Mountain Wheels: Mitsubishi’s good-looking Outlander Sport offers improvements |

Mountain Wheels: Mitsubishi’s good-looking Outlander Sport offers improvements

2014 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE AWD

MSRP: $23,995; as tested, $25,820

Powertrain: 148-HP 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, electronic CVT transmission

EPA mpg: 26 combined; 24 city, 29 highway

Mitsubishi Motors has long tried to avoid being the last kid picked for the team, putting together reasonably well-built, inexpensive vehicles, but that inglorious mixture of Japanese technology and Korean-styled value has never particularly sat all that well with the American car-buying public.

With the final bow this year of the Evolution rally car, the one Mitsubishi even gearheads got all worked up about, the company is doing what it can to impress upon folks that its remaining vehicles still offer a mix of contemporary style, functionality and efficiency — but if you live and drive in the High Country, you’re always going to get killed by Mitsubishi’s continuously variable transmissions. They will make you want to pull your hair out.

Case in point: the light, well-designed and otherwise charming Outlander Sport, the more RAV4/Escape-inspired entry in the family, with the larger and fully refreshed Outlander appearing last year.

Outlander Sport has got good looks, optional all-wheel drive and a comfortable size. It’s made in Indiana, it’s excellent in the snow, it’s reasonably comfortable and it looks like an SUV version of that racer boy-friendly Evo. You can get a well-sorted model, like the 2014 edition I drove earlier this year, for under $26,000; you get a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 148 horsepower, and you get fuel ratings that reach 29 highway mpg or more. There’s also that 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

It’s just … well, gosh, that whining CVT transmission does not do it for me, in any circumstance. I gave the car the full Pepsi Challenge on a snow day in the spring against a much larger, heavier and seemingly more awkward Audi Q5, and the poor Outlander Sport’s driveline completely conspired to dampen the rest of its many charms.

Those one-speed CVTs are almost invisibly positioned in other manufacturers’ cars nowadays and don’t feel like this; in the Outlander Sport’s case, acceleration means flooring the gas pedal and waiting what seems like three seconds before the engine begins to transfer power to the wheels, including a very noisy build-up before it does.

The oversized alloy shift paddles on the steering wheel column seem either ironic, or perhaps mean-spirited. Better yet, all of this was my experience in a sea-level snow setting, not trying to make a run for it over the passes.

Could a less-enthused driver be coaxed into thinking this was all OK? Maybe. They might appreciate the easy adaptability of the AWD system, which can be disabled for more efficient summertime use.

There is a silver lining to all of this, and that is the news of the round of improvements for 2015. Mitsubishi claims it’s worked the bugs out of that CVT, improving things and imbuing the Sport with a next-generation transmission that feels and acts like a seven-speed. Mileage figures have also been boosted, incrementally, with a 30 highway mpg rating, even on the AWD models.

You could also try your luck with the manual transmission-equipped version of the Sport, which could change the dynamic considerably. I cannot speak to the validity of the claims of improvement, but I have great hope that this is the case.

And on a genuinely positive note, the Sport’s looks and interior design are quite impressive, albeit in a Suzuki-meets-Toyota sort of way. Seating is comfortable, the straight-ahead three-knob heating and air system works like a charm and the bright, easy-to-read instruments all make it an upstanding experience. If you drop the rear seats, you’ll get a less confined view out the back window — the Sport lacks some of the largness found in that full-size Outlander.

And if you’re looking for big sound, a 710-watt, nine-speaker Rockford Fosgate stereo system is part of a $1,000 premium package — a power driver seat is also included.

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