badge and takes on the largely global Pajero Sport moniker — is pitched as enough of a step forward to command significantly more sales for the brand.
And the stage is very much set, considering sales of rugged off-roaders are growing just like every other SUV in the market, a fact enhanced by the recent launch of the Toyota Fortuner and Ford Everest — both also 4WD wagons built on modified ute platforms.
That’s not even including the tried-and-true Isuzu MU-X, which continues to command healthy sales growth and a growing reputation, and the Holden Colorado 7, not as successful as its cousin but a presence nevertheless.
“[Challenger] was not so popular unfortunately in Australian market… now it is time to renew,” said the Pajero Sport’s project leader, Koichi Namiki. Those polarising looks are no doubt a part of that story.
So what’s new? This Thai-made Pajero Sport remains based on the Triton’s platform, which in its new-generation guise sits on a modified version of its predecessor’s platform.
But the changes made have been done to remove some of the old seven-year-old Challenger’s utilitarian characteristics, which make way for more refinement, luxury and safety. This Pajero Sport will still take a beating, Mitsubishi says, but it’s also moved upmarket.
This latter point might get more vital, given there’s no new version of the bigger Pajero in sight, with the 16-year old current model to soldier on for a few years yet. The Pajero Sport, you suspect, will have to fill whatever void that leaves.
Some of the changes in short? A new ‘high’ dashboard design, new suspension geometry to make it better in corners, greater sound-deadening, improved wading depth, and brand-first active safety systems such as blind-spot monitoring.
It’s also the first Mitsubishi with both LED daytime running lights and tail-lights, an eight-speed automatic transmission and an electronic parking brake.
Inside the cabin, Mitsubishi claims to have liberated greater amounts of cabin space, though the only aspect where the Pajero Sport is dimensionally different to the Challenger is in its overall length, up 90mm. The wheelbase is unchanged.
It’ll be a five-seater in Australia, though the seven-seat version sold elsewhere is on the cards (it would cut the regular Pajero’s lunch — though it would be nice to have the option, given the third row folds commendably flat). The middle row folds mostly flat, and while we don’t have storage figures, it’s commodious. The rear passengers get roof-mounted air vents.
The second row is comfortable and supportive, with excellent legroom and OK headroom, though while shoulder room is improved, the Pajero Sport is still on the narrow side, and the middle seat is near-useless. The roof-mounted seatbelt is also ordinary and would prove a handful if you fitted a cargo barrier. There are ISOFIX anchors, though.
Full Australian specifications haven’t been announced yet. Headline features on all variants will include the same touchscreen with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and DAB+ as the Pajero, meaning the head unit mirrors your smartphone and caches your apps if reception is lost. There's also a full around-view monitor for parking.
Upper versions will also get a roof-mounted screen for rear passengers.
MMC has added a range of metallic and black leather trims to make this iteration feel far less ute-like inside, while the fascia is redesigned over the Triton too. There’a also a new four-spoke steering wheel.
The leather used on the seats of the up-spec models feels high-grade, and while many of the cabin plastics are typically hard to the touch — not so bad in a car built for the rough stuff — it feels a match for the Fortuner and a step above the quality inside the Everest.
Top-spec Pajero Sport versions feature a number of safety systems that are new to Mitsubishi, including a blind-spot monitoring system. There’s also a low-speed autonomous braking system. Safety is augmented by seven airbags.
Off the beaten path, the Pajero Sport has the same ground clearance (218mm), approach angle (30-degrees), departure angle (24-degrees) and break-over angle (23-degrees) as before. But hardcore off-roaders will appreciate the 100mm greater wading depth, now 700mm.
The Pajero Sport comes available with the company’s Super Select 4WD-II system with four modes, a fully lockable centre diff in both high-and low range, a default torque split in 4H full-time 4WD of 40:60 front-rear (but you can run it in 2H to save fuel), and new hill-descent and hill-start assist systems.
There’s also a brand new Off-road mode that regulates the engine, gearbox, stability control and brakes to suit a range of surfaces — gravel, mud/snow, sand, rock (only in ultra low-range 4LLc, which is a proper crawling function that nicely complements the hill-descent control).
We had a few burns up an intermediate test track and found all the systems worked as they should. The hill descent control is modulated with the throttle, not the cruise control, and while its brake ‘graunching’ is noisy, it works well.
Impressive were the approach/departure angles, especially over rapidly successive, sharp humps, while the suspension travel and ride height meant we didn’t bottom out in areas we suspected to, and were insulated while doing it.
Our test gave us a good look at the variable torque distribution between the axles, which got us out of several spots of bother by sending extra to the contact points, and the impressive rear axle articulation. It also showed us the ordinary rear visibility through the vast C-pillar.
Honestly, our time at the wheel was short. We had no reason to doubt this version is every bit as capable as before, and the old one was regularly subject to a range of aftermarket conversions. The small 68-litre fuel tank might be the only major issue.
Put it this way: Dakar Rally champ Hiroshi Masuoka took us in a stock Pajero Sport for a quick run over a special course, and gave the car hell. We got air, some drift and tackled some mega-steep inclines and declines. Even on landing, the car never bottomed out and the bump stops remained untouched.
Underneath the body sits a double-wishbone and coil-sprung front suspension setup, while at the rear there is a solid axle, coils and three links. There’s a thicker front stabiliser bar, “dramatically improved” rear suspension mounting positions and different damper rates to make the Pajero Sport theoretically handle better on tarmac.
We have no illustration yet on how the Pajero Sport performs on road, and whether it buries the disappointing elements of the Triton. Given this different rear suspension, we’d be comfortable saying that to a degree, yes, it would.
The steering remains hydraulically power-assisted rather than electric like the Everest, but Mitsubishi says it has added assistance and reduced the steering ratio to make it more wieldy in urban environs. Indeed, it feels every bit as light and easy to twirl as the Fortuner.
Under the bonnet is the same 2.4-litre turbo-diesel engine as used in the Triton, but matched exclusively to a new eight-speed auto with paddles — there’s no longer a price-leading manual option — which in tandem with a regenerative braking system cuts fuel use by about 20 per cent over the Challenger.
At 2070kg, the Pajero Sport weighs 70kg more than before but still undercuts other ute-based off-roaders, including by about 400kg over the porky Everest.
Outputs are the same as the Triton, measuring 133kW at 3500rpm and 430Nm at 2500rpm, while towing capacity is 3.1-tonnes — 100kg higher than a number of rivals such as the Everest.
The engine remains excellent, and the extra noise insulation is noticeable. The eight-speed auto is bound to help economy, and we know it’s already an extremely efficient unit based on the Triton proving the most economical ute in class on our recent mega-test.
We’ll be honest, our time behind the wheel of the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport was brief, and spent only off-road - so we're looking forward to a drive on local roads for more extensive testing.
But we can very safely say it feels every bit the off-road beast it has to be, and adds a whole new level of refinement, comfort and technology to the mix.
Is it enough to beat the class-leaders? Consider Mitsubishi's five-year warranty and cheap servicing, the great infotainment and what you'd expect to be typical reliability, and it seems like a good, honest option.
But we’ll have to do that comparison test once it arrives locally.
What do you think? Are you a Challenger owner? Does the new Pajero Sport appeal? Let us know below.