The Mitsubishi Montero

The Mitsubishi Montero is at the magical $30,000 spot for a mid-sized SUV, but sales in the US have not been astounding. That's not due to the product - with a Ford or Toyota logo, it would move by the shipload. We were pleasantly surprised by the ride and responsiveness of our test vehicle, though gas mileage is poor (not surprising given its class).

The interior is a bit plain for the class, but it is functional, as well. A moderately different instrument panel includes a graphical door ajar indicator, along with the usual gauges. Most controls make sense, though at night more switches could be lit. The extra-large sunroof is a nice plus, since it can be enjoyed by both front and rear passengers. The fan is moderately quiet, and road noise is lower than usual.

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. The rearmost seat has relatively little room, so the rated seven adult capacity may not be enjoyed during longer trips.

Our test model had the optional Infinity stereo, used by Chrysler and Mitsubishi for years. This particular one had good stereo separation, thanks to seven well-placed speakers. The touring package ($2,230) included this stereo, the large sunroof, power antenna, limited slip rear differential, and a comfortable, 12-way adjusting driver's seat. Standard equipment on the XLS includes air conditioning, CD six-speaker stereo, cruise control, 10-way adjustable driver's seat, rear wiper/washers, and many other features. The standard warranty is also quite good - five years or 60,000 miles on the powertrain.

The center console is an interesting design, with a good amount of space underneath an armrest that slides forward if needed.

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. There is some body lean, but that's to be expected. 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 and watching the dashboard display. Instead of just displaying "4x4" on the panel, the Montero has a picture of the four wheels, and either two or four of them are green. When it's busy moving from two to four wheel drive or back, the front two wheel lights blink. There's also a low range four wheel drive for true off-roading. The standard high gear four wheel drive is convenient for snow and slippery, wet roads, and other slippery surfaces, partly because it does not seem to restrict the turning radius very much. Other four wheel drive systems are much more intrusive.

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). While the rear mounted spare tire intruded a little, the rear window glass is relatively low, so that overall visibility is not bad. The roof pillars are narrow, reducing blind spots. Powerful, well-focused headlights with sharp cutoffs aided in night vision.

The engine is quite responsive around town, though we suspect the transmission has a lot to do with that. While the 3.5 liter V6 provides 200 horsepower, the Montero weighs 4,450 pounds - that's about twice the weight of, say, a 133 horsepower Dodge Neon. Acceleration from zero to sixty takes about ten seconds, par for the course. When driving, though, the transmission seems to drop a gear when coasting - perhaps the torque converter is locking up? - but in any case, the engine is stronger when you hit the gas after coasting, at the cost of gas mileage (since less resistance while coasting means better mileage). On the highway, the Montero does not feel quite as responsive, but the engine is very quiet. We must note that the Jeep Grand Cherokee V8 has similar gas mileage, with much faster acceleration.

We were pleasantly surprised by the Montero, 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.

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