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Can this plug-in hybrid SUV do more than just cut your tax bill, or does it make too many concessions in the name of fuel economy?

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You’ll need a good memory to recall a television ad for a Mitsubishi. The Japanese firm’s UK distributor spent £6 million on advertising in 2012; in 2013 it was £8m. Neither budget was big enough to fund a TV ad campaign.

This year, though, the marketing spend is £20m, and Mitsubishi's ads will be back on the small screen. Suddenly, it has something to shout about: the Outlander PHEV plug-in hybrid SUV.

The Outlander PHEV owes much to the iMiEV hatchback

There were two generations of Outlander prior to this one, neither of which received anything more exotic than internal combustion engines. The PHEV’s origins can instead be traced to the iMiEV, the five-door electric hatchback based on Mitsubishi’s ‘i’ kei car.

The iMiEV car, on sale from 2009, was the culmination of more than a decade’s work as the firm’s research into alternative propulsion moved through the 2005 Colt and Lancer concepts to the CT and EZ MiEV models shown in 2006.

Given how badly most ‘plug-in’ vehicles have been missing their sales targets of late, you might think that introducing another sounds like a gamble. Mitsubishi, like every car maker who has introduced a battery car of the current crop, would reply that its plug-in is different – the one to break through.

But Mitsubishi argues with more compelling reasoning than we’re used to. The Outlander PHEV comes with a price relative to the diesel-engined mid-sized 4x4 standard and, says Mitsubishi, without a compromise elsewhere, while returning a claimed 148mpg.

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Super-frugal or not, it could save you thousands of pounds in company car tax every year. As such, it might be a car you can’t afford not to take an interest in.

DESIGN & STYLING

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV front grille

Mitsubishi's method for bringing its plug-in hybrid model to market has been refreshingly pragmatic. No billion-euro sub-brand launches, pioneering material technologies or futuristic-looking dedicated model lines required here.

No, this is just another Outlander – a normal family SUV. It’s an eminently sensible, reassuring approach and one of which we heartily approve.

Styling is standard Outlander, or classic understated Japanese 4x4, in other words

It has been possible because the current Outlander, launched only last year, was designed and engineered from the outset to accept the necessary motors, batteries, controllers and inverters required of a full petrol-electric hybrid set-up.

Rather than simply integrating an electric motor with the rear axle to combine all-wheel drive functionality with a conventionally front-drive car – as some other manufacturers have chosen to do – Mitsubishi's Twin Motor system offers permanent electrically driven all-wheel drive.

The independent 80bhp electric motors incorporated into each axle are descendants of the technology used on the iMIEV, although the company says their higher output has been extracted from a smaller and lighter design.

As it can expect no assistance from the petrol engine, the rear motor has been made more torquey, developing 144lb ft, compared with the 101lb ft of the front motor. Both are fed by the 12kWh battery which is mounted between the axles and charged by the petrol engine (via a generator) in the Series Hybrid setting.

The Outlander's front and rear transaxle transmissions each include single-speed reduction gearing for EV mode, although the front one is an all-new GKN Multi-Mode eTransmission with a hydraulic clutch engaging and disengaging whenever power is required directly from the engine.

While the rear motor produces slightly more torque, the one at the front is assisted at times of need by a 119bhp 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine.

The same combustion engine, at times of lesser need, is either shut down completely or runs solely as a generator to top up the 12kWh lithium ion battery pack under the cabin floor. Total system outputs are 200bhp and 249lb ft.

Mitsubishi says the Outlander PHEV can cover 32.5 miles as an EV before tapping into its 45-litre fuel tank for an ‘extended’ range of around 500 miles.

The former figure is low compared with some PHEVs but still looks impressive given the car’s size and cost. We recorded a kerb weight of 1870kg – 195kg heavier than the diesel Outlander we tested last year but still light enough to be fairly typical for the class. And something of a result for a plug-in hybrid.

The Outlander’s chassis is retuned but the mechanicals are carried over. Like the diesel, the PHEV comes with 190mm of ground clearance. Towing capacity is limited to 1500kg, though – 500kg less than the diesel, but still enough to tow a medium-size caravan or large trailer.

