2013 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport/2014 Mitsubishi Outlander: Become less of an outlier, but still not quite mainstream.
Price: Mitsubishi has the others beat. The full-size Outlander started at $27,795 and the GT package added $6,100 for features like navigation, lane departure warning, forward collision mitigation, leather and more. Compare that to $5,000 more for the Mazda CX-9 and yet another $8,000 for the Volvo XC60. The 2013 Outlander Sport starts at $24,895 for the LE AWC that I tested.
Conventional wisdom: Edmunds.com likes its "above-average fuel economy; attractive, high-quality interior" but not the "underwhelming performance; cramped third-row seat."
Marketer's pitch: "IIHS Top Pick+ winners."
Reality: Beating Volvo at its own safety game? But how does the rest of it stack up?
Catching up: Last week we checked out the 2013 Volvo XC60, which was stylish and enjoyable for five (and does not require premium fuel, as I mistakenly noted). The week prior, the 2013 Mazda CX-9 received scrutiny, and it was big and fun to drive, but thirsty.
Two-headed Outlander: For both 2013 and 2014, the Outlander is two crossovers in one.
People who choose the Outlander Sport get a smallish vehicle that most closely resembles a VW Tiguan in size, styling and rarity.
Buyers who choose the Outlander get a third row of seats, best suited for dogs. On the bright side, the third row is a real seat, no longer "a piece of cloth stretched across a board," as Sturgis Kid 1.0 once described it in an earlier model.
Sporty: The Sport is kind of small. We had two of four Sturgis kids traveling across Pennsylvania with us on Memorial Day, and a choice between the Outlander Sport or the 2014 Chevy Impala. We actually picked the Impala for spaciousness, and it was definitely better for drivability.
Great tunes: The optional Rockford Fosgate sound system is the bomb. The interface for 2013 is really bare-bones, and scrolling through the stations via the touch screen can be a pain. Buttons down the side save you from the screen when picking Sirius or CD, but dials for tuning and volume would be so much better.
Lo and behold, for 2014, Mitsubishi gives us a dial for tuning, and better graphics for catching our fancy. But the dial is touchy and can be imprecise if you're traveling and trying to change the station.
Outside: For the model year changeover, the Outlander has gone from an Angry Birds-like grille to a more sedate exterior, something like a Subaru Forester crossed with a Dodge Durango.
Driver's Seat: This also shows great improvement. While the 2013 model was a little stiff and lumbar-y, the 2014 felt extremely comfortable.
Going forth: Acceleration didn't strike me as "underwhelming," as Edmunds said, but it's the least head snapping of the three. The six-speed transmission coupled with the 3.0-liter V6 in the Outlander exhibited an occasional hesitation when cold that often led to a gulp-inducing transmission kick. But that setup is still more enjoyable than the CVT that comes with the 2.0-liter four in the 2013 Sport model, which mimics riding in an oversized golf cart.
On the curves: The Mazda CX-9 wins this competition hands-down. The Outlander was precise, but not really sporty, even in the Sport version.
Friends and stuff: Both Mitsubishi vehicles are among the snuggest in their class. The Sport doesn't offer a whole lot of room for five; the regular Outlander's third row could almost reduce even a fairly complacent 5-foot-4-inch, 12-year-old Sturgis Kid 4.0 to whining -- it's all knees in the face and tight bending at the waist.
The center console is big enough for CDs but, again, is no match for the Mazda or Volvo.
In and out: The three-row version sits on a short wheelbase, so exiting the third row requires every bit of balance an old guy like myself can muster.
Keeping cool (or warm): Three simple dials adorned the Sport model, while an upgraded version graced the 2014 Outlander. But the upgrade swaps the dials for temperature buttons that just look like dials. Even more difficult to control on the fly, though, are the fan speed buttons and mode choices in between. But a sync button does go one step above Volvo.
Fuel economy: Mitsubishi's trip calculators reset after every shutdown, but the Outlander landed about 24 mpg every time, easily the best of the three.
Where it's built: Okazaki, Japan
How it's built: The 2013 Outlander and Outlander Sport are both on Consumer Reports' Recommended list, and the reliability histories have been solid (the 2014 is still too new). A 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty should further ease any nervousness about the unknown.
In the end: So you want a crossover that stands out from the pack, not another CR-V or 4Runner? The three choices of the past three weeks pick three vastly different roads less traveled. And I found them all about equal: The Mazda CX-9 was the most fun and most versatile, but its terrible fuel economy gives me pause. The Volvo XC60 is grand if you have the scratch and don't need a third row. The Mitsubishi is a fine bargain, if you don't really need much space.
For me? I'd probably swallow the fuel costs and pick the Mazda.
Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org