SUVs have become the automotive industry’s Swiss Army knife, merging estate car load space, MPV visibility and that rugged kerb appeal drivers seem to have an unending appetite for. Europeans bought a record 29.8 million of them last year, according to JATO Dynamics, and some manufacturers are dropping other products to make way for an even broader range of soft-roaders to keep up with demand.
That practical, upright shape offers another talent. SUVs are also ideal for swallowing bulky plug-in hybrid, electric and even hydrogen fuel cell drivetrains. Ironically, that could make a segment once demonised for its gas-guzzlers an important route into electric mobility for many buyers. But as the underlying technology becomes more versatile and buyers view it as just another option alongside petrol and diesel, it is packaging shortfalls that will divide them.
The foundations of the Outlander PHEV are relatively old considering how quickly the technology has changed since, but this was always a neatly-packaged car. Dig out a picture of the battery box in the boot of a first-generation Mercedes-Benz GLE 500e for an example of getting it very, very wrong. I have a three kids, my own business, and an incredibly variable work-life balance, and the Mitsubishi has taken everything in its stride.
For a start, this is (until the Ford Transit and LEVC’s taxi-derived van come along) also sold as the UK’s only plug-in hybrid commercial vehicle. Where some SUVs have put the emphasis on sport, the Outlander is fundamentally a utility-focused off-roader. There’s no tapered roofline to stop bulky objects getting into the back, the boot is a metre wide beneath the wheel arches and 1,650mm long with the rear bench folded (and around half that with them upright).
Importantly, that’s a totally uninterrupted flat load area behind the front seats. The rear bench squab tips up and forward, the backrest drops so it’s flush with the boot floor and Mitsubishi has thoughtfully included an under-floor compartment for the load cover near the tailgate.
Our Outlander PHEV has swallowed mountain bikes, photography gear, two folded buggies and an expired washing machine, and I’ve previously had a two-seat Ikea sofa in one. I’ve yet to have anything trigger the anti-pinch function on the electric tailgate because it doesn’t quite fit. It’s so big that my eldest and I sat on the folded rear bench building Lego sets while waiting for the exit queues to die down at Legoland a few weeks ago. It’s brilliant.
But its biggest shortfall can be levelled at almost all SUVs – electric, hybrid or combustion engine. We’re a family of five, three of which are in booster seats. The Outlander will accommodate the three kids, including using the passenger-side ISOFIX point to have one of them up front (a popular feature with our older two). However, there’s not enough room for an adult or booster seat between two ISOFIX bases in the back, and the PHEV doesn’t have a seven-seat option like its petrol counterpart. However, the third row wouldn’t be overly useful with kids our age, as it’d mean there’s nowhere for the buggy.
We’re an unusual case with our oversized brood, but it restricts our choice to a handful of MPVs, many of which are earmarked to be discontinued and none of which (excluding the rather crude Nissan e-NV200) can do the school run on battery power like an Outlander PHEV. It feels like a suspiciously-absent talent in an otherwise very versatile segment.