Not much on looks, but a crossover workhorse

Times Staff Writer

When the invitation arrived for the Mitsubishi Endeavor press preview, my first thought was: "Jeez! Not another wannabe SUV. Hope it isn't as big a slug as the last one from Mitsu."

Well, it is another wannabe SUV. But it isn't a slug. And though it isn't a true off-road vehicle like a Cherokee or a four-wheel-drive Explorer, the Endeavor with optional all-wheel drive tries hard enough that you won't notice most of the time.

The Endeavor is Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s second entry in the so-called crossover sport utility vehicle market -- truck-looking vehicles built with car-like unitized, or unibody, construction to eliminate the harsh ride of a body-on-frame truck.

The first was the Outlander, a nice-looking small crossover intended to compete with the Subaru Forester and packed with lots of nice features. Mitsubishi's only misstep with the Outlander was the 2.0-liter, 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine -- woefully underpowered for a vehicle that is supposed to carry the driver and as many as four passengers up and down California's tall mountains.

This lesson was apparently learned. The much larger and heavier (3,800 to 4,100 pounds) Endeavor is packing a 215-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 that boasts 250 pound-feet of torque, much of it available at the low end of the rpm curve.

Although Endeavor is Mitsubishi's fourth SUV, it is the company's initial entry into the profitable and fast-growing mid-size sport ute market, where competitors include the Honda Pilot, the Toyota Highlander, the Ford Explorer and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Sales start in March, with base prices ranging from $25,597 for an Endeavor LS model with front-wheel drive to $33,497 for a Limited model with all-wheel drive.

It is no drag racer, but there are no complaints from this quarter about the Endeavor's performance. I found initial acceleration to be quite good while driving several pre-production models in the coastal mountains above and behind Santa Barbara. Although the engine runs out of breath as the tachometer needle hits the upper reaches, setting land-speed records really isn't what an SUV is all about -- a point manufacturers should stress at least as much as they trumpet ever-growing horsepower ratings.

Appearances are another thing.

The Endeavor isn't awful to look at, but its tank-like chiseled fenders, thick side cladding, rectangular exterior mirrors and nose with more vents and louvers than a nuclear power plant's cooling system make it a less-than-harmonious exercise in sheet-metal sculpture. A Nissan Murano it ain't.

That is at least partly by plan, though. Mitsubishi has the youngest buyer demographics in the industry and believes that to keep all that young blood it must keep its products edgy and distinctly different from what the others are offering.

External appearance aside, the Endeavor is a workmanlike example of the crossover genre.

It will tow 3,500 pounds, pull itself up steep hills without busting a gut and wind around mountain roads without pitching driver, passengers and cargo all over the interior. It rides on 17-inch tires that provide good grip without transmitting too much road noise, steering is responsive, and handling is about as good as it gets in the SUV class.

Engine power is transmitted through a standard four-speed automatic with manual mode -- a nice piece although it comes up a bit short, what with the proliferation these days of five-speed automatics. The engine gets a California low-emission-vehicle rating and an estimated Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy rating of 19 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway. All-wheel drive cuts the highway estimate to 27 mpg.

The Endeavor's brakes are disc on all four wheels, anti-lock is an option (standard on all-wheel-drive models), and though front air bags are standard, side-impact bags are available as an option only on the XLS and Limited models. Side-curtain air bags aren't offered at all, although Mitsubishi says a substantial amount of energy-absorbing material was used in the interior to help reduce the possibility of head and upper-body injuries in a collision.

In the passenger compartment, Endeavor boasts plenty of room for five grown-ups, with league-leading back-seat legroom and comfortable seating that consists of buckets upfront and a rear bench with a fairly wide bottom cushion to support people of adult proportions.

The rear seat folds almost flat with relative ease. Mitsubishi says it doesn't believe its buyers will need, or be willing to pay for, a third-row seat in the Endeavor. That's what the company's Montero full-size SUV is for.

In the cargo compartment Endeavor isn't best in class, but the 76.4 cubic feet behind the rear seats isn't too shabby. The Ford Explorer, with 88 cubic feet behind the rear seat, is top of the category. With rear seats down, the Endeavor's cargo area will hold a standard sheet of 4-by-8-foot plywood.

The Endeavor has enough cup holders and power ports for all and a center console that can swallow a laptop computer. The base LS model gets a single-disc CD changer; all others come with a six-disc in-dash model. Very nice cloth upholstery is standard in all but the upscale Limited models, which get leather. Leather also is optional in the mid-range XLS models.

Mitsubishi paid a lot of attention to fit and finish inside and did a nice job with pebbly and dimpled textures and the soft-touch finish of the impressively large dash pad.

Critical instruments are clustered in a three-gauge array under an arched visor directly in front of the driver. The other stuff -- stereo and climate controls and, on upper-end models, a 5-inch information display screen -- is packaged in a center stack designed to look a bit like a portable karaoke machine and sporting a bright metallic finish. Control knobs and buttons are big and easy to use, and instruments feature electric-blue lighting.

The Endeavor is the first Mitsubishi conceived, engineered, designed and built entirely in the U.S., and it joins five other models on the firm's North American assembly line. The factory, in Normal, Ill., also builds the Galant sedan and the Eclipse coupe and convertible and, for DaimlerChrysler -- which owns controlling interest in Mitsubishi -- the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Stratus coupes.

DaimlerChrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai Motor Co. have just announced that they will jointly produce four-cylinder engines for the U.S. market and are looking for a site for a new plant in one of three states: Illinois, Indiana or Michigan.

Though the Endeavor won't use one of the new four-bangers, Mitsubishi has several other products that will. The company is in the midst of its most aggressive product launch and is looking for 2003 to be its fifth consecutive year of record U.S. sales.

Mitsubishi had sales of 345,000 last year, and Greg O'Neill, president and chief operating officer of Mitsubishi Motors North America, says the company expects to sell just under 600,000 units a year by 2007.

The Endeavor, he says, will account for about 80,000 a year, if Mitsubishi's product planners got everything right.

Final words: Although the exterior isn't much to look at, if decent performance and a comfortable ride are important to you, Endeavor is worth considering. Add Mitsubishi's competitive pricing and seemingly endless no-interest incentive program and you're looking at a good deal.

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