Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV: Australian Review

Electric vehicles are slowly infiltrating Australia. We're still a while away from that all-electric world of the future, but hybrid vehicles have come a long way since the Prius' 2002 debut. The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV turns an important corner on that road to tomorrow; if you take a little care, you can drive it without spending a cent on petrol.

What Is It?

The Outlander PHEV is an interesting vehicle. It's based on the same Outlander chassis as the petrol engine model, and it still has a petrol engine -- a 2-litre four cylinder sitting above and between the front wheels, just like a real car -- but power to the road comes courtesy of two 60kW electric motors and a 12kWh drive battery. And the Outlander is a true four wheel drive, as well -- one electric motor drives the front, and one the rear wheels. There's no gearing for the electric motors, either -- just smooth, effortless torque from a standstill up to the national speed limit.

The Outlander PHEV isn't Mitsubishi's first all-electric car -- that honour goes to the i-MiEV, sold in 2009 and since discontinued (due to poor sales, unfortunately). It is the first all-electric SUV, though; except in a few specific instances, the petrol motor only exists as a generator to provide charging for the car's battery when needed. For anything except especially spirited or freeway-speed driving, you can run the Outlander PHEV on electricity alone.

From the outside, the PHEV looks just like a regular Outlander with a few blue-and-silver badges on its front quarter panels and tailgate. I tested the top-of-the-line Aspire, which adds a few chrome accents to the exterior -- it's actually quite an attractive vehicle, if slightly imposing (coming from a Polo, at least). Being an Outlander, it has spacious seating for five adults, and sits a full 1680mm tall, 4655mm long, and 1810mm wide.

The PHEV Aspire has a pleasant black leather interior -- it's not luxury, and it's utilitarian rather than plush, belying its aims as a family car -- and a dashboard that wouldn't be out of place in any standard modern Australian large car. The electric-driven nature of the car means that a lot of the interface you see in a more traditional car -- gated gear lever, turn-key ignition -- are replaced by buttons and knobs and levers.

As creature comforts go, the Outlander PHEV has a few -- there's voice controls for the media and navigation system with Bluetooth phone syncing for handsfree calls, heated front seats with electric adjustment, and the novelty of 'forward collision mitigation' -- front-facing radar which prevents (or mitigates) a crash with any vehicle that stops abruptly in front of your car. This system also works to offer adaptive cruise control, matching speed with any car travelling a preset distance ahead.

The real departure from a gears-and-internal-combustion car comes in the buttons on the Outlander PHEV's centre console, between the two front seats. The P-R-N-D gear selector is an electronic one, so you jog it around to select whichever electric drive mode you want, then press the accelerator pedal to activate the electric motors at whatever rate of acceleration you desire.

Driving an electric car is markedly different to one with a petrol engine in the way you actually apply power -- there's no gearing to deal with, and you don't accelerate to your chosen speed and coast; it's more a game of finding the right level of pedal press and then travelling at that rate constantly.

The gear selector, along with two steering wheel flappy paddles, also controls the intensity of the Outlander PHEV's regenerative braking system. You can set any of six modes -- from zero to full force -- that incrementally slow the car when you're not pressing the accelerator, using the car's electric motors to generate power that is fed back into the drive battery.

It's an odd experience to brake almost entirely to a stop without touching the brake pedal -- regen braking kicks in, slow the car and then deactivates at lower vehicle speeds, and can easily bring the Outlander down to a cruisy 10km/h as you coast to a set of traffic lights. For the most part, I found the Outlander PHEV's regenerative braking worked best at a moderate setting (around 2 or 3 out of 5) with a higher setting appropriate for high-speed or freeway travel (4 or 5 out of 5).

What's It Good At?

If you don't want to -- and if you're dedicated enough -- you can drive the Outlander PHEV almost for free, only paying for a slight bump on your electricity bill. The $55,405 PHEV (as tested) has a 50km ideal range on battery power alone, so if you're making trips of less than 50km total every day, you won't have to fire the petrol engine up to refill the SUV's energy storage. The 45-litre petrol tank of the Outlander could sit entirely unused, although it's probably a good idea to run it every now and then to keep everything lubricated.

And it's possible to achieve this figure. In one trip with a single extended stop, I drove the Outlander PHEV from a completely full charge until empty, around Sydney city and the suburbs -- everywhere from Arncliffe to Parramatta to Castle Hill -- and achieved a full 47km of travel. Sitting at an ideal speed, I'm sure you could reach or better that 50km rating with a little bit of effort.

The Outlander PHEV also uses regenerative braking to slightly prolong its battery life, channeling energy back into the lithium cell by running the electric motors as generators when you step on the brake pedal -- it's not a huge bump in range, but anecdotally I can say that it makes a slight difference. When you're out of electricity, the petrol engine kicks in to charge the battery, sitting at an ideal RPM that compromises between power output (70kW in battery charging mode) and fuel consumption.

