Mitsubishi might be a pale shadow of its former self but their greatest hits back catalog still has some prized - and revered - name plates. Lancer, particularly when suffixed with Evolution, will get every petrol heads' unwavering attention; rallyists in India will brook no trash-talk of the Cedia; and off-road enthusiasts still whisper Pajero in respectful tones. Yet nobody, not even enthusiasts, buy Mitsubishis anymore and the reason is simple: everything is dated, overpriced, burns the wrong fuel and have long since lost relevance to the Indian market.
However just when things looked beyond salvage the strongest nameplate in the cupboard has been dusted out, polished and given a fresh lease of life. The Pajero Sport, unlike what the name suggests, has nothing to do with the Pajero, Montero or all those Repsol-liveried, Ralliart-fettled, Dakar-conquering machines - this is a completely different SUV line designed for the rough and tumble of emerging markets. In fact the design, engineering and underlying ethos have more in common with the Toyota Fortuner than any other Mitsubishi. Like the Fortuner which is based on the Hilux pickup platform the Pajero Sport too shares its platform with the Triton pickup. And just like Toyota who have concentrated manufacturing of the Hilux, Fortuner and its derivatives in Thailand (not Japan) to keep costs in check so too is Thailand the mother plant for the Pajero Sport from where completely built up units will be initially imported with CKD operations set to commence in Chennai from September.
Mitsubishi have struggled to evolve a cohesive and coherent design language for its vehicles and stood amongst Mitsubishi's current Indian lineup the Pajero Sport bears no family resemblance. The grille for instance draws inspiration from the pre-facelift Outlander so had it come two years ago we could have alluded to a family grille. Except today the Outlander has the inverted trapezoid Evo X-inspired 'fighter-jet grille' which is far removed from the slinky grille on the Pajero Sport. But the weird thing is the new Outlander shown at this year's Geneva motor show draws a styling line back to the old Outlander's grille! Confusing but buyers in this segment needn't be too worried for the Pajero Sport looks fresh, imposing and appropriately massive on the road.
It's a testimony to the inherently correct styling that even though is four years old now there is no danger of it being termed dated. That old Mitsubishi grille - chrome laden to good effect - is flanked by attractive clear lens headlamps with projector lamps. The short front overhang, blunt rounded-corners for the nose and lack of any bonnet scoops gives it a friendly visage while the aluminium sump guard and sheer size of the SUV hints at off-roading potential. In profile this is appropriately beastly with 17-inch rims housed in massive wheel arches with equally massive wheel arch gaps. Stick your head in there (easily done) and you can see the rails for the ladder frame chassis.
The running boards are innocuous and neatly executed while the rear has slinky Alfa Romeo-esque tail lamps. The tailgate opens upwards forcing the spare wheel to be mounted under the SUV cleaning things up and making for a rather attractive silhouette. Unlike its main rivals that rely solely on intimidating size and presence the Pajero Sport has a fair dose of stylistic flair and it gets even better when you step inside.
You are greeted by a typical Mitsubishi cabin which means high quality switchgear, plush beige leather upholstery and upmarket furnishings. If at all the Pajero Sport shares components it is with the Outlander and that's a good thing for a Rs 20 lakh plus SUV ensuring buyers won't feel short changed. Mitsubishi have in fact gone all out to ensure the cabin scores over its rivals but in chucking in whatever they could lay their hands on they might have gone a bit overboard. So the wood-finished centre console is flanked by aluminium-effect panels and there is a smattering of wood on the door pads too. I'd have preferred either wood or aluminium, not both, but overall this is a cabin that I'm immediately attracted to.
The steering wheel is nice to grip and equally nice to look at and has audio controls (though cruise control has been deleted). The dials are neat and easy to read and looks immediately familiar because it is very much like the Maruti SX4's. There's single-zone climate control, twin front airbags, an old-school lever for the four-wheel-drive, a multi-information display that has a compass, barometer and altimeter and a terribly dated looking stereo that spoils what is an otherwise excellent cabin. What's even more bizarre is that this is a high-end USB-compatible 420W stereo (no AUX or Bluetooth connectivity though) with eight speakers and an amplifier that can even make FM sound good, but just looks horrible.
