The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV may trace its roots to 2013, but it was sufficiently far ahead of the curve then to remain a unique, complex, and oft-compelling package today.
In typical Mitsubishi style, each year brings a series of tweaks that whittle away rough edges. The 2020 model brings to market the biggest changes yet, and is clearly better for it.
A summary of the Outlander PHEV (abbreviation of plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) looks like this: a sensible SUV that runs electric for daily commutes and can be recharged at a wall plug, which also has a petrol engine-generator serving as backup for longer journeys or when you can't find a charger.
So the PHEV sits between a cheaper but less fuel-efficient hybrid like the popular Toyota RAV4 that only drives all-electric in reverse and around car parks, and simpler-but-more-expensive full electric vehicles such as the Hyundai Kona Electric or Tesla Model X.
At $50,900 drive-away ($46,990 recommended retail price), the Outlander PHEV ES as driven here is not exactly bargain-basement, but compared to anything that might be considered a technological competitor such as the Mercedes-Benz GLC300e, it remains affordable.
Of course, it's $12,000 pricier than a petrol Outlander ES AWD, so mounting an argument on economics alone is not the right approach.
What has the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV changed for 2020?
The front-wheel electric motor’s power remains 60kW but the rear axle's unit has been bumped to 70kW. The floor-mounted, fan-cooled lithium-ion battery pack that powers them has been bumped from 12kWh to 13.8kWh in capacity, although the claimed 54km pure electric range is unchanged.
Perhaps now it’s just a more honest figure, hey?
The car’s supplied cable can get you to 100 per cent charge from a regular three-prong 10A wall socket in 7-8 hours, preferably overnight using cheaper off-peak power. A public DC charger with CHADeMO socket can get you to that point in about 30 minutes. It's also compatible with a 'Type 1' plug AC wallbox.
The former 2.0-litre petrol engine-generator has been replaced by a 2.4-litre, making 94kW and 199Nm. It’s 7kW and 13Nm more powerful to help with towing up to 1500kg and tackling hills, but also capable of similar fuel efficiency thanks to a variable-valve-timing system that reduces fuel burn by switching between Otto and Atkinson cycles.
The car’s electric all-wheel drive (AWD) system still feeds power to each axle directly via the two motors, but now has a Sports mode that sharpens the throttle response, maximises brake-energy recuperation, and both slows the inside-front wheel and sends greater drive power to the rear in corners.
Despite weighing about 2000kg with a driver and fluids aboard, I managed a 0-100km/h acceleration in around 9 seconds, which isn’t too shabby. It’s not quite a ‘90s World Rally Championship Lancer Evo, but anything geared towards dynamism from Mitsubishi is welcome at this point.
Some people who own an Outlander PHEV will want to touch the myriad drive-mode buttons and rocker switches as little as possible, so we should discuss its daily abilities through that lens first.
At first I simply unplugged the battery charger after three hours, hopped in, pressed the starter button, put the shifter into D for Drive, and took off.
For exactly 98 per cent of my subsequent 51km mixed urban and highway route, covering speeds from stop-start traffic to 100km/h, the PHEV ran using only silent electric power. Once, up a steep hill, the petrol engine quietly kicked in and generated battery charge, but even then the electric motors were still providing the drive. My fuel use figure for that loop was a whole 0.1 litres.
My second leg was similar, but this time I chose to start with zero useable battery charge. Unlike a Toyota hybrid, it’s not just the initial take-off that’s handled using electric power. The engine just buzzed along quietly and in linear fashion, steadily generating charge for the motors actually turning the wheels. Fuel consumption was 4.8L/100km.
Then I conducted a 120km route mostly along highways at between 100km/h and 110km/h, again starting the trip with a depleted battery. Think of this as a simulation of you returning from a winery or beach house without a car charger. At high speeds here, the petrol engine both added battery charge and coupled to the front wheels directly via its hydraulic clutch pack.
Given the fuel tank is 45 litres, you’re looking at a driving range in this circumstance of about 650km plus the 50km of pure electric range you can count on, equaling 700km. If you’re doing urban commuting, that figure would grow much higher.
