Have traditional ute-derived sports utilities had their day? Not quite, reckons Richard Bosselman, if the latest Mitsubishi Pajero Sport is any indication.
Take a one-tonne ute, give it a boot, turn it into a station wagon: The theory of sports utility evolution suggests we're moving on from this point: just look at all those car-based sports utilities for evidence.
And yet, it seems, some brands still want to put a dollar each way. Or, in the instance of Mitsubishi, keep betting on red when everyone else has gone to black. As in black-top surfaces.
The Pajero Sport puts old ways - extra robust, separate-framed, low-ratio, truck-based rather than monocoque-bodied - to good use. Mitsubishi has been down this trail before with the Challenger. Yet, where the Challenger never really challenged, its replacement looks far better positioned, not least in the VRX five- and seven-seat editions tested here.
The big immediate advantage these rigs have over those like-type rivals is price: you're spending $10,000 to $20,000 less for a Pajero Sport than you will on a Toyota Fortuner or Ford Everest. Does that also make the Pajero Sport the best value, or is there a catch?
The evidence from my time suggests there are no obvious areas where Mitsubishi has cut corners. It's a very solid proposition, rating much better against its rivals than the Triton ute, on which it is based, does against its own peers.
An awkward-looking ute has spawned a far more coherent and better-looking wagon. There's nothing to visually suggest this is the cheapest offer in a select field; indeed, the glammed grinning grille, sculpted side profile with matt silver running boards, chrome side mirrors, silver roof rails, upswept and tinted rear windows, premium alloys, LED lamps and impressively vertical tail-light stacks speak anything but poverty-pack.
That impression is maintained inside. The general ambience is Triton familiar, yet the fitout is far more upmarket, with more soft-touch materials to distract from the same hard-wearing plastics that pervade the donor.
Keyless entry and start, daytime running lights, climate control, cruise control, rear parking sensors and Mitsubishi's new Smartphone Link Display Audio system that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and is controlled via a 7-inch touchscreen, are all standard fare. The VRX adds in leather upholstery, electrically adjustable and heated front seats, a premium eight-speaker set-up, dual-zone climate control, a reversing camera, forward collision mitigation, blind spot warning, an ultrasonic mis-acceleration prevention system, automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers plus shift paddles on the steering wheel.
The Pajero Sport feels a little narrow across the cabin compared with its competition, yet it still copes pretty well, including where legroom and headroom are concerned. The latter is a pleasant surprise, really, because an elevated bench seat tends to be an unavoidable compromise with all these truck-based wagons. Yet even though some taller passengers' heads will come closer to the roof lining than they might in a large car-based SUV, both models have excellent second-row legroom.
The driving position is pure Triton, but the Pajero Sport seems to get a more comfortable front seat and the reach adjustment on the steering column is a good score.
The Pajero Sport loses points for having fewer interior storage options up front than some rivals. The door bins, a large bin under the central armrest and a decent glovebox are all good, but there aren't many handy slots and flat spots for holding keys, sunglasses, your wallet, mobile and other paraphernalia.
In respect of the phone, once it's paired into the infotaiment system then you might as well just tuck it into your trouser pocket, because thanks to the Link Display and, because I'm an Apple device user, the CarPlay, the set-up is simply superb. Everything on your phone comes up on the screen and operational actions after that are a breeze. Touch prompts are logical, the displays coherent and there's minimal distraction while on the move.
The five-seater shows why a seven-seat option was warranted. The lower seat count model's 673-litre load area behind the rear seats rises to 1606 litres when the rear seats are folded down.
The seven-seater confirms how simple it was for the brand to fit in that third row and
re-engineer the side-mounted head airbags to extend past the second row. Those rearmost seats are best suited to children but they're nicely done. The flip-fold adjust manually operated, is straightforward.
At around 2 tonnes, the Pajero Sport carries a higher count than the Triton and this is revealed in the manner in which it drives.
You're always more aware of its mass. On gravel, for instance, where the ute feels almost nimble, the wagon requires a more thoughtful approach. It's not a nervous type, yet oversteer and understeer always seem a little closer at hand, although when they occur there's an electronic aid to keep the vehicle in line.
Swapping out rear leaf springs for coils is standard play for all ute-derived wagons and Mitsubishi is no different in this basic revision, implemented of course to boost ride refinement. Sure enough, the coils - and the extra body weight above the rear-wheel set - does make for a smoother ride. There's less chop over uneven surfaces than occurs with a ute, but a tendency towards fore-aft pitching on imperfect surfaces is still evident.
A relatively handy 11.4m turning circle and reasonably good visibility - apart from the restrictions imposed on the rear three-quarter view by the rearmost side windows - are factors that play positively for urban use, less so the steering, which still feels slower than necessary.
The Pajero Sport uplifts the Triton's 2.4-litre diesel four-cylinder, which is neither the most powerful nor the most refined in the category. It's a vocal unit that requires working to get the best out of it.
At least, that's how it presents in an automatic Triton ute. But while the Triton provides an auto that, with five forward gears, is behind the pace, the Pajero Sport comes along with an eight-stage unit that is a first for this kind of wagon.
This powertrain simply seems to be smoother, more involving and better attuned to driver intention with this latest transmission. Basically, a lot of the rough spots are removed, and the power delivery is more fluent and relaxed, as reflected by it showing just 1700rpm on the dial when cruising at 100kmh on the open road.
That kind of performance is good for eking out decent economy - Mitsubishi quotes 8.5 litres per 100km - but it's easily possible to see it hit a lower average in easy open-road running. Take note that peak torque doesn't occur until 2500rpm, which is relatively high for a diesel. To get into the meat of that action requires having to pull it down a cog or two, which in turn increases the fuel burn, and the engine noise.
Even so, the engine is rarely caught out and the transmission generally minimises any under-bonnet lapses, noise- and delivery-wise. This is a hugely pleasing feature for a vehicle that will also draw interest through another segment-unique feature, the Super Select 4WD II system.
Four-wheel-drives that are actually all-wheel drive all the time are a great thing for those who adventure trek only occasionally. There's never an issue of ``should I, shouldn't I'' about Mitsi's system, which provides the ability to drive on high-grip surfaces in high-range four-wheel-drive mode without trashing the transmission. There are also four driving modes - gravel, mud/snow, sand and rock - tailored towards more specialised operation, all accessed via a rotating dial on the centre console, plus an electronic locking rear differential and hill-descent control.
So, in summary, there's a lot going for this vehicle. An excellent 3100kg maximum capability and always being in all-wheel drive is a massive plus point for towing alone and, while the cabin seems a little cosy, you cannot quibble about the specification. This is one very generously equipped machine.
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