Mitsubishi intends to stay a world leader in plug-in hybrid tech, and new-gen Outlander PHEV is the key

The second-generation Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, due around 2020/21, will have a significantly longer zero-emissions electric range than the current model, sufficient to make it an electric vehicle ‘95 per cent of the time’ for the average commuter.

The next version of Mitsubishi’s (in many ways pioneering) plug-in hybrid crossover is expected to have a battery range between 80km and 100km – up from just over 50km on the current model, or 45km on the harsher and newly-mandated real-world focused WLTP European test cycle.

This is the maximum EV range before the petrol engine/generator kicks in and carries the load. Such a setup is why PHEV has come to be known a bridging tech between the rollout of cheap, and long-range, electric cars.

The 100km figure would put the (relatively) affordable Outlander PHEV's battery driving range on a par with the soon-to-be-launched second generation BMW X5 PHEV, called the xDrive45e Performance. Needless to say this will be a more expensive offering.

By contrast, the (nominal) rival Mini Countryman S E All4 PHEV has a 42km electric range, similar to the Volvo XC40 PHEV. Ditto the imminent Subaru XV PHEV using Toyota Prius Prime bits. Rivals are coming out of the woodwork, and Mitsubishi naturally wants to defend its turf.

This is all coming from a chat we had with Vincent Cobee, one of Mitsubishi Motors' vice-presidents, who has an oversight of product development, and who previously worked for Mitsubishi's Alliance partner (and big shareholder) Nissan.

"The all-EV range today on Outlander PHEV has around 50km in pure EV mode before going to a hybrid drive system. We will extend this, the aim we have is 80-100 km, which covers 95 per cent of trips," he said.

"We do this in next generation, but if we go beyond that the cost equation becomes [untenable]." Batteries are hugely expensive, still.

The Outlander PHEV has been a smash hit for MMC in certain markets that incentivise (give tax breaks) for green vehicles. It's sold more than 100,000 of them in Europe, and it's a top-seller in Japan, where it actually makes financial sense.

We don't know tech specs yet, but MMC's COO Trevor Mann did confirm to us that the new Outlander will be based on a shared Nissan-Renault architecture (CMF-C), meaning it will share a starting point with the next Nissan X-Trail and Renault Koleos.

The current Euro- and Japan-market Outlander PHEV pairs a 100kW 2.4 litre petrol engine/generator with two electric motors, one at each end of the car, making 60kW and 70kW respectively, plus a 13.8kWh lithium-ion onboard battery array.

The PHEV can drive as a battery EV at highways speeds until the batteries are flat, as a series hybrid with the petrol engine simply generating power for the electric drive motor to use, or as a parallel hybrid where both petrol and electric power sources are driving the wheels.

The batteries can be charged up from a regular home powerpoint in five hours, or a public fast charger to 80 per cent in 25 minutes. While its EV range is a fraction of a pure EV crossover like the Hyundai Kona Electric (or any of these rivals), the Outlander PHEV has an onboard petrol generator that can be refilled at any service station.

The 2020 replacement model will likely use a smaller petrol engine to save weight and reduce fuel burn, and a denser onboard storage battery. Naturally, this unit costs more (the current rate across the industry is about $150 per kWh) but there's a way for MMC to develop it with economic viability.

What's this? Mitsubishi will become the hub of PHEV development for the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, which claims to be the world's biggest-selling automotive group, though the three brands aren't actually in a subsidiary arrangement, just a cross-sharing one.

This means its next generation PHEV system will be adopted across the Alliance, giving MMC the cash and the scale it needs to make the technology more affordable on a per-unit basis, and to justify a bigger R&D spend. In return, Nissan will share its pure electric tech from the Leaf with Mitsubishi.

Australia

The Outlander PHEV is Australia's most popular plug-in hybrid, but then again it hasn't really had any direct rivals. We're quite behind Europe, the US and much of Asia in this regard.

While EVs are becoming more accepted, the PHEV idea suits Australia in many ways. Our charging infrastructure isn't very diverse, meaning the reassurance of a petrol generator reduces dreaded range anxiety.

But the reality is, we're not a core PHEV market yet. We still get the previous version with its 2.0 engine and smaller-output motors than the MY19 model in Europe/Japan, and we won't be at the front of the queue for the new 2020/21 model with its bigger range.

However, a chat with a few MMC engineers this week did clarify for us that the company would be able to keep up wth greater demand for batteries, leveraging the Alliance's purchasing power. So, we'll see.

MORE: Everything Mitsubishi