It was an offer too good to refuse: Take a helicopter ride from Long Beach to Avalon, then spend the day driving the unpaved back roads of Santa Catalina Island in an SUV.
It didn’t matter that the exploring would be done in a Mitsubishi. With an invitation to explore some of the “no cars allowed” Catalina dirt roads, I’d have shown up for a Ford Pinto.
I was pleasantly surprised. Mitsubishi’s new plug-in hybrid Outlander is a competent, comfortable compact sport utility vehicle.
Executives at the Japanese car company call the Outlander PHEV a “halo car” — a vehicle that will create buzz and attract new buyers to the brand. They boast that it’s the first plug-in hybrid crossover in this class of vehicles, and the only one with all-wheel drive.
Though it looks like a conventional Outlander on the outside, the PHEV model is missing the 2-liter, 2.4-liter or 3.0-liter engines that drive the gas-powered Outlanders.
Instead, the PHEV is powered by a 12kwh lithium battery that drives two 60kw electric motors — one on the front axle, one on the rear — resulting in what Mitsubishi calls “super all-wheel control.” It’s paired with 2-liter gasoline engine.
The battery-only range, not yet certified by the EPA, is expected to be comparable to luxury hybrid crossovers made by Volvo, BMW and other companies — around 14 miles between charges.
But the Outlander is also one of only a few plug-in hybrids that come standard with the hardware that allows Level 2 charging. Mitsubishi claims the SUV’s onboard lithium-ion battery can be charged to full capacity in four hours or less on this type of charger — or about twice that long on a standard household 120-volt system.
Because it’s a hybrid and not a pure electric vehicle, there is no range anxiety. The Outlander PHEV is fitted with a 2-liter gasoline-burning internal combustion engine that can provide propulsion to the vehicle or generate electricity to charge the battery.
Mitsubishi executives said they believed the fuel economy would be about 54 miles per gallon equivalent.
Many potential buyers won’t care about those MPG or MPG-e numbers. They’ll be more interested in knowing the PHEV status qualifies the Outlander for HOV access.
On the road, at the low speeds allowable on Catalina Island’s few paved roads, the Outlander felt solid and planted. The “super all-wheel control” creates the feel and maneuverability of a smaller car — allowing for a very tight turning radius and nimble feel while cornering.
Climbing the steep dirt roads that rise above Avalon, the five-seater was smooth and quiet. The suspension smoothed out the washboard and potholes. It was often difficult to tell when the gasoline engine was engaged and when we were in all-electric mode.
One of the Mitsubishi guides had told us that Catalina, beyond the little harbor town of Avalon, was completely uninhabited, and that we could expect to see bison, foxes and possibly deer running free.
We did. One great shaggy buffalo was loitering by a shimmering water hole, like a paid background artist abandoned by the movie company that brought the bison to the island in the first place.
We caught a more fleeting glance of a furtive island fox — scientific name Urocyon littoralis — representative of a species native to Catalina and the Channel Islands.
Though we scanned the cactus-dotted hills for more wildlife, we saw only the occasional hiker or cyclist until we were nearly back into Avalon. I spotted a broad-antlered deer taking the shade behind the city’s stately hillside bell tower.
By then, we had been exposed to more of the PHEV’s attributes. At a photo stop at scenic Shark Harbor, the Mitsubishi people were demonstrating the PHEV’s ability to use its battery pack to run a plug-in appliance — such as sound systems, entertainment systems or, in this case, a blender for making roadside smoothies.
Mitsubishi has set the suggested retail price low on the two trim levels for the Outlander PHEV, hoping to draw car shoppers looking at the more expensive BMW X5, Volvo XC90, Mercedes-Benz GLE or Porsche Cayenne.
(Those shoppers in the future may be looking at the just-announced 2019 Range Rover P400e Plug-in Hybrid, too).
The SEL version will start at $35,530. The GT version will start at $41,235.
Mitsubishi executives noted that the plug-in hybrid price is not much higher than the gasoline Outlander equivalent, and is much lower after federal and state rebates and tax incentives are factored in. Those credits could amount to $7,000 or more for California residents.
But the company has a challenge. Mitsubishi, which currently offers only the Mirage and Lancer sedans in its vehicle lineup — though it will soon introduce its Eclipse Cross for the 2018 model year — is generally last-to-mind among car shoppers whose awareness of Japanese companies may be limited to Toyota, Honda, Subaru, Nissan and Mazda.
As Mitsubishi’s senior director of marketing, Francine Harsini, said, “We have a great product but not enough people know who we are or what we have to offer.”
That may be why Mitsubishi expects to sell fewer than 4,000 Outlander PHEVs a year in the U.S., though about 100,000 units have been sold in Japan and Europe since the model was introduced in 2014.
2017 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Times’ take: Capable SUV with plug-in technology
Highs: Quiet, comfortable, rechargeable
Lows: Do many people want a plug-in SUV?
Vehicle type: Four-door, five-passenger crossover
Base price: $35,530
Price as tested: $41,235
Powertrain: Twin 60kw electric motors paired with 2-liter gasoline engine
Transmission: Single speed, all-wheel drive
Torque: 137 pound-feet front, 144 rear
EPA fuel economy rating: Not yet available