When it first hit the New Zealand market early in 2002, the naturally-aspirated version of Mitsubishi's Airtrek all-wheel drive station wagon had one major shortcoming - its engine.
It was a 2.0-litre inline four, developing 93kW at 5500rpm and peak torque of 173Nm at 4500rpm. Those figures look reasonably impressive on paper - not so many years ago they would have graced a high-performance version of a mid-sized Japanese sedan.
But the Airtrek, beefed up to withstand the rigours of off-road use, weighed in 1430kg and ran a power-sapping four-speed automatic gearbox.
Applied to the Airtrek the former Galant 2.0-litre motor just didn't sparkle, producing lack-lustre acceleration and quaking every time it came to a hill.
"(The Airtrek 2.0 is) let down by its engine which frankly doesn't do this otherwise likeable car justice," we wrote in our February 28, 2002, road test.
Fast-forward to April 2003 and a revised naturally-aspirated Airtrek.
It now has a 2.4-litre four-cylinder motor. Power jumps to 100kW produced at a more user-friendly 5000rpm. It's not a big increase, but it's a useful one.
More importantly, peak torque jumps to 205kW, developed at a low 2500rpm. Much of it is available lower in the rev range.
Kerb weight rises by only 20kg. The 2.4 retains the four-speed INVECS II gearbox with Sports Mode sequential manual shift.
Does the new engine answer our criticism of the earlier car? The answer is an unqualified 'yes.'
The bigger motor's extra torque means the Airtrek is no longer daunted by hills, even hills as steep the one that runs alongside Auckland's zoo.
The car now has good acceleration off corners - not sporty, mind, but reasonably strong.
And the extra torque means the sequential manual shift in the four-speed auto is now more usable. In the smaller-engined Airtrek we found you got a better result if you left the car in Drive and let it do its own gear-changing, even on a demanding winding road.
The third gear ratio, selected manually, was a little too high to make effective use of the held ratio during brisk cornering. It was better to leave the gearbox to its own devices where it could kick down instantly and smoothly.
The 2.0-litre motor cried out for a five-speed auto with closer ratios.
The match between the 2.4 and the four-speed auto is much happier and the torque spread means you can now make effective use of holding the box in a fixed ratio on winding roads.
Ride quality hasn't been lost and the Airtrek is still good to ride in.
The steering is light for easy parking - though the Airtrek is not the most agile in a city carpark where a three-point turn is often required - and weights up for better feel at open road speeds.
Roadholding is good, and the 225/60 R16 tyres provide good dry and wet road grip.
Handling remains biased towards understeer - too much so for our tastes - and you're aware of the weight of the engine when you're pushing moderately hard on a winding road.
The car is at its best on motorways or major state highways. Tight and narrow little roads with constant changes of direction aren't its natural hunting ground.
The gearshift lever sprouts from the dashboard, a location that turned out to be surprisingly logical and user-friendly.
The parking brake is foot-operated - doubtless a legacy of the vehicle's intention as a contender in the US small SUV market. Again, we found the foot-operated brake to be logical and user-friendly.
The braking system is made up of disc front/drum rear and proved to be strong and fade-free. ABS anti-skid is standard as is electronic brake force distribution.
The fuel tank holds 60 litres which is probably just as well, because the fuel tank needle dropped reasonably rapidly. The Airtrek runs on 91 octane.
With the rear seatbacks upright the cargo space will hold 402 litres; with the seats folded that rises to 1049 litres.
The car will carry five in comfortable seats, with good levels of head and legroom.
The high-mounted seating position gives a commanding view of the road, yet the Airtrek is as easy to get into and out of as a conventional car, despite its 195mm ground clearance.
The dashboard treatment is much more restrained than the bizarre blue woodgrain found in the Airterk Turbo.
There are plenty of storage spaces, including one under the load area floor.
Standard equipment includes the fulltime four-wheel drive system; air-conditioning; 16-inch diameter alloy wheels; cruise control; power windows and exterior mirrors; remote-control central door-locking, and a six-speaker Compact Disc sound system.
The last-mentioned is the familiar Kenwood favoured by Mitsubishi and it's fussy and clumsy to use. To load or unload the single-play CD system requires pushing a button which allows the stereo front to detach and rotate forward revealing the CD slot.
The sound is fine, but the unit's generally fussiness is perhaps best summed up by a friend who says "Kenwood make great food mixers."
Safety gear includes dual front airbags; and Mitsubishi gets full marks for specifying lap and sash seatbelts for all three rear seat occupants. The 2.0-litre had a lap-only belt in the rear centre position.
The 2.4 motor came to the NZ market because Mitsubishi is now selling the Airtrek in Australia, and Australians would have emitted howls of derisive laughter had the car struggled with an anaemic 2.0-litre in a market where the six-cylinder and V8 rule.
The downside of the new-look Airtrek is that it has picked up the face worn by the car in Australia and the USA. In both markets it's known as the Outlander, though Outlandish might seem more appropriate given the huge rhinoceros nose that "adorns" the car.
Gone is the understated, if rather anonymous, grille of the original Airtrek. In its place are two massive air intakes separated by a heavily-styled nasal centrepiece sporting the Mitsubishi triple diamond badge.
The new-look Airtrek certainly stands out from the crowd because of that nose which looks a little out of place given the smooth styling of the rest of the bodywork.
In some ways, though, it's the most outstanding thing about the naturally-aspirated Airtrek.
In most other respects the Airtrek is adequate rather than outstanding. It performs adequately now that its engine is torquier and marginally more powerful; it handles adequately if uninspiringly.
It has very good accommodation and comfort levels. The slick gearbox with its ratios well-matched to the torquey engine and the outstanding ride combine to make the Airtrek a pleasant car to drive and be driven in on city and motorway.
It's easy to get into and out of; it has good amounts of storage and a low loading height.
The sum of its attributes makes the Airtrek 2.4 an immensely practical vehicle and a big improvement on its underpowered predecessor.
The Airtrek 2.4 sells for $37,990 which seems good value for money.
Story and pictures by Mike Stock