Electric Mitsubishi SUV a game-changer

ROB MAETZIG
Last updated 07:55 18/12/2013

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I've never before driven a full-sized all-wheel drive SUV that boasts an average fuel consumption of just 1.9 litres per 100 kilometres. That's 149 miles per gallon - a remarkable claim, given that this vehicle is a full- blown offroad-capable machine weighing in at more than 1800kg.

AT A GLANCE
Powertrain: High-capacity under-floor battery powering front and rear electric motors, plus a 2.0-litre four cylinder Mivec petrol engine.
Output: Front electric motor 60kW and 137Nm, rear electric motor 60kW and 195Nm. Petrol engine 89kW at 4500rpm. Average fuel consumption 1.9 L/100km, exhaust emissions 44g/km CO2.
Chassis: Electronically controlled twin motor all-wheel drive with yaw control system. MacPherson strut front suspension, multi-link setup at the rear. Electronic power steering.
Safety: Not known, but expect full range of electronic handling and safety aids. Has been awarded five-star NCAP safety rating.
Dimensions: L 4655mm, W 1800mm, H 1680mm, W/base 2670mm.
Prices: XLS $59,990, VRX $66,990.
Hot: Brilliant use of new-age electronic technologies, plenty of power and instant torque, sound ride and handling.
Not: Under-floor battery storage means this Outlander can only be a five-seater.
Verdict: There's no reason why there can't be instant acceptance of this Outlander PHEV, both by traditional SUV buyers and the so-called early adopters.
The vehicle is the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, scheduled to arrive in New Zealand in April.

PHEV stands for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, which tells the story of what this new SUV is all about.

Each night an owner will be able to plug the Outlander into a household power socket and trickle-charge a high capacity under-floor battery at a cost of between $1.60 and $2.50 a night depending on the level of residual charge.

That will then give the Mitsubishi a range of up to 52 kilometres as a purely electric vehicle, the electricity fed to a pair of motors located on the front and rear axles that combine to deliver acceleration performance at least the same as a 3.0-litre petrol engine.

In the pure EV mode the Outlander will be able to be driven at speeds of up to 120kmh, which means it will be used both around town and out on the open road without using any petrol at all - and it will have easily sufficient range for a normal everyday commute.

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If the owner wants to go further, or if the battery pack depletes to 30 per cent of its charge, then a 2.0-litre petrol engine will automatically kick into life and act as an electricity generator. In this mode it will be known as what is called a series hybrid, and on a full tank of petrol it will give the Outlander a range of more than 800km.

And if the driver needs extra grunt for such actions and climbing hills or passing other vehicles, then the Outlander PHEV will automatically transform into what is known as a parallel hybrid in which it will be the petrol engine that powers the vehicle with assistance from the two electric motors.

It really is a brilliant system, and it operates in a smooth and non-intrusive way. And importantly, it is all going to become available to New Zealanders from $59,990, which will price it way below other EV product already available here.

For example the Holden Volt sedan, which is the only other extended range electric vehicle in New Zealand, was introduced for $85,000. The little Mitsubishi iMiEV hatch, which is a pure electric vehicle, retailed for $59,990. And the Nissan Leaf plug- in EV sells for $69,000.

That pricing will also make the Outlander PHEV competitive against existing hybrid product such as the Toyota Prius which retails for up to $65,780, and it will beat the asking prices for many of the conventional petrol or diesel- powered SUVs that the standard Outlander competes against anyway.

There's one pre-production Outlander PHEV in New Zealand, and last week it was made available to selected motoring journalists to spend a day experiencing how it works.

At a briefing at Mitsubishi Motors New Zealand headquarters at Porirua, the company's head of sales and marketing Daniel Cook forecast the vehicle will account for at least 20 per cent of all Outlander sales here.

"It's a brillant demonstration of engineering expertise and a showcase of advanced automotive technology," he said.

"But it's more than that. It's also an affordable and therefore highly marketable proposition. This Outlander looks and drives exactly like any other Outlander, even though it carries all the electric vehicle technology. This means there are no impediments to purchase - and lots of good reasons to buy.

"We think that for many people this will be the best vehicle to suit their needs."

Climb into this new Outlander and start it, and the most significant thing that happens is that nothing happens. When sitting stationary as a pure electric vehicle it is totally silent - and in fact when the Mitsubishi does moves off it emits a special electronic sound as a means of warning those around that it is on the move.

The Outlander has a reduction gear transaxle instead of a traditional transmission, but even so when you want to head off you move a shift lever - called a joystick in this vehicle - out of the usual N and into the usual R or D.

And off we went, silently enough to be able to enjoy a normal conversation even at highway speeds.

Any hybrid vehicle recharges its batteries through regenerative braking, and a special feature of this vehicle is that the driver can control it.

As we drove through Porirua City then over the Haywards Hill we were able to move the joystick into B (for Braking) then use paddles on the steering wheel to adjust the regenerative braking strength. There are a total of six braking strength levels, with the B6 level strong enough to slow the Outlander almost to a stop as we decelerated down the steep hill towards the set of traffic lights on the Hutt Motorway.

We turned left at the lights for a drive over the Rimutaka Range - a solid assignment for any vehicle. The Outlander took it on with ease, with the petrol motor starting up and revving away when required, and then settling down to an idle or even turning off when it wasn't needed.

Handling felt secure, too. For starters, the under-floor location of the batteries mean this Outlander has a lower centre of gravity than the conventional models. The vehicle is permanent all-wheel drive, with the two electric engines providing their power to each axle, the rear motor offering slightly more torque than the front so the AWD can have a slightly rear-wheel bias during normal motoring.

There's also a control system called Super All Wheel Control or S-AWC, which regulates the brakes and yaw, and distributes power front and rear and even left and right to improve driving stability and handling precision.

Everything can even even be moved into 4WD Lock which evenly distributes torque to improve traction and straight- line stability on snow or dirt or other slippery road surfaces.

All this shows that despite the fact the Outlander PHEV is an electric vehicle loaded with battery packs and electric motors, it is still very much an offroad- capable vehicle. To prove that, this year Mitsubishi entered two of them in the 2013 Asia Cross- Country Rally in Thailand, a tough six-day offroading challenge. Only 20 per cent of the entrants finished - including both of the Outlanders.

So quite obviously when this new Outlander arrives in New Zealand, it will be able to be used in exactly the same way as its traditional petrol and diesel- engined siblings. But because it is a plug-in hybrid it will be different - and a major reason will be because it offers what MMNZ's Daniel Cook describes as "geek information".

The dash area features the usual hybrid vehicle energy flow meters, and drivers can also do such things as switch the vehicle into Battery Charge mode which orders the petrol engine to charge the battery even when the vehicle is stopped, or Battery Save mode which works to preserve battery power. There's also an Eco model switch which controls the air conditioning and moderates acceleration to improve fuel efficiency.

And how about this? Smartphone owners wll be able to install a special app that will allow them to remotely operate a number of vehicle functions.

These will include setting the timing of the charging of the vehicle so it can take place at times when electricity usage rates are often discounted, timing the air conditioning so the vehicle can be pre-cooled or pre- heated or the windows defrosted before it is used, or checking the status of the vehicle such as whether a door has been left ajar or the lights have been turned on.

Quite an appealing thought, isn't it?

I try to shy away from using the word game-changer when writing about new motoring product, but in the case of this new Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV I'm convinced it has all the potential to be exactly that.

We might have already experienced hybrids, electric cars and even extended-range electric vehicles - but the difference this time it that it is going to be more affordable than ever.

- Taranaki Daily News

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