Seating is plush and extremely comfortable with lots of space up front and in the middle row. A conveniently located lever requires minimal effort to fold and flip down the middle row permitting easy access to the third row. Due to the high floor the last row isn't very ergonomic requiring knees to be folded to the chest and full sized adults will only be able to endure short journeys though kids will be okay over long trips. There is a separate rear air-con to keep passengers cool at the back. With all three rows in place the boot can still take soft bags but fold the third row flat into the floor and flip up the middle row and boot space increases quite massively.
Even though it is based on the Triton pickup's ladder frame chassis a significant amount of re-engineering has gone into giving the Pajero Sport better dynamics. Up front there are double wishbones while leaf springs at the rear are ditched for a three-link setup with coil springs. Anti-roll bars are used front and rear but the overall handling is ponderous.
The chassis offers a low level of mechanical grip to start off with and small bumps can cause big problems pitching the SUV into the direction of oncoming traffic. Understeer is doled out early and generously, there's a fair bit of body roll, lots of lateral weight transfer, the steering doesn't tell you much and you hardly get any confidence to push it hard round the twisties. It feels every bit as big as it looks though that said it isn't much worse than the Fortuner and in fact is better than the Endeavour.
The steering requires a surprising amount of twirling to elicit a response and with a 11.2 metre turning circle this is never going to be an easy vehicle to manoeuvre through narrow city lanes. The long suspension travel does offer a pliant ride quality and it makes for a very comfortable highway cruiser. The high-set driving position, 215mm of ground clearance and the indestructible feel that a pickup platform offers allows you to barrel over all sorts of roads imperviously and without fear of anything breaking off.
The Pajero Sport I drove two years ago in Thailand had the 3.2-litre common-rail diesel engine mated to a four-speed automatic gearbox that delivered strong and effortless performance (it's the same setup in the Montero) but Indian customers will have to make do with a 2.5-litre 4D56 four-cylinder DOHC diesel mated to a five-speed manual. Thankfully this engine has nothing to do with the current Pajero's 2.8-litre turbo-diesel and is significantly more refined and powerful.
What we get is the 'high-power' version of the 2.5 engine which makes 178PS of power and 400Nm of torque. By way of comparison the Fortuner dishes out 171PS and 343Nm even though it has a bigger three litre engine and that means the Pajero Sport is quicker to 100kmph taking 12.1 seconds. We might have got even better figures had the ECU allowed the engine to rev above 3000rpm with the clutch depressed and thus launch it with more vigour. We registered a top speed of 171kmph though you do need a long enough stretch of road to max her out.
What the figures don't reveal is that the engine needs to be worked hard to get the best out of it. Peak power is developed at 4000rpm and though peak torque stays flat from 2000 to 2500rpm this engine needs revs to get going. And there's a lot of weight to haul around with the Pajero Sport weighing over two tonnes. Revved hard the engine gets noisy and unrefined while throttle responses are lethargic at best. It lacks the effortless surge of torque that is a hallmark of the Fortuner and worse the 5-speed manual isn't slick requiring a firm shove to engage gears.
Since the Pajero Sport doesn't have full-time four-wheel-drive it delivers better fuel efficiency: 12.8kmpl is its claimed ARAI fuel efficiency as opposed to 12.55kmpl of the Fortuner. Braking is handled by 16-inch discs up front and 16-inch drums at the rear, backed up by ABS, which brings it to a stop in 47.33m from 100kmph without any fuss or drama.
For HM-Mitsubishi and their dealers this is a make or break vehicle - and fortunately for them the Pajero Sport ticks all the right boxes. It is stylish and imposing, the interiors (save for the stereo face plate) are excellent, it is spacious and comfortable, delivers brisk performance (at the expense of a little driveability), has tremendous off-road capability and though it doesn't handle like a rally-bred vehicle neither do its main competitors. Crucially it offers a fresh alternative to buyers turned off by the Fortuner's ubiquity.
If there's one fly in the ointment though it is the pricing: Rs 24.62 lakh ex-showroom which, when you add the higher road tax applicable to CBUs (CKD operations only start in September), bumps the price up to Rs 30.06 lakh on-road in Mumbai. That's over five lakh rupees more than the Fortuner which, slice it as you may, is hard to justify and will prove to be its biggest stumbling block in the months to come.