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Mitsubishi Airtrek


Mitsubishi calls its new Airtrek all-wheel drive five-door a gap-bridger "between macho four-wheel drive recreational vehicles and conventional family sedans."

Or, more succinctly, a crossover vehicle, a current automotive buzzword for a style of vehicle that is becoming increasingly common.

They've been around for a little while, these crossover vehicles, though no-one was referring to them by that name.

Honda's CR-V is one. Subaru's Outback and Forester are others, the former leaning more towards a car in looks and the latter taking the Sports Utility Vehicle approach.

Mitsubishi's newcomer is kind of in the middle, tending neither more towards a car nor more towards an SUV.

Frankly it's not a car that is served well by photographs. Photographs don't capture well some of the subtleties and nuances of its design.

Nuances like the muscular accent lines over the front wheels or the rear wheelarch bulges that call to mind the tough guy looks of the marque's Paris/Dakar Rally/Raid Pajero rally cars.

The Airtrek looks best in side profile or from the rear three-quarter where the understated muscularity of its lines become evident.

It's not battling it out in a field where good looks necessarily count for a lot, but after a week of living with the Airtrek we kind of grew to like the way it looked - a sort of unflashy tough customer.

Like the Subaru Forester the Airtrek has all-wheel drive, the Japanese car industry's way of saying permanent four-wheel drive.

Mitsubishi has got plenty of experience in vehicles in which all four wheels are driven.

The quality and ability of its all-wheel drive systems has been proven in the Lancer Evo and Galant VR-4 high-performance road car lines and the Paris Dakar and World Rally Championship competition cars.

It's the four-cylinder 2.0-litre motor that's the Airtrek's weakest link.

It's a 16-valve SOHC, multi-point fuel-injected 1997cc unit found formerly in a Galant model. Its 93kW at 5500rpm and 173Nm of peak torque at 4500rpm look fair enough on paper.

But in real world driving the motor doesn't sparkle.

That may not be surprising given it's got 1430kg to push through the air and drives the four wheels through an automatic gearbox.

Acceleration from standstill to 100km/h is at the lower end of brisk, though once the car reaches open road speeds it acquits itself well.

The INVECS II Sport Mode four-speed automatic gearbox is a mixed bag, too.

You can either leave it in Drive and let it do its own shifting (which we'd recommend) or you can slot the dashboard-mounted lever across the gate and use the gearbox as a sequential manual.

Now in some Mitsubishis this set-up works well, but in the Airtrek we're not so convinced.

The problem is not with the Drive option, but with the sequential shift.

I'm the sort of driver who likes the option of shifting an auto manually, and it's one of the great joys of Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore autos that when you're attacking a twisting and winding road you can use the auto like a manual.

So when we got to some demanding roads I decided to do the same with the Airtrek.

I slotted across to the Sport Shift section of the gear lever gate, selected third and got on with some cornering.

Third proved to be maybe a little tall and the car's performance out of corners was often sluggish, even though the chassis had carried good speed through the corner.

I went back and tried some of the same corners with the transmission left in Drive. The result was much better. When I floored the throttle on the way out of the corner the Airtrek would downshift into second, there'd be brisk acceleration and it was all-round much more satisfying.

I like to do my own downshifting in brisk winding road cornering in auto gearbox cars. I feel it gives more control.

The reverse seemed true of the Airtrek. I got a much better result by allowing it to make the shifting decisions; and, curiously, by doing so I felt more in control of the car.

The shift quality is good, and kickdown is so instant that if I were to drive an Airtrek regularly I'd never use the manual Sport Shift option unless I were wanting to lock the car in a higher gear to start on an ultra-slippery surface.

I rather think, though, that the Airtrek is under-served by a four-speed gearbox; a five-speed auto would get more out of the relatively-anaemic engine.

And that dashboard-mounted gearshift lever. I thought it a little tacky at first but by after a day or two found it to be a surprisingly-logical location for the shifter.

The four-wheel drive system regulates the front/rear torque split. In normal driving the split is 50/50, but that changes if any of the wheels starts to lose grip.

