HYBRID cars may not be taking Australia by storm just yet but their sales are certainly gathering a noticeable momentum.
Mitsubishi's Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle - or the PHEV- the first SUV of its kind in the world, will no doubt add impetus.
Based of course on the Outlander, Mitsubishi has found a way to combine remarkable eco-efficiency with practical daily comfort and driving needs.
Powered by two electric motors with a petrol engine on standby, it has a great range, cutting-edge driving systems and is happy to be plugged in to a wall socket at the end of the day to be recharged.
The PHEV may not start a revolution, or perhaps a slow one, but it will definitely make you sit up and take notice.
The interior of the PHEV is distinctly Outlander with the only instantly noticeable changes coming courtesy of a joystick gear stick and an electric power meter instead of a rev counter on the display.
The dash is uncluttered and fairly modern with sliver brush metal highlights doing well to jazz up a rather dark colour scheme.
The steering wheel feels nice to the touch with sensible easy-to-use buttons while the raised driving position does much to aid visibility.
Seats are more flat than supportive, which could be an issue on long trips, while the leather was obviously chosen with durability in mind. Like the regular Outlander, space is almost decadent with plenty of leg and headroom and generous space in the boot.
On the road
The technical jargon may seem complicated but in reality the operation of the PHEV is quite simple to understand.
There are two 60kW electric motors at each axle, a battery pack under the floor, an inverter and charger at the front and a 2.0-litre 87kW petrol engine to pick up the slack as needed. There is no gearbox in the conventional sense.
A full battery is good for 50km at most, less in our experience if you are running the air-conditioner and radio and don't drive economically.
The battery can be recharged with a 15A household plug, by using the petrol engine as a generator and to some extent through regenerative braking while driving.
The petrol engine will drive the front wheels at speeds in excess of 60kmh.
Under electric power the PHEV is extremely quiet, almost eerily so, and apart from the display lighting up you would be hard-pressed to realise you have switched it on at all.
Those two electric motors do well to propel a vehicle of this weight, take-off is smooth, and the PHEV is handy around town negotiating narrow streets and challenging roundabouts.
The petrol engine is noisy when stretched though and it does sometimes feel like it is too small to drag around 1.8 tonnes. Sharp corners can be tricky and there is not much feel from the steering, as you would expect, but it is all in all, quite a cruisy comfortable drive.
The PHEV is a four-wheel drive SUV and although we did not really push it much off-road we did find it more than competent on a bush drive and on poor secondary roads - fuel consumption did rise though.
What do you get?
We tested both trims - the entry-level PHEV and the PHEV Aspire - and as in the conventional Outlander inclusions are as generous as you would expect.
Rain-sensing wipers, dusk-sensing headlights, leather trim, dual-zone climate control, tilt and reach adjustable steering column, keyless entry with push-button start, coming-home lights, Bluetooth connectivity and a multi-information infotainment system with 17.7cm touch-screen and sat-nav are all standard with the Aspire adding heated seats, power adjustment for the driver, electric sunroof and a power tailgate.
Five-star safety features include seven airbags, anti-lock brakes and brake assist, stability and traction control, hill start assist and reverse camera and parking sensors with the Aspire also boasting adaptive cruise control and a forward collision mitigation system.
There are a few manufacturers dipping their toes in this market and the most likely competition will come from the Toyota Prius (from $33,990), Holden Volt (from $59,990) and Nissan Leaf (from $51,500).
The PHEV is the only plug-in hybrid SUV on the market though.
Now for the figures that really matter. Does the PHEV really make economical sense and live up to the frugal 1.9 litres/100km Mitsubishi has been shouting from the roof tops about?
Well, it does - or comes close at the very least. In our week, comprising largely of small trips within the 50km range, we recorded 2.7 litres/100km with the air-conditioner and radio running.
Charging overnight in non-peak times worked out to two cents/km on our electricity rate.
We certainly got better as the week went on at recognising ways to regenerate charge off the brakes keeping the petrol engine on the backburner.
When we were dependent on the 45-litre petrol tank, consumption was around the eight litres/100km mark, more if you were charging the battery on the run.
There is something to be said for having the space to carry the family in comfort, a large enough boot to deal with the shopping and luggage and a relaxed driving experience.
The PHEV does miss out on seven seats.
Mitsubishi's information systems ensures you receive direct feedback on how the car is performing, how much battery power there is left for example, when the petrol engine is powering the car and how you can achieve better economy.
Plug-in recharge is simple too, provided you have a 15A plug-in your garage (most houses modern houses are likely to) and there is even an app for your smartphone and tablet that allows you to control a variety of functions including scheduling the charging times.
We did, however, find the gear stick a bit niggly to operate - you have to always remember to pull it hard right before you can make a selection.
The PHEV is all Outlander on the exterior which means, for us at least, solid and reliable looking in lieu of blood-pumping inspiration but perfectly adequate for its intended purpose. It benefits from an upgrade to the wheels and more dynamic-looking lights.
The ever-rising fuel price should keep us looking for cheaper options in running a family car and Mitsubishi has done well with the PHEV to address these needs in a convenient SUV package. Certainly, you have to be aware of how you drive it and conscious of the range available but the petrol engine is a reliable fallback.
This is not a vehicle just for drivers that are environmentally conscious, tree hugging, green smoothie drinkers, it is a very viable option for those that want to save at the bowser while going about their everyday lives. If the bulk of that life consists of relatively short daily trips, then Mitsubishi's innovative plug-in hybrid is worth considering.
What matters most
What we liked: Innovative technology, quiet electric motors, SUV versatility.
What we'd like to see: Jazzier interior, more inspiring handling, frugality on open road.
Warranty and servicing: Mitsubishi offers a five-year/130,000km warranty with fixed-price servicing for 60,000km or four years. The first service is at $360 with subsequent checks not far off $500 each.
Model: Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV.
Details: Five-door four-wheel-drive plug-in hybrid SUV.
Engine: Two 60kW electric motors with combined maximum torque of 332Nm and one Lithium-ion 12kWh 300V battery. 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine generating maximum power of 87kW @ 4000rpm and peak torque of 186Nm @ 4500rpm.
Consumption: 1.9 litres/100km (combined average).
Charging: Five hours for full charge with 15A plug-in and 30 minutes for a fast charge.
Bottom line plus on-roads: $47,490, Aspire $52,490.
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