Three trim levels are offered: GX3h, GX4h and GX4hs. All are well equipped, with standard kit including dual-zone climate control, cruise control, electric windows, remote central locking, Bluetooth connectivity, a USB port, a six-speaker stereo, electric heated mirrors, automatic lights and rear parking sensors.

INTERIOR

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV interior

Some electrically powered cars – Tesla’s Model S and the BMW i3, for example – really go to town when it comes to interiors. They want you to know you’re in something quite different from the norm.

The Outlander PHEV, meanwhile, goes the other way entirely. Mitsubishi wants this to feel just like any other Outlander, with the electric element of it no more than a different powertrain – a third option after petrol or diesel. And therefore the PHEV’s interior is for the most part entirely unremarkable.

Visibility is good and the car's standard headlights offer plenty of illumination

You get the same overall layout as in the regular Outlander – which means it won’t have you scribbling postcards home about any of the perceived material quality or stylishness.

It’s a functional, workaday interior of the old-fashioned Japanese kind, doubtless screwed together efficiently from components that pass quality control 999,999 times out of a million, but lacking in flair, panache and surprise and delight.

The front seats are a touch flat, but all our testers found them comfortable, while the rear accommodation is good. Cup/bottle holders remain in the boot, but in this case there’s no option for a third row of two chairs to join them.

You get two pedals and a small Toyota Prius-like gearlever that slides around its gate in resistance-free fashion until it hits a switch, while the main display screen and the small readout between the dials convey information about the Outlander’s main point of interest.

The only place the interior sways into interest, then, is in the display and control systems for the powertrain in higher-spec GX4h and GX4hs variants. The PHEV’s central multimedia display is one of the few places inside the Outlander where the hybrid’s operations are obvious, and where you can see and, to an extent, control what’s going on. Albeit quite slowly.

The Outlander’s central display can be painfully sluggish to respond to inputs; it’s particularly recalcitrant from start-up, but always you’ll find yourself waiting on it. Still, once it has deigned to let you know what’s going on, the range of information it’s able to give you is really quite comprehensive.

It is admittedly hard to avoid the feeling that you’re being allowed to browse through a set of diagnostics that some software engineers have put together, rather than using a set-up as slick, intuitive and consumer-focused as the power display options found in the BMW i3. With familiarity, though, you can navigate your way around everything.

Better designed is the app you can download for a smartphone. It syncs with your Outlander and makes it possible to control various functions, such as managing its charging or firing up the climate control.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV rear quarter

Most electric (or part-electric) cars allow their drivers only a very specific power usage schedule. Not so the Outlander – which is one of the reasons why it gets such a high score in this section.

Flexibility is its key, rather than the overall statistics relating to its performance. Those are good enough: 0-60mph in 10.0sec and, if you’ve no battery oomph to call on and you’re away from a socket, 38.0mpg via petrol power generation only (or 32mpg on a motorway).

You can adjust the level of engine braking-like battery regeneration

But it’s the fact that the Outlander puts you in control that’s really crucial. Once charged, its batteries are good for a range of 25.5 miles (in our hands), and for most commutes that’ll do just fine.

But say you don’t want to do those electric-only miles straight after charging, because you’re travelling 100 miles, with journey’s end inside an ultra-low emissions zone? That’s fine. You can hold the charge in the battery, at any time, and run on petrol generation only.

Or, uniquely in our experience, you can even actively charge the batteries via the petrol engine, while you’re in extended mode or even while you’re parked.

Left to its own devices, the PHEV system is pretty impressive. In most driving you’ll not notice any intervention from the petrol engine while the batteries have a good amount of charge in them, even on the motorway.

And when the petrol powerplant does pitch in, it does so almost seamlessly and with as gentle a hum as in a Toyota Prius, rather than the obvious thrum of a BMW i3. Acceleration and response are, as usual with electric motors, wonderfully smooth, too.

We’d rather have a longer electric-only range, but given that this car is as large and as cheap as it is, what it offers is quite acceptable.

Under braking, the point at which electric energy regeneration makes the transition to retardation via discs is well managed. You can vary the speed of throttle-lift regeneration via paddles behind the wheel, with the option of anything from total coasting to a meaningful impression of serious engine braking.

It’s a novel and more intuitive method of regeneration than a throttle pedal that always decelerates the car quickly when you lift off it.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV cornering

The Outlander isn’t the world’s most exciting SUV to drive when it only has an internal combustion engine, so the addition of a battery cell and a couple of electric motors can’t be expected to improve things.

