Outlander is a trickle-down treat

MITSUBISHI OUTLANDER: Less outlandish styling perhaps, but a better all-round vehicle.
MITSUBISHI OUTLANDER: Less outlandish styling perhaps, but a better all-round vehicle.

If you want to keep your driving licence in the South Island, liberal use of cruise control is recommended.

Unfortunately, though our highways are wide and free, traffic pace ebbs and flows constantly. So with conventional cruise control, drivers are forever switching in and out of it and, more often than not, giving up altogether, relying on their own observation of the speedometer to keep them at the right speed.

But unless you have a heads-up display, this is as much a distraction as those road signs that tell us: "A distracted driver is a dangerous driver."

Which is why I was delighted that my Christmas car was Mitsubishi's Outlander VRX. No, I wasn't given it as a Christmas gift, but I did feel privileged nonetheless, as this top version of the company's SUV has Adaptive Cruise Control and Forward Collision Mitigation. This is a posh way of saying that once you set the cruise control, it uses radar to keep you a given distance away from the vehicle in front, even if it brakes to a halt.

It sounds simple and it is, but the benefits are massive. Instead of having to compensate for that ebbing and flowing traffic, the radar does it for you. You may have to adjust your speed as you slow down if the car in front doesn't believe in town and village speed limits, but I never had that problem.

Setting the VRX's cruise control at 104kmh - in keeping with the holiday limits - as I entered the motorway north of Belfast, I didn't need to do anything but point the car all the way to the Motunau Beach turnoff 86 kilometres later. With the surprisingly well-behaved traffic keeping to the slower limits at various points on the way, so did I, but without having to physically adjust my pace.

Radar cruise, as it's sometimes called, is a fairly new device, with mainly vehicles costing well into six figures offering such equipment at first. But, just as airbags, ABS and stability control have trickled down from posh cars to those that more people can afford, here was a family SUV with it, and it took so much tension out of my holiday driving that I miss it with a passion.

The VRX Outlander is not a cheap car. The petrol version I drove is a 2.4-litre car with a sticker of $54,490, and you can add another $2500 for diesel. That's still a lot of money, but there are 2.0-litre front-drive versions, and several other specification levels to be had, giving the lineup the starting point of an entirely reasonable $39,990. There are pretty even steps up to the top VRX models, with their leather, heated chairs, navigation and all the fruit goodies list.

Even the entry-point 112kW/193Nm, 2.0-litre LS 2WD gets a reversing screen, alloy wheels and traction control. Even though its cabin doesn't have the seven seats of the top-echelon models, it's a nice place to be with classy materials and vinyl finish and tonnes of stowage space.

The 112kW/366Nm, 2.2-litre VR and VRX diesels have six-speed automatics. However, the petrol models all have CVT units with paddle-shifters and sports mode in all-wheel-drive forms of the model, with 126kW/224Nm 2.4-litre petrol engines.

The Outlander has moved away from its "fighter-plane" grilled, sharply contoured predecessor's styling and now looks more like a tall station wagon than an SUV. It won't offend anyone and that is important with crossovers these days. What's also important is saving on fuel and looking good for emissions, and Mitsubishi says that the two petrol engines are cleaner and more efficient to the tune of 13 per cent and 19 percent, for the 2.0L and 2.4L respectively.

It's helped by the car being about 100 kilograms lighter than before, and it certainly feels nimble, and it does not ruin its CVT-derived smoothness with a rough ride.

While the lower profile alloys make the higher-echelon models firmer, the whole range is quiet and refined on the road. While I wouldn't take any of them rock-hopping or mud-plugging, there's enough clearance for sensible soft-roading. Truth be known, the two-wheel-drive base model in the range will take you anywhere you really need to go, though the steadily building equipment list as you move up the range is pretty tempting. However, the only piece of equipment I'd miss is that radar cruise control set-up, which makes holiday motoring stressless and probably safer than we're used to.

Not so long ago, you could only get this kind of gear on S-class Mercedes-Benz models and Lexuses. But by the time the next Outlander redesign occurs, it'll be an option on most cars.

It's called trickle-down, folks.

Sunday Star Times