Mitsi diesel now automatic for the people

ROB MAETZIG
Last updated 05:01 26/09/2013

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Although the popularity of diesel-engined SUVs continues to grow in New Zealand to the extent that they now account for close to 40 per cent of sales of such vehicles, it isn't a given that if you plonk a diesel under the bonnet, it will sell.

AT A GLANCE
Power plant: 2.2-litre DOHC intercooled turbo-diesel, 112kW at 3500rpm, 366Nm at 1500-2750rpm
Running gear: On-demand all- wheel drive. Six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shift manual operation. McPherson strut front suspension, multi-link setup at the rear.
How big: Length 4295mm, width 1770mm, height 1625m, wheelbase 2670mm.
How much: $45,990.
What's good: Bigger diesel engine, now with automatic transmission. Revised pricing.
What's not: Lack of cargo storage in the rear.
Our verdict: Has Mitsubishi NZ taken a risk going all-front drive with the petrol ASX, and all all- wheel drive with the diesel? We'll wait and watch.
Mitsubishi New Zealand discovered that with its ASX range of medium-sized SUVs.

When the model was first launched here in 2010, one version to go on offer was a 1.8-litre turbodiesel Sport with manual transmission.

It didn't sell. One of the reasons was that it was the most expensive of the ASX range at $47,990. Another reason was that many of the potential ASX buyers were existing Mitsubishi customers who owned petrol-powered vehicles, and there was always going to be that little sales hurdle to jump over.

But perhaps the most significant reason for the lack of sales was because the diesel ASX was a manual. It's been proved time and again that Kiwi customers - especially those potentially in the market for easy- to-drive crossover-type vehicles - want their purchases to have automatic transmissions.

And so, while the other four members of the ASX family - all petrol-engined and all automatic - sold well enough in both front-drive and all-wheel drive modes, the poor diesel sat in the sales yards and suffered the ignominy of not having enough people wanting to own and love it.

But now the people at Mitsubishi NZ have made some changes that have the potential to transform the ASX diesel from a wallflower to belle of the ball. They have replaced the single 1.8-litre turbodiesel with a pair of more powerful 2.2-litre versions, their engines the same as that aboard the larger Mitsi SUV, the Outlander.

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They have reduced ASX pricing, so that an LS diesel now costs $41,990 and the top Sport diesel retails for $45,990.

And they have fitted a six-speed automatic transmission to the diesel vehicles.

MMNZ head of sales and marketing strategy Daniel Cook reckons those three changes will do the trick for the compression-ignition ASX.

"We're now expecting better sales volumes from the vehicle - it's a very good offering that is $9000 less expensive than the market leader in the medium diesel SUV segment," he said, referring to the Hyundai ix35.

It is a good offering, too. The 1.8-litre turbodiesel in the first ASX was a good unit which offered 112 kilowatts of power and 305 newton metres of torque, but this new 2.2-litre version is so much better.

It's the same "clean" diesel engine that is under the bonnet of the larger Outlander, and while the top power is the same as before, there's considerably more torque - 366 newton metres of it - and it's all available from just 1500rpm right through to 2750rpm.

That's exactly the range of revolutions where ordinary motorists operate almost all of the time, and the engine's low-revving and flexible operation is a primary reason why the ASX boasts an average fuel consumption of 5.8 litres per 100 kilometres, which is almost as good as Mazda's highly- regarded SkyActiv diesel which gives 5.7 L/100km.

Up until now the ASX diesel has had to be fitted with a manual transmission because Mitsubishi didn't have an automatic strong enough to handle the torque of a turbocharged diesel engine. But now it has - although it remains a standard six-speeder, while the petrol ASX models have a continuously variable auto.

And interestingly, if you want to buy an ASX with all-wheel drive, it now has to be the diesel.

Mitsubishi NZ has rationalised the ASX selection down to a total of four models - a pair of LS and Sport petrol versions with front- wheel drive, and the LS and Sport diesel models with the AWD.

The all-wheel drive system is essentially the same as that aboard the Outlander. It allows the ASX to be operated in 4WD Eco, which runs the vehicle as a 2WD vehicle until it senses all-paw traction is needed, or as 4WD Auto, which changes the all-wheel drive to suit conditions, or as 4WD Lock, which, as the name suggests, permanently locks the all-wheel drive in place for any rough stuff that may be encountered.

It's all very easy to use - you simply punch a button on the centre console.

Mind you, even in AWD you wouldn't want to tackle any really rough stuff, not the least because the diesel vehicle's ground clearance is 180mm which is quite a bit less than the 195mm offered by the 2WD petrol models. Go figure...

But overall, one of the special features of the ASX range is its ease of use. Built on the same platform as the Lancer sedan and hatch, it is a lifestyle vehicle with the higher-riding stance that modern motorists appreciate.

We've just spent a week behind the wheel of a Sport version, and the special feature of that model is its level of specification. In addition to standard spec on the LS, the Sport gets 17-inch alloy wheels with lower-profile tyres, push-button start, leather upholstery, heated front seats, fog lamps, and discharge headlights.

The automatic transmission also has paddle shifters on the steering wheel, which allows the driver to make better use of the available power and torque. And, being all-wheel drive and with the more robust automatic, the tow rating is slightly higher than that offered by the petrol models at 1550kg braked.

ASX also has hill start assist, active traction control, active stability control, ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, and Mitsubishi's very good Smartbrake system that takes over if the driver inadvertently hits the accelerator pedal instead of the brake.

The Mitsubishi ASX continues to be a good-looking small SUV, with a hatch-like bodyshell that features a pronounced strake down its flanks and the "jet fighter" grille that used to be such a feature of the previous model Outlander and is still a feature of the current Lancer range.

At the rear the look becomes more of a hatchback. And, because a lot of rear length has been lopped off this vehicle when compared to say the Outlander, the amount of cargo room is very hatchback-like too - with all seats in use the load space is a quite tight 384 litres.

The rear seats do split and fold, increasing the load space to 1158 litres which is enough to take some substantial loads.

It will be interesting to watch if the changes Mitsubishi NZ have made to the ASX lineup will result in more sales.

While the the popularity of diesel SUVs has been growing, there are suggestions that in recent times this has been levelling off, with a major reason being that petrol engines have improved so much that their fuel consumption is getting close to diesel anyway, which has eroded the value of cheaper diesel fuel once the dreaded Road User Charges are factored in.

It could be said therefore that the primary reason why people would now choose diesel over petrol is for the superior low-down torque it offers. With that as background, maybe Mitsubishi NZ's decision to go all front-wheel drive with the petrol ASX and all all-wheel drive with the diesel models, is a sound one.

- The Press

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