The ride remains fine, however, which isn’t always the case with EVs, and it felt every bit as compliant and smooth as its conventional counterpart. Which means not outstandingly compliant, but competitive and quite acceptable.

The Mitsubishi Outlander's pedals are ideally placed

It also steers with easy linearity and well balanced grip, which makes it quite an unremarkable companion in everyday driving – and we mean that in a good way.

Handling is notable for its lack of remarkableness. This is an 1870kg car and, although only 54 percent of that mass is over the front wheels, it’s not one designed to be poised in any kind of BMW-like way.

This Outlander handled mostly like the diesel variant tested last year: not brilliantly, but competently and safely. As you’d expect, it’s never short on traction.

Body roll in corners is pronounced, but it doesn’t undermine lateral grip, while the steering retains good authority even at full lean. Pitch isn’t as severe as roll, so directional stability is good.

Mitsubishi’s stability control could be more subtle, but it keeps things in check in the wet and is fully switchable for off-road use.

On wet grass and muddy tracks, the Outlander PHEV does credit to Mitsubishi’s brand values. The instant torque of the electric motors makes it easy to crawl up slopes and maximise available traction.

The S-AWC torque vectoring set-up juggles power to the benefit of momentum and stability, while the off-road angles put the car in the more rugged half of the mid-size 4x4 class. This isn’t a go-anywhere 4x4, but it’s more capable than most customers will require it to be.

This is an SUV with a small ‘s’, but it is none the worse for it. It isn’t great to drive, but it’s easily good enough.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Mitsubishi’s ability to make the entry-level Outlander PHEV the same price (after the government’s plug-in grant) as the diesel-powered GX3 is remarkable. It gives business customers every reason to opt in.

That’s because just over £28k for the entry-level GX3h buys a car emitting just 44g/km of CO2, qualifying for BIK company car tax at just five percent. Compared with a like-for-like diesel Honda CR-V, that emissions advantage alone could save a fleet driver more than £11,000 over three years. That’s quite an incredible motivator.

The weight penalty versus a diesel model is 200kg

The financial benefits go a long way to shielding this Outlander from one of our criticisms of its diesel-powered sibling, whose price is much closer to that of a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 than it should be.

Mediocre motorway economy may still give some fleet drivers cause for concern. Our experience suggests roughly 32mpg in ‘extended’ mode at a 70-80mph cruise. Still, Mitsubishi has presented a level playing field here.

Outlander buyers have the opportunity to make a simple, informed choice – diesel versus hybrid – based solely on tax savings and short-range fuel efficiency balanced against poorer motorway economy.

And as a company driver, your motorway mileage would have to be very high indeed – into the hundreds daily – to swallow up the money saved on benefit-in-kind.

The PHEV's residuals are in line with its diesel counterparts and superior to Volvo's nearest plug-in hybrid. On the spec front – while cruise, Bluetooth and dual-zone climate appear at the entry level – the reversing camera, DAB tuner, sat-nav and powered tailgate on the GX4h make it the one to buy.

VERDICT

4 star Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

What we like about this Outlander is that Mitsubishi has realised that, while a plug-in hybrid is at its best when used as an EV, we don’t live in the perfect world that might always give access to a power socket. So it makes life easy for when you haven’t got one.

It has a decent range, it doesn’t have reduced power and it doesn’t necessitate going out of your way or waiting hours to charge if you know you’ll want electric power in a few miles’ time.

It's a true no-brainer for company 4x4 drivers; otherwise the Mitsubishi is ordinary

Apart from two rearmost seats and a bit of towing capacity, the PHEV retains all of the regular Outlander’s practicality. It’s more than respectable off road, too. All of which means it is just as usable as the standard Outlander, just as cheap to buy and potentially a great deal cheaper to own – for which we rather like it.

But while low running costs are ultimately the car’s most persuasive asset, but they’re not quite persuasive enough to unseat the most appealing mid-sized 4x4 in our estimations.

For many the Ford Kuga will still prove the more attractive choice, thanks to its value, running costs, decent practicality and stand-out handling capabilities.

The Mitsubishi's plus points and hybrid powertrain does, however, turn something of an also-ran into a real contender.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV 2012-2015 First drives