It may be new and novel today, but plug-in hybrid technology will slowly infiltrate the mainstream. Right now, Mitsubishi holds a place in the early adopter queue with the Outlander PHEV, but is this the next chapter in Australia’s motoring future?
How many mainstream carmakers can you name currently selling a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle in Australia? Right now there’s only one, and perhaps surprisingly it’s humble ol’ Mitsubishi with the almost anonymous Outlander PHEV.
Of course, Holden has tried (and since retreated) with a version of the Chevrolet Volt, and soon Hyundai will give buyers a choice of hybrid, plug-in and full-electric with the Ioniq, but right now Mitsubishi is the only company outside of prestige brands to try its luck.
Sales aren’t huge, not by a long shot, but if the inevitable march away from internal combustion is to have any chance at all, cars like these will be the stepping stone to convince Aussie buyers that the fast-advancing technology is actually plausible.
To do that, Mitsubishi has given the Outlander PHEV a slight range rework and introduced a price-leading ES variant from $45,990 plus on-road costs. Adding an optional safety pack adds another $1500, but more on that in a moment.
The PHEV system itself uses an electric motor on each axle – rated at 60kW/137Nm at the front and 60kW/195Nm at the rear for a combined 120kW (but strangely there’s no combined torque figure).
The 2.0-litre petrol engine functions as a generator to keep the batteries topped up, and at speeds above 70km/h can power the front wheels directly via a single-speed reduction-gear transmission. The driver can elect to save the current level of battery charge for later, or use the internal combustion engine to replenish the batteries too.
The petrol engine is rated at 87kW/186Nm on its own, and the onboard lithium-ion EV battery has a 12kWh capacity for a claimed 54km all-electric range. On test, the best we could get was a decently close 48km before the petrol engine chimed in to recharge the EV battery.
Japanese and European buyers have access to the Outlander PHEV with a 66kW rear electric motor, 13.8kWh battery and 2.4-litre Atkinson-cycle petrol engine claimed to be smoother and more efficient. Mitsubishi Australia is yet to get a lock on when this improved drivetrain might filter into cars locally.
So, here’s the thing – electric vehicles as we know them right now can take a long time to charge, and can be limited by their cruising range. A plug-in hybrid allows day-to-day EV usage, shorter recharge times, and long-range ability with quick refuel times (at least on the petrol side).
There’s no doubt the powertrain technology is impressive. It doesn’t just look good on paper, but through the process of driving it for a week, the PHEV concept becomes more and more convincing.
You’ll need to adjust your habits a little, but seeing as my regular routine tends to involve parking a car, hoicking my groceries or backpack out of the boot, and locking my garage door after I get home from work, adding ‘plugging the car in’ to that list isn’t really a stretch.
The reward for doing so is a tailpipe-emissions-free run to the office, lunchtime errands, home via a pizza place, and a quick spin down the freeway for kicks without (usually) needing to fire up the petrol engine.
The car will decide itself, however, if the combustion engine is required. You don’t need to do so, although you can select EV more to keep the car running silently if you’d like or invoke the petrol engine to charge the battery – something that seems odd right now, but would be of use in cities with emissions bans for certain areas or times of the day. Not a big issue in Australia right now.
Curiously, the Outlander PHEV won’t let you engage cruise control when set to EV mode, instead reverting to ‘normal’ mode and switching between electric and petrol engines despite being capable of running electrically at speeds over 100km/h. Despite this, it’s unusual for the petrol engine to join in under normal operating circumstances.
The petrol engine will also fire up if left in normal running mode as part of a systems check, or to help heat the cabin on cold days. Usually for no more than a minute or two, though, while there’s charge available.
Should you deplete the battery, the Outlander reverts to a mild hybrid-like state: the engine runs to charge the electrical system, and it in turn does the driving. When you stop at a set of lights, the petrol engine will hibernate, and when you press the throttle it will fire up again. Although, engine revs may not match driver inputs as power generation is matched to drive system demands, not road speed.
Those times when the 2.0-litre engine is running it's usually fairly hushed. Ask for peak performance and it becomes more vocal. It’s perhaps more noticeable on account of the usually silent state the car operates under.
Handling and steering aren’t highlights in the overall package. The steering feels remote and overly assisted, and the suspension struggles to iron out surface changes, tending to crash through and recovering slowly – no doubt a side-effect of the extra 325kg the PHEV carries over its petrol equivalent.
At launch, which took place on faster rural roads, I praised the ride. Having now spent more time with the Outlander PHEV in a wider range of settings, it's evident that the low-speed urban ride is less sorted. Not terrible, just not as good as it could be.
In the interests of science, I ‘forgot’ to plug the car in one night after running the battery down, just to see how the car would cope with the morning commute. While I wouldn’t consider it particularly demanding, my 6km drive to the CarAdvice office is almost entirely bumper-to-bumper start-stop with speed limits varying between 40 and 70km/h.
Worryingly, the trip computer suggested a trip like that results in a staggering 15.1L/100km fuel consumption. No better (actually quite a bit worse) than a similarly sized regular petrol SUV.
