2021 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV Road Test Review | Improved but falling behind

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You can’t tell by looking at it, but the 2021 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is a thoroughly upgraded version of the plug-in crossover that initially debuted in the United States for the 2018 model year. Yes, despite the fact that there is a completely new, from-the-ground-up version of the gas-only Outlander for 2022, the previous generation soldiers on in its plug-in hybrid form for at least the next couple of model years as the engineering team puts the finishing touches on an edition based on the new platform. Still, there’s a lot of new bits and pieces under the skin that make this a better and more useful electrified SUV than before.

A new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine replaces the previous 2.0-liter, bumping power to 126 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. It join forces with upgraded electric motors to send as much as 221 hp to all four wheels. That's a 31-horsepower increase over the old Outlander PHEV.

Most of the time, the gasoline engine sends its power to the battery pack, leaving motive force to come from the two electric motors. Up front is a motor that delivers 60 kilowatts (around 80 hp) and 101 lb-ft; at the rear is a second motor that spins out 70 kilowatts (94 hp) and 144 lb-ft. That rear motor is up 10 kilowatts over the old version, which is significant. Electric range is boosted from 22 to 24 miles thanks to a 13.8-kWh battery in place of the old 12-kWh pack.

These powertrain enhancements make the 2021 Outlander PHEV feel quicker around town than the old one while simultaneously improving its efficiency. Win/win. There are Eco, Save, Charge, Normal, and Sport driving modes, and they all make sense with the possible exception of Sport, since this is very much not a sporty sport utility vehicle. Save mode preserves the battery pack’s current state of charge in case you want to choose when to unleash your electrons (stop-and-go city driving after a lengthy highway commute, for instance), and Charge mode keeps the engine running to top off the battery pack while the vehicle is driven. We mostly left the vehicle in Normal mode and let it choose how to dole out the power.

The overlying theme of the 2021 Outlander PHEV is one of peace and serenity. It’s quiet inside, and the electric motors provide a smooth driving experience with softish initial power that gains steam as the vehicle gets to normal around-town speeds. There aren’t any gear changes, so the powertrain always feels smooth. A soft and comfortable ride, and one-finger-light steering also add to the perception of the crossover’s calm demeanor. Unfortunately, heavily pockmarked roads and big bumps will upset the otherwise smooth ride.

It’s best not to push the Outlander PHEV past its comfort zone. A heavy push of the throttle pedal causes the engine to fire up and, once over city speeds, send some of its power to the wheels instead of its more common and happier role of charging the batteries. The four-cylinder can sound thrashy as the revs climb. Hard cornering equals significant body roll. On the positive side, the gasoline and electric powertrain combination provides better acceleration that we had expected, and the powerful rear motor helps push the Outlander PHEV through corners.

There are two very nice aluminum paddles mounted to the back of the steering wheel, but instead of using them to change gears — there’s no traditional stepped-gear transmission anyway — the driver can call up varying ranges of regenerative braking force. In its lowest setting, the Outlander PHEV drives pretty much like a gas-only vehicle with minimal regen. In its highest setting, a certain amount of one-foot driving is possible, though not entirely.

There aren’t any significant exterior changes for 2021. We generally find the Outlander PHEV’s styling to be a bit bland and inoffensive overall with the exception of a lot of interesting slash-shaped brightwork at the front. A new LE trim for 2021 darkens some of the chrome that you see on SEL models like our test vehicle.

The Outlander PHEV interior is also a carryover from before, and it’s a mixed bag. There are some very nice leather textures that change depending on the trim level — the top-level GT gets an attractive diamond-pattern quilted leather — and contrast stitching. The gauge cluster is easy to read at a glance, and the 8.0-inch central screen offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. But the software behind the touchscreen infotainment system is very dated, and simple tasks like changing radio stations is needlessly difficult, with small virtual buttons that are hard to hit accurately while driving. The new infotainment system in the 2022 Outlander is a big improvement, and we expect to see that upgraded software in the next PHEV.

There’s plenty of room for four adults and a reasonable amount of cargo. Five passengers will fit okay, but the Outlander’s platform is on the narrow side so there’s going to be some touching in that middle seat. There’s a smallish 30.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats or a more appropriate 66.6 cubes with the seat folded. Sadly, it doesn’t quite fold flat.

It’s difficult to pin down expected fuel economy on plug-in hybrids like the Outlander PHEV. It really depends on the driver’s routine, including how often they charge the battery and how many miles they drive. We were able to handily beat the EPA-estimated efficiency scores over the course of our week with the Outlander PHEV. We found its 24-mile electric rating about right, but its combined fuel mileage score of 26 mpg when running solely on the gasoline engine didn’t happen during our testing, with the exception of times we ran the vehicle in Charge mode, forcing the engine to work harder by producing more power than necessary so that the battery will charge while driving. Overall, based on our single week with the Outlander PHEV, we predict we’d see average mileage in the low 30s if we drove the vehicle over a longer stretch of time and charged when convenient.

The 2021 Outlander PHEV can charge from 0-80% capacity in as little as 25 minutes with a CHAdeMO DC fast charger. Charging with a 240-volt outlet takes 4 hours while a standard 120-volt outlet at home takes between 9 and 14.5 hours, depending on the amperage of the circuit.

Now would seem an appropriate time to bring up the biggest burden facing the upgraded 2021 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV: new competitors. While we have yet to test the Ford Escape PHEV or Kia Sorento PHEV, the impressive Toyota RAV4 Prime is more powerful, has a bigger battery and more electric range while boasting a more modern interior and a more sophisticated chassis.

The 2021 Outlander PHEV starts at $38,050 in either brown or two shades of silver (including $1,195 for destination and $160 for a so-called “Welcome Package” that is apparently automatically included). Adding a more interesting color raises that a small bit. Opting for the LE brings a $39,750 sticker price while the top-shelf GT costs $43,750 to start. The Outlander PHEV qualifies for a $6,587 tax rebate from the federal government. Safety equipment like forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning, blind-spot warning, lane change assist and rear cross traffic alert come standard, but adaptive cruise control is only standard on the GT.

The RAV4 Prime starts at $39,220 and can rise to near $50,000 in top XSE trim with its Premium Package and a higher-output charger. There aren’t many options on the Outlander PHEV, so a loaded Mitsubishi does present a potential value proposition, and a trip to Toyota’s website suggests a good portion of the country couldn't find a RAV4 Prime on a dealer lot if they tried. Mitsubishi’s generous 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty is a nice buying perk, too. Still, we think most people would choose the RAV4 Prime over the Outlander PHEV if presented the two options and told to sign their names on the dotted line for one of them.

Looking past its primary competition, we did enjoy our time with the 2021 Outlander PHEV. Its well-sorted powertrain, easygoing nature and comfortable driving dynamics make for a calming commute. We’re certainly looking forward to seeing what Mitsubishi’s engineers can put together for the next iteration of the PHEV based on the surprisingly nice new-generation Outlander.

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