You can let the PHEV sit and recharge, or you can drive around -- there is a drive mode where the petrol engine can move the wheels in concert with or separately from the electric motors. The Outlander takes care of everything in the background, or you can take a little more interest in what's going on -- you can set the car to charge with the petrol engine using the Charge button near the gear selector, for example, while you're motoring around on the school run, or you can let it run entirely flat and only use petrol battery charging 'til you're back home.

Of course, this isn't the ideal way to drive the car -- you'll only get around 500km from the Outlander's 12kWh battery and 45L fuel tank if you do that -- that's fuel consumption of 9 litres per 100km. What Mitsubishi wants you to do is pull up to your house or garage, or a public electric vehicle charging station, and plug in the PHEV using its bundled charging adapter. The Outlander uses a standardised charging connector, so you can plug it in at ChargePoint and other EV charging networks.

If you're at home, though, you can use the Outlander PHEV's bundled charging adapter, which has a 5-metre power cable, with a 15-amp power socket. This kind of power socket has a thicker and longer ground pin -- so you can't plug the PHEV charger into a regular wall socket -- but you can have an electrician install an upgraded socket for a relatively small fee, or use a 10-amp to 15-amp adapter in a pinch.

The ADR rated fuel consumption of the Outlander PHEV is a miserly 1.9 litres per 100km -- this is based upon a full electric charge and using the petrol engine when charge runs dry. Around the city, you won't be able to achieve this figure if you let the batteries run dry, but it's entirely possible on longer motorway trips.

When you're charging the Outlander PHEV, you'll save the most money if you charge it during off-peak periods. These vary from state to state and region to region, but generally overnight charging makes the most sense. This is possible when you set a timer to charge the car using the onboard interface or the companion app for Android and iPhone; you can also remotely active the car's climate control and headlights either manually or with a timer, and locate your Outlander in a crowded car park.

What Is It Not Good At?

That 50km range rating from the electric battery alone? It's extremely ideal. If you want to use the air conditioning, or if you want to drive in the non-Eco mode (that's Normal, by the way), you'll see the range rating drop significantly. From a 100 per cent charge and 50km ideal range, switching on air con will cost you 10km, and the Normal drive mode saps another 8km. So you can drive a frugal, careful 50km on a single charge, or 32km in air conditioned comfort.

The Outlander PHEV Aspire's front and rear parking sensors are also sometimes more trouble than they're worth. There's no quick option to disable them both and leave the SUV running silently, which is a huge annoyance when you're manoeuvring the PHEV down a tight driveway and trying to concentrate on actually driving it rather than listening to a cacophony of simultaneous yet entirely jarring beeps. They're great for reverse parallel parking in the city, used in concert with the Aspire's rear-facing video camera, but the option to disable them for driveway parking would have been useful.

The Outlander PHEV's central media and navigation system is not bad, but it feels slightly half-baked. Buttons on the touchscreen display are easy to find and press, and the navigation is simple enough to understand, but you'll have a better experience mounting your phone and using Google Maps. A lot of that comes from the relatively low resolution screen, same-y fonts and generic graphics, as well as the imperfect Bluetooth implementation -- my complaints are minor, but when it came to navigating I ended up using my phone, and listening to the radio rather than streaming Spotify to the stereo.

Since the Outlander PHEV's engine rarely operates as anything other than a generator, it's slightly mystifying as to why Mitsubishi didn't opt for a small and even more efficient turbodiesel powerplant. That would have driven fuel consumption figures down even further, and the use of particulate figures in the exhaust system would have alleviated any environmental concerns. Being a hefty 1810kg without passengers, the Outlander has to carry around a lot of weight, and a gutsy little diesel just makes sense.

The petrol engine kicks in when you need extra driving power, or when you're accelerating above 70km/h -- anywhere around freeway speeds. It's somewhat disquieting -- since it only has two gears, it's rarely doing anything other than extra charge, so it in any case, you don't really want the petrol engine to run at all, and it's easy not to use it, so the point is somewhat moot in the first place.

It's also quite an intimidating car to drive initially. It's not an especially confusing interface -- there's a single unified display in the centre of the driver's instruments that displays remaining range, drive modes, and any extra necessary info -- but there's a psychological barrier to actually sitting in the driver's seat and pressing the Power button and selecting Drive and then moving off from the safety of a parking space under entirely electric power. You get used to it quickly, but this is a car you'll have to test drive a few times to get comfortable with first.

Should You Buy It?

If you can make the effort to plug the Outlander PHEV when you're home every afternoon or night, and remember to charge it overnight to avoid peak power usage, it's an extremely cheap way to get around town. It's definitely not a cheap vehicle in the first place, but you get a lot of car for your money, and in the right circumstances it's less expensive to maintain than an equivalent petrol-only Outlander or competing soft-roader SUV.

I think that the Outlander PHEV is most important as a flagship for Mitsubishi; it shows that the company is interested in and committed to an electric and hybrid future for its Australian vehicle fleet. It has no massive or particularly prominent flaws beyond the initial shock of its electric-ness and the necessity of changing your driving and refueling habits. It's not the perfect EV, but it's a good stretch of the way there.