Mitsubishi is mostly marketing all-wheel drive Airtreks here, but does list a front-drive version for $4000 less. We'd say: "don't be tempted; the car needs four-wheel drive."

Which brings us to its handling.

The suspension mixes MacPherson struts at the front with a multi-link trailing arm independent set-up at the rear. Suspension componentry and mountings have been beefed up for off-road use.

Stylish 16-inch alloy wheels wear grippy and impressively quiet 215/60 R16 Yokohama Geolander tyres.

Ground clearance is 195mm, so the car sits reasonably high. The wheelbase is 2625mm and front and rear track are identical at a moderately wide 1495mm.

The power-assisted rack and pinion steering is well-tuned: light and easy for parking, firmer and communicative enough for open road driving.

In the city the Airtrek handles confidently, the bite from the rear wheels giving a very satisfying feeling of solidity and agility.

On the motorway the car feels rock solid and justifies Mitsubishi's claim of superior stability. It's also pleasingly quiet at highway speeds, with low wind, mechanical and tyre noise levels.

On demanding roads the car turns-in to corners crisply and with an engaging feeling of eagerness to get on with the job.

But the harder you press, especially in a sequence of corners, the more you're aware of understeer. We didn't encounter any real sledging, but you could feel the nose of the car.

Certainly we felt that if you were driving a front-wheel drive version there would be a fair amount of front-wheel sledging to cope with. The driven rear wheels seemed to keep the sledging tendency under control.

Ride quality is outstanding, the suspension's generous travel soaking up bumps and making the Airtrek a comfortable ride.

The Airtrek is a little clumsy in confined spaces, frequently requiring three-point turns. Its turning circle is 11.4 metres.

The seating position is highish and the view of the road ahead is better than you get from a normal sedan. The parking brake is foot-operated.

There's good leg and head room and storage bins and cubbyholes abound. We particularly liked the sliding lid on the centre console bin and the flip forward front that, when vertical, revealed spaces for two drinks bottles or cans.

There's hidden storage space beneath the flat cargo area floor, and the rear seatbacks fold forward to produce more luggage space.

The seats are well-shaped and comfortable, but we didn't like the mix of fabric and "protein leather" covering.

We also didn't like the lack of a cargo area cover, but we did like the darkly tinted rear windows which made it hard to see into the rear cabin anyway and which did double duty as a styling feature.

The luggage area floor is at a convenient height for loading and unloading.

And despite the higher than usual ground clearance the Airtrek is no more difficult to get into than most cars and in fact is easer than many.

Mitsubishi calls the dashboard design generation-bridging. You get used to it and the instrumentation is clear and easy to read.

The steering wheel is a little more sharply raked than in most cars, but is nicely chunky and pleasant to use.

Safety equipment includes dual front airbags and ABS anti-skid braking.

Disappointingly the centre rear seatbelt is lap-only.

Standard equipment includes remote-control central door-locking, power windows and exterior mirrors, an analogue clock, automatic air-conditioning, and a Kenwood six-speaker Compact Disc sound system.

The Kenwood produced good sound, but had fussy controls - the control unit face tilts to unload or load the CD in the single-play slot, for instance.

We found the Airtrek to be like the proverbial curate's egg - good in parts.

It's an appealing, comfortable, stylish vehicle with a good level of standard equipment and a superbly-compliant ride that shames many a car let alone an off-road-capable vehicle.

It's quiet enough, roomy enough and distinctive enough.

But it's let down by its engine which frankly doesn't do this otherwise likeable car justice.

We could do without the Sport Shift function on the automatic, too. We'd rather have a five gear which would serve the engine better.

We'd like the handling to be a little less biased towards understeer.

We hear that the car may get a bigger more potent engine (it is available in Japan with a 2.4) and that has to be good news.

At the moment, the $39,990 Airtrek - though competitively-priced - is a Mitsubishi diamond with not quite enough sparkle. Given its potential, that's a pity.

AutoPoint road test team.

Auto Trader New Zealand