2018 Mitsubishi Outlander SEL review: Modern looks, classic formula

The Outlander is Mitsubishi’s largest and arguably best model in the U.S. right now, sitting at the top of a much smaller lineup than the brand enjoyed for the past two decades. This SUV is also trying to hide its age: The model has been on sale since 2012 and received a major update in 2015 that attempted to gently steer the Outlander toward the premium crossover segment. Mitsubishi has lavished the model with more technology and features, at least in the upper trim levels.

First, let’s talk engines: The SEL trim is the third out of a total of four in which the Outlander is offered, and all but the top GT trim are powered by a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter liter inline-four good for 166 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque, paired with a continuously variable automatic transmission. 166 hp may seem adequate on paper for something of this size, but as usual, the CVT has something to say about this, very loudly too. Available in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the SEL offers a lot of the goodies of the top model (as evidenced by plenty of big, plastic buttons throughout the interior), but without the beefier 3.0-liter V6 that dials up the power to 224 hp.

The Outlander still benefits from the recent refresh that, in addition to updating the interior, features a 7-inch infotainment screen, a power driver’s seat, a nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system and gloss-black interior trim surfaces. The SEL trim also offers rear-cross traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, a power liftgate and power folding mirrors, in addition to the third row of seats.

A word about that third row: This is not a big vehicle to start with, so the third row is purely for children or for emergency use, when rescuing stranded travelers in the middle of Montana in subzero weather. Needless to say, as in similarly sized crossovers and SUVs, the third row exists merely to one-up the competition, but this doesn’t make it particularly useful on a regular basis — the Outlander is just a size too small to pull it off. So don’t expect the rear seats to feel like those in a Tahoe or Pacifica, even though they’re technically “there” on paper.

City driving is where the Outlander shows the limitations of its powerplant: The CVT and 2.4-liter engine wheeze into action with a lift of the nose and a surge of noise — but without particularly impressive results. Sport mode solves this to some extent by keeping the revs up but at the cost of extra engine noise and a certain sense of impatience from the engine. Braking is served up with plenty of nosediving, even in perfectly moderate driving, and body roll is quite pronounced as well. The Outlander tries to hide harsh impacts with a floaty suspension, and the result is that the chassis feels heavy and easily distracted by just about everything, even with beefy tires failing to soak up a lot of the everyday annoyances of our modern roads.

On the highway, the Outlander behaves a little better, but the 2.4-liter and its CVT sidekick have to really hustle to make any major passing maneuvers. To be fair, this is a common theme with crossovers of this size category that are paired with CVTs, but most (like the Honda CR-V) have outgrown this issue. Road and engine noise are still a bit excessive on the interstate, and changing lanes invites too much response from the body, which wobbles in even modest lateral forces. This amplifies the Outlander’s feel of a high center of gravity, and it does its handling no favors.