The VRX badge marks the spot for Mitsubishi SUVs
MITSUBISHI TRITON VRX 2WD
Base price: $51,990.
Powertrain and performance: 2.4-litre turbo-diesel four, 135kW/437Nm, 5-speed automatic, RWD, Combined economy 7.5 litres per 100km.
Vital statistics: 5280mm long, 1780mm high, 3000mm wheelbase, tray 1520mm and 1470mm wide or 1085mm between wheel arches, 17-inch alloy wheels with 245/65 tyres.
We like: Well-equipped without being cheesy, great connectivity, settled ride.
We don't like: Not the most glamorous one-tonner around, five-speed gearbox.
It's becoming a bit of a cliche to say that pickup trucks are SUV-substitutes. But it's true nonetheless, with double-cabs accounting for the overwhelming majority of sales and dressed-up luxury/sports versions becoming a must-have for any ute-brand.
That certainly seems to be Mitsubishi's thinking with the new flagship model for the Triton range, the VRX. Compared with the GLS version, it gains luxury items like leather upholstery, powered/heated front seats and a new infotainment head unit that offers a seven-inch touch screen with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto functionality (the GLS is still so-2016 with a six-inch unit and basic Bluetooth connectivity) as well as a reversing camera.
Significantly, Triton picks up the "VRX" badge, which aligns it with Mitsubishi's mainstream SUV models. You can have your Triton VRX with either 4WD or 2WD; the latter configuration, as featured here, surely makes for a townie's Triton if ever there was one. Two-wheel drive utes are a rapidly growing segment, up 26 per cent last year. It's a happening thing.
The Triton VRX 2WD's price of $51,990 also lines it up nicely against the Japanese brand's Outlander SUV, which sells for $54,490 in VRX AWD form as tested here.
Actually, Mitsubishi Motors New Zealand has launched the Triton VRX 2WD at a "special promotional price" of $39,990, which seems a bit slash-and-burn but is probably a more honest representation of the actual transaction (as opposed to retail-list) prices for these types of vehicles. But I digress.
I'm not suggesting these two are the same thing or really even direct rivals: the Triton is a five-seat ute that's only available with diesel power, whereas the Outlander is a seven-seater (standard across the range now) with a choice of powertrains. Our test car was the petrol version; you can have exactly the same thing with a diesel (not the Triton's diesel, though) for $56,990. Or even a plug-in hybrid.
But these brace of VRXs do show how broad the definition of an SUV is becoming. Believe it or not, Triton is probably the closer of the two to the origins of the overused SUV-acronym, which was first applied to hard-core separate-chassis off-roaders - aka trucks - that could also serve as passenger vehicles. Meanwhile, the Outlander is pure crossover, based on a car-like monocoque chassis and designed primarily for on-road use.
Ironically, the Triton has shed 4WD to make its SUV aspirations really clear (you can still have a VRX 4WD, but at an $11,000 premium), while the Outlander is exclusively 4WD in VRX specification.
Can you seriously drive a ute on-road instead of an SUV? Plenty of people do. Enthusiasts for these types of posh pickups often refer to them as car-like, usually while wearing rose-tinted spectacles. Let's be honest: there's no way a pickup-platform can provide the refinement, ride and handling of a proper passenger car.
But there is a great deal of satisfaction in tooling around town in a rugged-feeling ute and there's no question that the on-road manners of these things have improved out of sight in the last decade. Comfort and convenience equipment is impressive, too: in the VRX you're sitting on leather, power-everything and getting direct smartphone connectivity (including mapping with traffic information) through the centre-console screen.
Triton is still one of the second-tier utes in sales terms: way below Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux, in the fray with Holden Colorado and Nissan Navara. The 2.4-litre turbo-diesel is strong, although it's stuck with a five-speed automatic in this age of six-cog gearboxes. But Triton holds its own in cabin comfort/space and especially urban ride, while offering distinctly car-like (that phrase again) cabin architecture. The interior materials are workaday, but the design is more cohesive and attractive than the Outlander.
You want polish? That's the Outlander. From poor NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) beginnings it has evolved into an exceptionally refined and quiet machine, but it's not exactly engaging. In petrol form it has a continuously variable transmission, which is excellent for light urban running but starts to panic when pressed hard.
However, the Outlander has driver-assistance and safety equipment you can only dream about in the world of Triton. A recent upgrade has added that phone-projection head unit and an electric parking brake, but the Outlander VRX also has a 360-degree parking camera, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic alert and lane change assist, along with forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control and automatic high beam for the headlights.
If you like your SUV with stubble then the Triton VRX is still the one that will make you smile most: a pickup truck feels rough compared with a crossover-type wagon, but the driving experience is a lot more engaging and it's definitely fun (if not fast). But as an on-road vehicle, the Triton package does also seem a bit old-hat next to the hi-tech safety gear of the Outlander VRX. Both have five-star Ancap (Australasian New Car Assessment Programme) crash-test ratings, though.
The answer might be yet another Mitsubishi VRX with the toughness of a Triton, a slick powertrain, seven seats and Outlander-like active safety gear. That'd be the Pajero Sport, then. But that's at least another $10k (notwithstanding another "special promotional price" of $61,990 that's running as I write this) and another story.
MITSUBISHI OUTLANDER VRX
Base price: $54,490.
Powertrain and performance: 2.4-litre petrol four, 126kW/224Nm, continuously variable transmission, AWD, Combined economy 7.2 litres per 100km.
Vital statistics: 4695mm long, 1710mm high, 2670mm wheelbase, luggage capacity 380-1845 litres, 18-inch alloy wheels with 225/55 tyres.
We like: Wealth of hi-tech safety gear, extremely refined, seven seats.
We don't like: Far from involving, continuously variable transmission, downbeat cabin design.