STRAWBERRY, Ariz. -- The blacktop plank of Arizona 87 cuts through a pine forest on the lip of the high Colorado Plateau before dropping down the Mogollon Rim escarpment. It plunges in a series of curves that wiggle like a spaghetti noodle dangled over a cliff to the village of Strawberry, nestled in shadows of the rocky ramparts.
Run this dicey descent at speed in a sporty car and you may expect some hair-raising excitement as the suspension checks the chassis for each off-camber bend and tires wail in protest to the too-tight kinks.
Run the same route in a conventional truck-based sport-utility vehicle (SUV) and you may also expect hair-raising excitement, but not the good kind: An inherently sloppy suspension will no doubt prompt the truck's body to pitch with each cascading curve as you wonder whether the wagon will remain on pavement or stray over the rim of the cliff.
Then run Route 87's Mogollon descent in the latest edition of Outlander, a crossover utility vehicle (CUV) in the mid-size segment by Mitsubishi, and you'll enjoy the romp as tires paw the pavement and the wagon's body, feeling rigid and tuned, plays it hard and fast on the fun side of vehicle performance.
The fact is Outlander fuses the best traits of a carry-all SUV and a pavement-hugging sports sedan.
Concealed behind Outlander's slick new skin is a unibody structure in steel and all of the handling hardware -- such as an independent suspension for all wheels and the responsive rack and pinion steering system -- match mechanical equipment on a front-wheel-drive (FWD) car rather than a rear-wheel-drive (RWD) truck and the typical SUV derived from that truck.
Mitsubishi's crossover concept blends the manners of a good-handling sedan with the elevated stance and cargo capacity of a boxy SUV and the cabin flexibility and interior efficiency of a minivan.
Like the SUV, Outlander possesses a wagon's format with two or three rows of seats and four doors for passengers plus a liftgate at the tail for access to the aft cargo bay.
Boxy parameters of a SUV have been disguised by the fluid sculptural treatment of body panels plus the raked face and a forward-tilting tail, elements which collectively diffuse all rectangular hard corners.
Like a sporty sedan such as Mitsubishi's Lancer, Outlander rides on a car's chassis.
The platform supports the 105-inch wheelbase and a wide wheel track of 60.6 inches front and back. Pushing wheels to edges of the chassis adds stability to the stance and enhances Outlander's agility when cornering, while the long wheelbase forges a smoother ride quality.
First editions of Outlander landed in North America as 2003 models constructed on a FWD platform derived from Mitsubishi's compact-class Lancer sedan.
Second editions of Outlander in 2007 gained a larger platform for the next generation of models for Lancer and souped-up performance variations badged as Lancer Evolution.
Then in 2010 Outlander caught a re-do in body styling with sharply chiseled forms in strong geometric shapes, undulating slabs around wheel wells forging character lines on the flanks and the face fitted with a gaping split-port grille plus big corner headlamp clusters.
Outlander for 2011 extends this design with the expanded passenger compartment adding seats for five or seven riders, revamped trim designations with added luxury content, lots of standard on-board safety equipment, two strong powertrain choices and options for FWD or AWD (all-wheel-drive) traction.
Outlander 2011 trims out as the price-leader ES with FWD traction, sporty SE in FWD or AWD mode, upscale XLS in FWD and the flagship Outlander GT with S-AWC (super all-wheel control).
Outlander ES and SE editions employ a four-cylinder engine tied to a CVT (continuously variable transmission) with six-step Sportronic sequential shift control.
The DOHC (dual overhead cam) 2.4-liter in-line-four engine gets Mitsubishi's MIVEC (Mitsubishi Innovative Valve timing and lift Electronic Control) equipment and nets 168 hp at 6000 rpm with 167 lb-ft of torque at 4100 rpm.
Outlander XLS and GT editions pack a SOHC (single overhead cam) 3.0-liter V6 with MIVEC valve controls and a six-speed automatic transmission with Sportronic sequential shift control.
The V6 plant delivers 230 hp at 6250 rpm plus torque muscle of 215 lb-ft at 3750 rpm.
The four-speed automatic transaxle contains an adaptive controller linked to a computer that learns a driver's habits and manipulates shift patterns to suit the driving style. Then slide the shift lever laterally into a side gate for the Sportronic manual mode, where fore-aft stick action bumps up or down the gear ladder one notch at a time.
Outlander GT exhibits awesome stick-to-the-road ability because of the S-AWC dynamic handling equipment. This sophisticated device regulates drive torque at every wheel through control of the ACD (active center differential) and an electronically controlled center differential system which distributes the engine's torque between front and rear wheels as well as the left and right front wheels for maximum traction.
There are three ACD modes -- Tarmac, Snow, Lock. Select Tarmac and you'll get more torque applied to the rear wheels for quick accelerations on dry pavement; use the Snow mode to move more torque to front wheels and get a better grip in slippery stuff, or punch up Lock for even torque distribution front to rear when running on shifty surfaces.
An ABS (anti-lock brake system) with EBD (electronic brake distribution) show up on the list of standard safety hardware for every Outlander, and all 2011 issues also carry Mitsubishi's ASC (active skid control) system and TCL (traction control logic) to stem tire spinning and thwart lateral vehicle sliding.
The cabin layout for Outlander ES and SE versions shows a pair of bucket seats in front of a fold-and-tumble 60/40 split bench for up to three passengers. Outlander XLS and GT also have a compact fold-out seat for two more riders (children) on the third row.
Each step up the trim ladder of Outlander adds more standard equipment, and there are numerous options including seven packages for upgrades in cabin equipment, seat upholstery, premium audio kits and backseat entertainment systems.
Price points for Mitsubishi's 2011 Outlander series begin at $21,995 for the ES FWD model. MSRP for Outlander SE FWD is $22,995, the XLS FWD lists for $25,795, and Outlander GT with S-AWC goes for $27,795.