Getting a steer of a bona-fide prototype is a fascinating and all-too-rare experience, an opportunity to taste-test a work in progress immersed in the surprise and delight of poking around with the largely unknown. Half of the fun is getting to have a play with the stuff carmakers often don’t even want you to see from fifty paces or via a blurry and pixelated spy pic.
Our brief spin of the 2018 Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross assessment vehicle wasn’t quite so glorious, if merely because the unknowns around the SUV set to nestle between ASX and Outlander in Mitsubishi’s local line-up “later this year” are few and far between. Bar final specifications of forthcoming variants and pricing, much of the pertinent information about this all-new model range is already out in the public forum.
Because its stylised production appearance, inside and out, lobbed back at the Geneva show earlier this year, we've long known what the end result will look like, and I don’t need to lift its heavily camouflaged bonnet and play detective to decipher its 1.5-litre direct-injected turbo petrol format, nor need a tape measure to reveal a 2670mm wheelbase shared with the ageing, soon-be-little brother ASX.
That’s not say there’s no sleuthing fun to be had going one-on-one with the R&D test hack that's been running around Oz recently.
Yes, it’s categorically a small SUV, but questions of whether Eclipse Cross occupies the same dealership space as ASX – confusing buyers, cannibalising each other in sales – dispel once you see the newcomer, prototype or not, in the company of both its smaller sibling and the larger 'mid-sized' Outlander. Mitsubishi Australia is confident that the ageing, price-driven ASX will continue to be a decent seller and the fresh-faced newcomer will appeal to a different buyer set.
The local arm had both the ASX and Outlander on hand for our very brief drive of the Eclipse Cross in the Northern Territory, and first impressions are that it’s clearly a funkier, more upmarket wedge being driven between Mitsubishi's established SUVs.
Sat side-by-side with ASX, the Eclipse Cross is, proportionality, notably taller in roofline and is more slab-sided without appearing much wider, has a higher and more swooping window line, and as its extra length isn’t in the wheelbase, has more (Outlander-like) overhang front and rear. Even drowned in eye-blurring black-and-white 'camo', the Eclipse Cross has clearly a more angular, modernistic exterior design and appears much more SUV-like in the flesh than the more squat ASX, with its wheels pushed further to the chassis extremities topped with a sportier, more hatchback/crossover-like body shape.
The new car’s edgy look, including the fussy taillight and split tailgate glass treatment, has much more design kinship with the relatively fresh Pajero Sport and makes Mitsubishi’s current SUV portfolio appear at least a generation old.
The inner Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps Doctor Watson, notes the rich metallic red paintwork inside the door jambs, close if not bang-on to the Geneva preview vehicle, but in spot not completely masked in the front fascia and tailgate reveal a fetching medium-depth metallic blue finish. If you were betting two colours inclusive on the new car’s specifications…
Mitsubishi Oz remains cagey about the details of either prototype or forthcoming production versions but, up close, there's much to discover in the former. The composite beam headlights with integral LED DRLs aren’t a world away from a high-spec Pajero Sport’s and, climbing inside, there’s a neat, slim floating infotainment screen, Lexus-like controller pad, transparent head-up display, rather shapely electric sports seats and lashings of leather, neat stitching and upmarket frosted silver accents. The multi-function steering wheel feels speccy, our car gets a novel split sunroof arrangement (with individual rear passenger controls in the second-row ceiling), electric folding mirrors and column-mounted paddle-shifters that have a nice solid feel.
I quiz Mitsubishi Oz who reply that, no, this car’s equipment shouldn’t be taken as indicative or representative of a flagship Eclipse Cross variant, though I can’t imagine what other addenda, bell or whistle you’d add to this prototype's featured list to create the higher trim level. Again, if you were a punter…
The infotainment system is heavily app-centric, CarPlay is installed, the software is slick in design and it does feature an impressively high-resolution touchscreen, which is a godsend because the controller pad is about as (un)usable as the terrible Lexus system. But elsewhere, the cabin takes a big leap forward. It’s fussy and funky, which mightn’t appeal to all buyer tastes, though there’s newfound quality to the materials and integration and, like the exterior design, it feels like it’s dragging Mitsubishi’s SUV stock to a much more contemporary place.
Importantly, it’s noticeably roomier inside than the ASX, most conspicuously in cabin length. Up front, there’s reasonably low-slung seating typical of today's crossover set, and in row two there’s a generous amount of knee room.
Shoulder room front and rear, too, is decent, though that double-sunroof does seem to impact headroom quite a bit. It’s tough to judge rear comfort though, as the split-fold and adjustable rear seat-back is wedged against a piece of test equipment strapped into the boot space and the seatback is set far too upright. The boot of the prototype is a no-go zone, so the jury is out on load-lugging capacity or flexibility.
Even before start-up, the 6000rpm tacho and selectable Auto/Snow/Gravel more inside the instrumentation – conventionally styled analogue with the digital central driver’s screen – signifies that this is the 1.5 petrol version of indeterminable outputs tied to all-wheel drive.
To the right of the wheel sit the on/off button for lane-departure warning and there’s little to suggest this car is fitted with much more in the way of further electric aids and intervention bar autonomous emergency braking (as fitted toe ASX and Outlander ranges) and the rumoured S-AWC AWD smarts (as fitted to current Outlander). So far, so conventional, then.
Having been bounced between ASX and Outlander diesel AWDs, as well as the surprisingly impressive and quite likeable Outlander PHEV, prior to our punt of Eclipse Cross, provide handy baselines with which to leap into the Eclipse Cross driving experience, if one with the ever-present spectre that our prototype is exactly that and shouldn’t be taken as production gospel. The suspension and steering have been localised in tune, if perhaps still being developed and fine-tuned. Still, there’s little about this car that doesn’t feel production-ready or properly sorted.
With three adults on board, the turbo-petrol is reasonably willing if patently no powerhouse. Under full throttle, the CVT pegs the engine at around 5000rpm with little attempt to ‘fake’ gear changes, with reasonable, unflustered and smooth forward progress bereft of torquey urgency and with excellent traction on the dirt roads we’re allowed to play on. Nothing terribly surprising or revolutionary, then.
It still mystifies me why Mitsubishi persists on fitting column-mounted paddle shifts on anything that moves – if you never use them, which means a large chunk of the SUV owner set, they're simply an annoyance you’re constantly grazing your knuckles against.
The prototype’s chassis does seem well-sorted. Three-up, the ride is compliant, there’s no wallowy bounce or crash-through on bumps, and it feels reasonably obedient to direction changes without much ESP intervention once you push on the loose stuff. The steering is quite nice: direct, light and a bit friendlier than the ASX, which can become leaden and unnecessarily heavy at times. With the moderately larger SUV, there’s a little more solidity at play, better NVH, improved sound deadening. It seems more the shrunken Overlander than an ASX that’s grown some on the metal, glass and rubber fronts.
The overarching impression, though, is that Mitsubishi hasn’t gone for an overly ‘sporty’ to the localised suspension or steering tune in the way that, say, Toyota has done with the C-HR or Mazda tends to do with anything SUV like.
So, while the Eclipse Cross might appear a bit more adventurous in nature than the family haulers that’ll top and tail it in the local Mitsubishi range, it's not trying to be a sports car in the driving experience. At least, those are the signals this prototype sends...
But who’s to know? It might be only a couple of months until the real deal hits showrooms, but that’s not to presume this particular hand-fettled snapshot of Eclipse Cross in development is necessarily an advanced one. Even if this camouflaged sample is ‘on spec’ – Mitsubishi is mum on the topic – workhorse prototypes rarely feel like factory-fresh production cars merely by their well-worn nature.