On Autos: Mitsubishi crossover sticks with small size

The 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport isn't the most modern subcompact crossover, but it continues to offer a high seating position in a tidily sized package. (Brady Holt/The Current)

When Mitsubishi first launched the Outlander Sport crossover in 2011, most prospective buyers saw one primary appeal: price.

It was smaller and less expensive than a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 — then among the most diminutive crossovers a person could buy — and for the heart of the marketplace, that meant deciding whether to spend extra for more room. Most buyers did.

But at just 171 inches long — about a foot less than a RAV4 or CR-V — the Outlander Sport also presents an option to buyers interested in minimizing their footprint. It offers the high seating position and available all-wheel-drive of a larger crossover, and much of its versatility.

Over the years, the Outlander Sport has been joined by a host of newer competitors in the fast-growing subcompact crossover segment. However, a combination of strong fundamentals and various upgrades have kept this Mitsubishi relevant as a city-friendly crossover.

Perhaps the Outlander Sport’s greatest strength is its functional interior. Many of the latest subcompact crossovers focus on dramatic exterior styling in an effort to detract from the boxy look of an SUV. Mitsubishi kept the Outlander Sport relatively tall and boxy, resulting in above-average interior space and outward visibility. Whereas a Mazda CX-3, Toyota C-HR or Honda HR-V essentially feel like hatchback economy cars, the Outlander Sport comes across an SUV — just one that can fit into small parking spaces.

Mitsubishi updated the Outlander Sport for 2018, tweaking the exterior styling and adding some fresh in-cabin technology. Most notably, an upgraded touch screen infotainment system incorporates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. Controls remain notably simpler and more user-friendly than in several other modern competitors.

That is not to say everything is perfect. Even in 2011, the Outlander Sport was not a standout for its ride, handling or noise levels. Although few of its direct competitors set a terribly high bar in these regards, the Mitsubishi’s refinement levels do not impress. Its pair of available four-cylinder engines drone loudly when accelerated even gently, cheapening the vehicle’s vibe.

And while the Outlander Sport seems like it could be a budget alternative to such class leaders as the HR-V, Nissan Rogue Sport and Buick Encore, it is actually not all that inexpensive. Prices start at a reasonable $21,235, but unlike most competitors, an automatic transmission costs $1,200 extra. Moreover, advanced safety features such as emergency automatic braking are only available on the top-of-the-line model with every option. It costs $27,610 with front-wheel-drive and $29,110 with all-wheel-drive — expensive for a vehicle that drives like a budget option. Furthermore, gas mileage is mediocre, with EPA mixed-driving ratings ranging from a mere 25 to 26 mpg depending on the version.

For a small but functional crossover, the Outlander Sport is worth considering. But if one would feel comfortable parking a slightly larger CR-V instead, it is worth upgrading to that outstanding model or one of its many strong competitors. CR-V prices start at $25,125, compared to $22,425 for the Outlander Sport with an automatic transmission.

Sticking with the subcompact class, another model worth considering is the Subaru Crosstrek, recently redesigned for the 2018 model year. It is essentially the brand’s Impreza compact hatchback — a model that already comes with all-wheel-drive as standard equipment — that has been revised to add some extra ground clearance and decorative body cladding.

The Crosstrek does not have a commanding SUV-like seating position, and it is not as agile or as fuel-efficient as the Impreza. And based on a brief preview drive, its steering can be annoyingly heavy at low speeds. But with a smooth ride, sterling safety record, and promising off-road and all-weather credentials, the Crosstrek is another useful vehicle to consider in this class. Just also consider the Impreza, too, before buying one.

Prices for the 2018 Crosstrek start at $22,710, as compared to $19,855 for an Impreza hatchback. The Impreza is also offered as a four-door sedan for $500 less.