This means that for most daily drives the PHEV will be more efficient than a non-plug-in hybrid, and at its worst will 'degrade' to be about equal. If you’re regularly driving Sydney to Melbourne for example, then a diesel will be more efficient than either.
You can track exactly what’s going on thanks to some cool digital infographics on the centre screen and in the driver’s instruments.
Now for the electric vehicle fans, it gets more complicated from here. The car has a 'Charge' mode that tells the petrol engine to power up the batteries, suited to countries that plan to ban internal combustion in cities. In a 30 minute and 17.4km drive this system charged the battery to 55 per cent while using three litres of 91 octane fuel.
The other side of this is a 'Save' mode that tells the car’s complicated drive system to keep the battery's state of charge at a fixed percentage. An engine is most efficient on highways and an EV motor in town, so such a system capitalises on this balance.
There are also five resistance levels built into motor-driven, brake-energy-recuperation system operated via metal paddle shifters. I added what the computer told me to be 3km of range on one downhill stretch along Melbourne’s Westgate bridge. Then there's an 'EV' button that tells the petrol engine to stay out of affairs entirely for short trips.
Mitsubishi seems to have made strides across all driving situations, making the integration of these systems more seamless. The engine does make noise when kicking in, but there are no obvious vibrations or shunts, and under heavy throttle it's more refined and less drone-like that I recall the MY19 model being.
I also sought out some gravel hills to test the stability-control-relaxing AWD’s Snow mode, and its Lock mode that mimics a 50:50 locking centre diff. It’s a thoroughly respectable soft-roader hindered mostly by its ground clearance.
On road, the higher-speed ride comfort and refinement is quite good, and the S-AWC’s Sport mode does incrementally improve the car’s turn-in despite the presence of body roll, but the ride quality over corrugations and potholes could be smoother and quieter. The steering itself is very non-resistant, and the turning radius is 5.3m.
The cabin is one area where the Outlander shows its age, although the new 8.0-inch centre touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is larger than the old system, and uses new software with a simpler interface. It’s all extremely well made, ergonomic, and even tactile, but bland and basic.
The base ES grade has standard equipment such as seven airbags, autonomous emergency braking, passive cruise control, a speed limiter, reversing camera and sensors, auto headlights and wipers, privacy glass, roof rails, cloth seats, dual-zone climate control, and a proximity key entry system.
A $1000 fee will get you the ADAS package that adds automatic high-beam, active cruise control and lane departure warning.
For another $9000 you can get the $59,990 drive-away ($55,990 RRP) Outlander PHEV Exceed variant with a lot more luxury features.
Both grades give you big rear seats that’ll fit three kids or two adults, rear vents and USB plugs, ISOFIX and top-tether attachment points, and big side windows that make it easy to see out. It’s a large, well-made, and highly practical interior otherwise. Just lacking visual pizzazz.
The boot is a respectable 498 litres including a 35-litre under-floor box, but there’s no spare tyre of any sort, even a space-saver temporary unit. Instead you get a repair kit and compressor, which frankly isn’t that practical.
In terms of ownership you get a five-year/100,000km warranty, extended to eight years and 160,000km for any issues related to the battery. You also get three years of auto club service thrown in, provided you use Mitsubishi’s dealer-based capped-price servicing plan, conducted annually or at 15,000km intervals.
The first three services should cost you $310, $430, and $365 respectively, or $1105 over three years. For comparison purposes a 2.4-litre AWD petrol Outlander model costs $840 over the same period, while the diesel would cost you $1240.
So there’s our MY20 Outlander PHEV revisit, focused on the base ES grade. This really is an under-appreciated offering, which given the massive success of the new Toyota RAV4 mild hybrid deserves more plaudits.
It’s bland to behold and has less novelty value than it once did, but the fact it remains such a technological showcase for this otherwise conservative brand is testament to how prescient the development was. It might be complex and potentially behaviour-altering, but it won’t bite.