On the days the Outlander PHEV did have charge to run on the same trip, it registered a far more encouraging 0.0L/100km figure with the electric motors doing all the heavy lifting.
Mindful usage saw fuel consumption settle on a very low 2.4L/100km after around 270km of short-stint driving, with plenty of plug-in recharges in between, but also including time spent using the Charge function, charging the batteries via the petrol engine.
Of that test cycle, 67 per cent was covered on electricity, the rest required petrol generator assistance. No matter how you slice it, 2.4L/100km is impressive petrol consumption. The fuel-efficiency score at the end of this review is based off 'responsible usage' and not the worst-case scenario.
Electric consumption settled on 16.9kWh/100km over the same period. Mitsubishi claims an official 1.7L/100km (essentially that figure is based on the first 100km of travel from a full charge), but doesn’t give an electrical consumption quote.
Charge times from 0–100 per cent sit at around three hours with a dedicated charger (supplied by a third party of your choice, not by Mitsubishi Motors), or five hours using the included portable charger. The more expensive Outlander PHEV Exceed includes app-connected charging to help set up off-peak timing, however the ES misses out, meaning you'll have to use an old-fashioned timer to take advantage of off-peak rates.
As the focus of this review was commuter duty, we’ll revisit long-range use at a later date, but previous time with earlier versions of the Outlander PHEV indicates figures in the sevens are possible.
The further you drive in a single trip, the worse that figure can become, revealing the PHEV's biggest weakness is the very distance capability it lauds over short-range EVs.
Fancy powertrain aside, what else are you getting for your outlay?
The $47,490 Outlander PHEV ES ADAS comes standard with auto headlights and wipers, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, microsuede seat trim with leather bolsters, proximity key with push-button start, and electrically adjustable front seats.
That’s a higher level of equipment than you’ll get in a regular Outlander ES, and actually sits a little closer to the LS in terms of standard equipment.
Mitsubishi fits a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity plus DAB+ digital radio and Bluetooth, but no inbuilt navigation. The native system shows its age a little and isn’t always intuitive, though it’s hardly the worst of its kind.
It’s also the interface for the very detailed eco information available, should you wish to drill down your green motoring credentials.
Safety incorporates seven airbags, a rear-view camera, reverse sensors, and electronic stability control in the regular ES, and with the ADAS option pack added the Outlander PHEV gains forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, auto high beam, and a self-dimming rear-view mirror.
Surely by now, most of those features should be standard, like FCW and AEB at least? The entire Outlander range carries a five-star ANCAP, however the rating itself comes from 2014 and assessment criteria have evolved since then.
The interior itself is spacious and comfortable. The Outlander PHEV only seats five and doesn’t offer the seven-seat option available on petrol and diesel models, but despite medium-SUV classification, the Outlander actually straddles the medium and large segments. It’s bigger than something like a CX-5 and only a little smaller externally than large SUVs like the Hyundai Santa Fe.
Rear seat space impresses in every direction, with great leg room, plenty of head room, and enough space to seat three across the rear bench. The front seats are broad and comfy; you won’t find an abundance of side support, but they are comfy even after a long stint at the wheel.
The interior decor is showing its age – hardly surprising given it first arrived with a design that was hardly cutting edge in 2012 and has been barely tweaked since. The design is tidy enough, but there are some ergonomic flaws, like the starter button and trip computer controls hidden from view by the steering wheel, and the transmission park button blocked by the stubby selector itself.
There are soft-touch surfaces in most of the places you’d expect, tied in with plenty of hard-wearing and durable plastics in lower parts of the interior. The suede-look and leather seats are a classy touch, though there’s no real sweep-you-off-your-feet opulence.
The boot can haul 463L of cargo, and is down slightly on the 477L capacity of the non-PHEV five-seater. There’s underfloor storage that is just the right shape to carry the included portable wall charger with you, but no spare tyre, only a compressor and a can of tyre sealant.
The reason for the boot changes lies in the underbody modifications. The battery pack resides under the car, and the 45L fuel tank takes up space under the rear seat, while the rear motor occupies more space than a regular axle would, resulting in a slightly higher rear floor.
Servicing costs are covered under Mitsubishi’s capped-price program for three years or 45,000km at 12-month/15,000km intervals (whichever comes first). Over that period, standard servicing adds up to $1095, making the PHEV slightly more expensive to service than an Outlander petrol, but still cheaper than the diesel version.
To call the Outlander PHEV a game-changer would be overselling it. That’s a shame too, because it’s in Australia fighting the good fight for electrification that other mainstream manufacturers seem too afraid to pursue.
It is an excellent short-range EV and will happily run you and your family from point A to point B, with scope to get you to point C, without using more than a bare minimum of fuel. It’s spacious enough for family use, though a long way from the most modern interior presentation.
Unfortunately, it's not an ideal all-rounder. If it were more frugal in range-extending petrol mode, or could compensate with a longer electric range, it would be a star. The next-generation Outlander should do exactly that.
For now, though, it’s an interesting early step in an evolving motoring landscape whose relevance can only solidify over time.