Game changer? Don't even think it, says Damien O'Carroll

It's a game-changer, some motoring journalists cry about every second new car that hits the road. This well-worn cliche is usually used with no consideration as to what game the machine in question is actually changing, without really considering what the game it is supposedly changing actually is.

Does it have 12 wheels, a rear-mounted driving turret and a joystick to steer it with? No? Does it prevent bug guts from sticking to its windscreen and offer you unconditional love on an emotional level you never thought possible?

No? Well, it ain't really changing the game then, is it?

If you stop and think about it before blindly blithering the cliches, a truly revolutionary vehicle doesn't change the game, it simply plays it differently.


Take the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, for example. It plays the same old game we are all well and truly used to. It is your garden-variety SUV. It has five doors, four wheels to move about on and a steering wheel to make it change direction.

It has room for passengers and even for luggage. It has a lovely stereo to play music on and there are even some wonderfully convenient things that hold drinks. In short, it plays the same game as all the other vehicles in its segment.

The difference is that it plays that game by a completely different set of rules.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, a new perspective on plug in hybrids has been launched in New Zealand
Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, a new perspective on plug in hybrids has been launched in New Zealand

From the outside the Outlander PHEV would appear at first - and even second - glance to be an ordinary Outlander that has had a few visual tweaks for the 2014 model year. The tweaks give the Outlander a bolder look, with stronger front and rear visuals coming from the new bumpers that feature matt silver inserts and more aggressive lines.

But the sexy new alloy wheels and a few badges give the game away about the PHEV version of the Outlander. And it is precisely the PHEV bit of the name of the new addition to the Outlander range that makes it so different.

It stands for "plug-in hybrid electric vehicle" and while we have all seen - and possibly even owned - vehicles that used some of those words in their names, the Outlander is the first production car on sale in New Zealand, and the first SUV anywhere in the world, to use all of them together.

While the whole hybrid thing is generally understood to mean "a petrol engine, one or more electric motors, some batteries and a whole lot of clever computers driving the wheels in some way and using less fuel to do it", the actual specifics are far more complex and usually best left to the boffin sorts with very big brains and very small social lives.

The Outlander PHEV takes things more than a few steps further than this, while remaining true to the essence of that very vague description.

With an 88kW 2-litre petrol engine and two 60kW electric motors handling the motivational duties, the PHEV has an electric-only range of 50km. Like an electric car, the PHEV can be plugged in at home to charge its batteries at night and when you head out in the morning, for all intents and purposes, you are driving an electric car. Spend your day pottering around town, to work and back, and chances are you will be driving an electric car all day. Demand more of it, however, and that is where things start getting very clever indeed.

The Outlander PHEV basically uses all the best bits of the series-parallel hybrid drive system (found in the likes of the Toyota Prius) and the electric range extender drive system (Holden Volt) and combines them using some very clever computer brains to control it all. There are many ways the 88kW 2-litre petrol engine can help the electric motors by charging the batteries, providing extra power when needed, or even directly driving the front wheels when at suitable road speeds.

This is all done completely automatically and with no need for input from the driver other than just driving the car like you normally would.

And that "just driving" is actually the highlight of all of the PHEV's fuel-saving and technological cleverness. It weighs more than a standard Outlander, but with all that weight down in the drivetrain it actually improves the Outlander's handling. The extra weight also improves the feel of the Outlander on the road.

The extra grunt from the electric motors is felt as well, with Mitsubishi's claim that the PHEV is also the performance model of the Outlander range certainly holding true on the road.

The PHEV lands in New Zealand at the top of the Outlander range and comes in two models; the XLS and the VRX, with both mirroring the spec of their equivalent conventional petrol models.

The XLS starts the range at $59,990, but the VRX is where things get truly interesting and it lands at $66,990. The VRX gets all the exciting kit - satnav, forward collision mitigation, adaptive cruise control, a power tailgate, heated front leather seats and the full PHEV colour display screens - plus the PHEV remote app that is available for iOS and Android phones.

Mitsubishi themselves like to claim that the Outlander PHEV is a game-changer, but as we have already established, this is nonsense. It isn't a game-changer, it still plays the same old game, but by its own all-new set of rules. And that is far, far more exciting.

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