The Mitsubishi Montero Sport

Mitsubishi used to be known for extra-cheap, spartan vehicles that held together rather well for a little while, and for high-performance pocket rockets like the Eclipse Turbo. Now, though, the character of Mitsubishis is far more refined, and what they have in common, more than anything else, is a nice, comfortable ride coupled with good handling.

The Montero Sport, which is smaller and lighter than the full-size Montero, lives up to this generalization. The ride is very comfortable, letting you ride on nasty roads without getting jarred or hearing subsonic booms, and handling is just incredible for an SUV. You can take turns as though you're in a relatively agile sedan, and rough pavement is no barrier.

The interior is functional, with white-faced gauges in a familiar and sensible layout. The controls all make sense, and they use our favorite cruise control mini-stalk. Aside from relatively high wind noise at highway speeds, we had no complaints about the interior. (Note that the Montero and Montero Sport have completely different interiors.) Stereo imaging could be a little better.

There is a good deal of front and middle seat room. While the front seat has very good headroom, the tilt wheel does not tilt up enough - a common quirk of Japanese vehicles, but many drivers may not notice or care about this. Our vehicle had two rows of seats, through there seems to be a three-row option based on extra child seat latches in the back. The 2002 and up Montero Sport is equipped with the LATCH system which helps a new generation of child seats clip in more securely.

We were rather surprised that there was no "power memory" - as soon as you shut off the key, the radio and accessories stopped working. While a few vehicle in this price class do not have power memory, most do, and it's a real convenience. The Montero Sport does have an automatically dimming interior light and a lighted ring around the ignition switch.

As we mentioned earlier, the handling and ride were both better than expected for this class, especially considering that the Montero is a "true" off-roader that shouldn't break an axle the first time you go off the paved road. Perhaps that accounts for some of the gas mileage deficiency. In any case, the handling feels quite good, and it's easy to whip the Montero around turns that we would not attempt with most SUVs. Bumpy roads were easily transformed by the suspension, so that normally unpleasant routes were no hardship at all.

Switching into four wheel drive was a matter of shoving a lever forward. There's a low range four wheel drive for true off-roading. Most drivers will never use the four wheel drive option, though, because the base mode is all wheel drive - a system better for most purposes, since it does not extend the turning radius or cause tires to "scrub," while it still provides superior wet and dry traction during acceleration.

We found visibility to be generally good, again, for its class (most SUVs do not compare well to cars of even a considerably lower price class). The roof pillars are narrow, reducing blind spots.

The engine is moderately responsive around town, but the transmission seemed sluggish and soft, oddly unlike the standard Montero. While the 3.5 liter V6 provides 200 horsepower, the Montero Sport weighs 4,100 pounds. Acceleration from zero to sixty takes under nine seconds, better than the full-size Montero, but it feels moderately sluggish and is slow to shift. The transmission seems to drop a gear when coasting - perhaps the torque converter is locking up? - and more resistance while coasting means lower gas mileage. We must note that the Jeep Grand Cherokee V8 has similar gas mileage, with much faster acceleration. The base engine, a 3.0 liter V6, provides 165 horsepower, with only slightly better gas mileage.

The base sticker price of $32,887 on the Limited model includes all sorts of good items, such as four wheel disc brakes with ABS, limited slip rear differential, three skid plates for off-roading, air conditioning,all-around power, cruise control, remote keyless entry with alarms, driver's side seat height adjustment, a rear heater - which is a very practical item, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror which includes a compass, and a power antenna. The price compares very favorably with lesser vehicles, such as the oddly popular Ford Explorer.

The cargo area includes a variety of lift-up panels, which are handy for storing odds and ends or for making sure that your groceries don't fly around as you take advantage of the excellent suspension.

We were pleasantly surprised by the Montero Sport, which seems to have a greater reputation overseas than in the US. If you were looking at a Ford Explorer or Nissan Pathfinder, it's certainly worth a visit to a Mitsubishi dealer to try out a Montero and a Montero Sport. We just hope that future versions add a more effective transmission.

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