‘Race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ might be an ageing automotive mantra but, as a teenager in the late 1990s, motorsport had a transformative effect on Mitsubishi’s image and desirability. The red and white RalliArt war paint of the Lancer Evolution and the tunability of its roadgoing counterparts quickly made the company synonymous with performance cars instead of rugged off-roaders. If you were the right age at the time, then that probably hasn’t worn off since.
Two decades on and Mitsubishi has changed again; now more ‘EV’ than ‘Evo’, and just as well tuned to the public mood if the Outlander PHEV’s sales performance is anything to go by. However, unlikely though it might sound, a little of that rally-bred engineering lives on beneath the whisper-quiet subtlety of this plug-in SUV.
For a start, the Outlander PHEV’s architecture – the platform on which it sits – is the same as the Evo X. That’s not a bad foundation for a driver’s car, even if what’s on top is a little boxier. My lasting memory of the Evo was that it was both enjoyable enough and thirsty enough to require two petrol station visits in the same day back when I had my first one on test a decade ago. There are EVs now on sale with a longer range.
Grip was the Evo’s forte; good not only for eating up rally stages but also underpinning the 440bhp versions Mitsubishi UK was offering right off the forecourt. Fundamental to this was AWC (All Wheel Control), a term coined with the Evo VII as a catch-all for its sophisticated, electronically-controlled four-wheel drive system. This later became S-AWC (Super All Wheel Control) with the Evo X and, if you’re a nerd like me, you’ll spot that same acronym in the Outlander PHEV’s rear glass.
Despite the entirely different hardware, the end goal is the same. S-AWC controls torque output to each corner and can individually brake wheels, depending on available grip and steering inputs, to give more predictable cornering responses. The Outlander does this too, albeit by controlling the front/rear torque split using separate motors at each axle instead of the Evo’s clutched central differential. There are Evo-like drive modes for different surfaces, and a dashboard display showing what’s going on underneath.
Obviously it’s worlds apart from the visceral performance of an Evo, but the Outlander has inherited some of its former stablemate’s natural on-road confidence. Last year’s update added bigger disc brakes, steering recalibrated for more feedback and boosted the power from both its petrol and electric drivetrains. The result is something closer to its European-engineered counterparts; sure-footed and predictable handling, direct responses to driver inputs and a healthy surge of overtaking power in Sport mode, though it leans heavily on the petrol engine to do so. Regenerative braking is dialled in, in five stages using paddles behind the wheel, giving similar control to a downshift on a conventional automatic – the paddles themselves are yet another carry-over from the Evo.
Ultimately the Outlander PHEV isn’t a car that wills you to drive aggressively, but the bare bones of something very interesting are woven into it. If Mitsubishi’s future plans involve emphasising the ‘EV’ into ‘Evolution’, reincarnating the bloodline as some sort of electronically-boosted performance car, then my inner teenager is very much on board.