I was being honest when I asked the assembled publicity crew for Mitsubishi's American automobile operations if they'd all gone out for drinks with the Suzuki guys when they heard that Suzuki was ceasing its U.S. operations last year.
They hadn't, but there were definitely some tough feelings as another, low-volume-in-the-U.S.-market Japanese manufacturer opted to pull the plug entirely.
Especially as Mitsubishi had nearly cut its own domestic offerings in half last year when it announced it would no longer build the Endeavor SUV and both versions of its Eclipse sports car.
But we'd headed all the way out to Brasada Ranch near Bend, Ore., not to bury Mitsubishi but to celebrate a rebirth, even if in a small way: The company was there to show off its new-from-the-ground-up 2014 Outlander and to reassure American car buyers that the company does indeed have a solid future planned for the domestic market - despite all signs to the contrary.
Outlander, currently offered as a reasonably sized compact crossover SUV (the company also offers the smaller Outlander Sport), is staking its future on a couple of conceits, besides what has traditionally been a lower sticker price than the competition: better fuel economy, a litany of big-boy electronic safety features and standard, full-sized-human-worthy third-row seating on every trim model, making it a real seven-passenger machine.
Most important, the entire design feel of the Outlander was re-imagined. Mitsubishis of late had been homogenizing into a severe and sharp-edged lot - all to some degree like larger versions of the Space Shuttle-worthy Evo ultra racer, with gigantic grilles and lines you could slice meat on.
Instead, this third-generation Outlander has a smoothness and softness to it that helps with the aerodynamics, but does take away some of the vehicle's iconic looks.
Up front, you now get a rounded nose and slipstreamed headlamps, and in the back the brake lights are so infused with silver that it looks like somebody's already done an aftermarket job on the car. A strong shoulder line starts from the front of the vehicle and carries all the way along the body, but you might find the look a little rounded and formless by the rear wheels. You might say it also looks identical to a new Toyota Highlander. I cannot speak to that issue.
That softened stamp has apparently helped the Outlander reach a point where its most basic, 166-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive version can get as much as 31 mpg on the highway; even the more powerful, 224-horsepower, 3-liter V6 version is rated for 28 mpg.
Curb weight has also dropped - models range from 3,274 to 3,571 pounds for a not-insubstantial vehicle - and those engines have been tweaked for maximum efficiency, though Mitsubishi still proudly offers a V6 option, which is no longer available from competitors like the smaller Toyota RAV-4.
They've also fixed one of the biggest complaints many of us had with the existing models, that being a one-speed continuously variable transmission that was so slow to react it made you want to pull your hair out every time you merged onto the highway.
Electronic remapping has indeed brought the CVT up to modern standards - we drove along in a base ES model and could accelerate in a totally normal, seamless fashion - while the GT version features both a larger engine and a smooth, six-speed automatic. A full Eco mode and a flourish of hybrid-styled growing leaves on the display panel are there for drivers who really want to maximize the fuel economy.
The company also likes to boast that it adapted the ultra-fast Evo's super all-wheel-control system for use on the Outlander, and I can confirm that it works pretty well: Even without the air lift and hill descent control features of more expensive competitors, I was able to tackle a seriously gnarly off-road course, wade through steep shale chutes and roar up loose, dusty hills with no problem, so snowy highways should be equally tamed. Suspension and overall ride has also been considerably tamed, making it a pleasant cruiser.
The makeover has also extended to Outlander's insides, where the looks and feel have been improved, with soft-touch surfaces, a cleaned-up center stack almost devoid of controls and even some wood trim to brighten up the dark and leathery feel of the premium models.
We were given a somewhat jarring but effective demonstration of the available forward-collision mitigation system, a radar-controlled brake-intervention system that really does stop the car if you mindlessly sneak up on a parked vehicle in slow-speed traffic. Lane-departure warning and radar-assisted cruise control also are part of that optional package.
The 2014 Outlander's base price - which was not announced at the launch, but is said to be comparable to 2012 models ($22,695 to $28,595) - will go up in $800, $2,000 and $4,000 increments and will include loads of options, such as 18-inch wheels, a sunroof, pushbutton start, a remote tailgate control, navigation and all the aforementioned safety add-ons.