The ‘new’ 2020 Mitsubishi ASX range has just launched first week of November, and whether it’s a potential purchase or you’re tyre-kicking as a follower of general motoring, there are a few things about the hugely popular small crossover you might be interested in.
Firstly, a lot of the ASX isn’t that ‘new’. This is the fifth new face – or fourth facelift, then – of a (third) generation that’s been on the market nearly a decade. There are some key appearance, powertrain and equipment changes covered here that, we discovered, do impact the ASX experience, but you don’t have to scratch too deep to find a familiar core car.
Secondly, and importantly, it remains an extremely popular range for Aussie buyers. As of October 2019, a month before the update launched, the ageing and outgoing version was the biggest-selling small SUV under $40K of the month – and the year. Remarkably, it was outselling its own performance of 2018 – by 1200 cars, give or take – where it was also the top seller. And against no fewer than 26 competitors.
It doesn’t take commercial genius to figure out that Mitsubishi could’ve kept rolling out the same old version and continued very tidy and perhaps dominating business indeed. And that a new face, new under-bonnet gear and a bit of range-fiddling might, all things considered, actually risk robbing some key appeal from the great many who buy them. Those who buy them, according to Mitsubishi, are young females, young families on a budget, and older empty-nesters. Oh, and car rental companies, who account for a whopping 40 per cent of ASX sales.
Exactly why the ASX is so popular as a hire car should be considered if you're thinking of buying privately. And the formula that's done the nameplate so many favours for so long is this: its ‘perfect’ size is compact to drive yet practical enough for interior space; its non-turbocharged powertrains offer dependable reliability; and it’s affordable to buy and cheap to run, whether that’s friendly servicing costs or its happiness to drink 91RON-grade fuel.
As ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix’ prospects go, it’s easy to see why a formula hit upon so well a decade ago has remained unchanged for so long. Yes, the ASX regularly gets a nip and tuck and the formula gets a polish – the recent addition of smartphone mirroring, the unpopular diesel engine and all-wheel-drive options getting the axe – but clearly being the techiest, trendiest and most forward-thinking ‘crossover’ out there isn’t underpinning this model line’s success.
The 2020 update is actually comprehensive by ASX measure, though understandably not much of the new stuff greatly differs in the essential user experience.
It took the arrival of the overtly funky and edgy Eclipse Cross to demonstrate just how timeless and handsome the ASX shape looks a decade and four facelifts on from debut. Everything from the windscreen forward is new for 2020, but while it might appear as if a Triton fascia has been plastered on in pics, it’s quite a cohesive and contemporary look in the metallic and plastic-y flesh. The rear looks more familiar despite some effort in remodelling, and its neat proportions are anchored by 18-inch alloys across the range. Exterior lighting is now mostly LED bar the turning lamps.
The range has changed in that sportier MR and GSR versions, due December, will be introduced, and aim to capture the interest of more young male buyers who traditionally might’ve opted for the now-defunct Lancer hatchbacks. Fortuitously, Mitsubishi Australia favoured demonstrating the flagship Exceed ($35,740 drive-away) at the local launch – the version that incorporates MY20 updates to the most comprehensive degree.
All up, there’ll be six variants to choose from, kicking off with the ‘fleet special’ ES fitted with a manual gearbox ($24,990 drive-away). By its importer’s admission, pricing is up across the range, though always keep in mind that the ASX has long been ripe for deals, offers and sharper negotiation.
There are much fewer changes inside than out. The design, instruments and controls are all familiar, unpretentious in materials and execution, with little concession to modernisation bar the new 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Digital radio and a newer, second-generation CarPlay and Android Auto integration featured across the range, though the flagship Exceed adds proprietary TomTom sat-nav, which is a bit clunky when it comes to graphics and usability. Plus, there's Rockford Fosgate nine-speaker sound, which adds a subwoofer in the boot that robs about 50L of luggage space.
Visibility is great, seating comfort is more acceptable than generous, and there’s just about enough roominess in accommodation for four adults without long-haul punishment. There’s a pair of USB ports plus a handy phone cubby slot up front, though disappointingly even this top-shelf $35K version wants for any air-con or device power facility in row two. Plus, there's no digital speedo.
Its popularity as a rental is testament to practicality that, with 393L of boot space (in versions without the subwoofer), offers travellers enough room for two decent-sized travel cases. And it’ll expand to 1193L in most versions (or 1143L in Exceed form) with the 60:40 split-fold rear seating stowed.
As a step up from the carryover 110kW/197Nm 2.0-litre naturally aspirated four featured in lower-spec versions, it’s interesting to see what the larger 2.4-litre unit brings to the ASX experience besides an extra 13kW (to 123kW) and 25Nm (to 222Nm) of academia. At 7.9L/100km, it is a little thirstier than the smaller engine backed by a manual (7.7L) or CVT auto (7.6L), though the offset, of course, is an expectation of surlier shove.
The result is a bit of a mixed bag. Through its CVT transmission driving the front wheels, there’s decent response and quieter operation provided you’re not heavy-footed. It's a little more dignified in general all-round progress. And on a roll on the highway, there’s enough pep in overtaking acceleration to not break out into too much of a sweat.
But really dig and point it uphill and the powertrain can get caught off-guard, the CVT hunting up and down for a long moment or three before finding the engine’s 4100rpm torque peak. The more weight in occupants and luggage aboard, the more the ASX tends to pause before manning the action stations. And with just 222Nm on tap, it’s workmanlike action at that.
Is it a fair trade-off for the convenience of cheap fuel and running costs? For a good many buyers it most certainly will be.
The ASX seems happier as an around-town runabout than it is a grand tourer tackling the tyranny of long distance – on evidence of its ride and handling package. There’s some pleasant, soft compliance built into the fundamental suspension tune that does a decent job of ironing out large and sharp road imperfections at lower speeds.
Those large 55-series tyre sidewalls round out vibrations from the odd rough patch and, at up to about 60km/h, the steering is nice and light. The guided reversing camera and excellent outward visibility mean the crossover is a doddle to park, too.
Climb into the 80–110km/h zone, on the open road or highway, and the ASX starts to lose a bit of dynamic competence. That slight floatiness that works well at bump absorption at low speed makes the chassis feel aloof and a little less tied down than it ought to be at cruising speed. The crossover does tend to wander a touch to and fro, demanding small and constant steering corrections to track the chosen trajectory.
More annoying is the strangely leaden and almost ‘viscous’ feel to the steering at speed that makes it heavy off-centre and demanding of a little too much effort from the hands. This has been a small but significant bugbear of the ASX steering system for some time, and one that should’ve been ironed out by now.
Yes, all variants now get autonomous emergency braking, though it’s only fleet-spec ES and ES-based MR sports versions that miss out on the fulsome ADAS suite of safety systems we consider almost essential fitment for the ASX. From automatic high-beam to rear cross-traffic alert, the array covers all conventional active safety bar lane-keeping assistance, and the AEB includes pedestrian-recognition smarts.
You do, however, need close to $30K to get even the fleet-trim ES with ADAS safety fitted. So despite the attractive $199-per-visit servicing costs (12-month/15,000km basis), the ASX starts to look less like the buck-banging bargain, if fitted with fulsome, available safety credentials.
While a bit of pricing creep might negatively impact the ASX’s price-leading credentials, it’s an inevitable byproduct of a range with increasingly mature roots keeping relevant and maintaining vibrancy with the advancing times.