This little Mitsubishi shows why we can’t have nice things

The $25,000 2019 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport SE compact crossover has a chromed vent on its front fenders. It’s not cut into the front fenders, mind you, it’s just a fakey-doo thing—two different colors of plastic stuck on there in true Pep Boys fashion. Nine years ago, when this little wagon made its debut, that space on the fender was used for a turn signal. Now it’s a “vent.” The vent doesn’t do anything; it doesn’t even pretend to cut into the fender. Which is fine, because the vast majority of today’s fender-vent-equipped automobiles, from the Aston Whatever to the Escalade to the F550, don’t get any actual benefits from said vents. So the Outlander is no better and no worse than anyone else in that regard.

I got my 2019 Outlander Sport from Enterprise Rent-A-Car at the Miami airport. It had 30,009 miles showing on the clock, which caused my younger brother, Mark, to launch into a soliloquy about how my relative poverty and lack of travel-program status had led, inevitably, to a life where I would do nothing but sit in the middle seat of Southwest 737s and humbly accept rental cars with Pioneer 10 odometer readings. Mark is Diamond this, and Platinum that, and Lifetime Elite something else.

To hear him tell it, when he shows up at a rental car agency, everyone has to line up and sing his favorite song in four-part harmony (1 for 1, DiMaggio, by Vulfpeck) before they hand him the keys to a brand-new Rolls-Royce Dawn—assembled with with solid-gold components—at which point he and the Dawn are loaded into a helicopter, which actually flies the whole assemblage to his preferred destination so that he isn’t late, which doesn’t really matter because no one would start without him anyway. “If they still had Yugos,” he said with a laugh, “you would have gotten one of those.”

Yet even brother Mark had to agree that the Outlander Sport was a fundamentally decent vehicle. It’s made in Japan, which still means something to a lot of people. After 30,000 miles, it was still drum-tight, with no wear showing on the control surfaces or its contrast-stitched seats. Most Porsches don’t survive their first 5000 miles without showing more visible damage and erosion on the interior than this Miami rental showed after six times that. Only a crazy person would refer to it as “fast” or even “lively,” but it was capable of running with traffic. Handling was more than good enough for real-world driving. The stereo was decent enough, and there was room for the proverbial two couples and their luggage.

I wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at anyone who test-drove an Outlander Sport and decided it was worth buying. Yet very few people make that choice—fewer than 30,000 units will sell in the 2019 model year, many of them to rental fleets and many more to people who took advantage of some generous credit terms available via a Mitsubishi dealer. When I was a kid, in the era of the Voluntary Restraint Agreement that placed an import quota on each Japanese manufacturer, it was commonly understood that Subarus were often purchased by people who couldn’t afford the marked-up Hondas and Toyotas. Today, Nissan and Mitsubishi are in the same boat, only now it’s credit score that separates a RAV4 buyer from an Outlander driver. 

Why isn’t anyone buying the Outlander Sport? No, it’s not quite as advanced and satisfying a proposition as the current RAV4 and CR-V, both of which have progressed through a trio of iterations since Mitsubishi released this vehicle, but this has always been the case with the second-tier Japanese manufacturers, and they rarely lacked for buyers in the past. The Mitsubishi Colt, for example, was never up to the level set by the Civic, but Colt sightings were once common on American roads. 

Mitsubishi Outlander
Jack Baruth

I think what’s actually happening is this: We are now in an era of near-unprecedented homogeneity in automobiles. Not since 1958 or thereabouts have all the vehicles in American showrooms hewed so closely to a particular pattern. Our automotive ecosystem received a few huge infusions of biodiversity during the 1970s and ’80s, but after much shaking out, we are now back to a situation where there is just one non-truck vehicle which sells in any volume, and it’s a blobular box with no particular distinguishing features, powered by an engine of virtually identical configuration to everything else around it. 

When all the cars you can buy are basically identical, it turns into washing-machine shopping—you’re only going to buy on price or reputation. That’s why the lion’s share of this market goes to the cheap one (the Rogue) or the good ones (RAV4 and CR-V). It’s one thing to take a resale-value or service-nightmare risk on a car that really pushes your emotional buttons —Chrysler PT Cruiser, please step into the spotlight for a moment!—but if you can’t tell the difference between the Mitsubishi and Honda even after careful examination, prudence suggests that you should buy the Honda.

Which is a shame. And it suggests that Mitsubishi should change its business model a bit. I’d suggest making the cars a lot more exciting; if that’s too much to ask, at least make them different. There’s no hay to be made by offering the same blandbox, only with fewer Consumer Reports red dots. There’s some precedent for this, and it’s being set by Subaru. I don’t think anybody believes a Subaru will hold up like the equivalent Honda—if you do, it’s because you’ve never owned an example of either. People buy a Subaru, and often pay more, because the vehicle is consciously different in everything, from its engine layout to the goofy doors. 

The granola market is firmly in Subaru’s hands, so perhaps Mitsubishi should go in the other direction. Every car should have Evo-style spoilers and graphics. They should look as Japanese as possible. The colors should be horrifying to parents and decent people. Mitsubishi used to name its vehicles in a fashion that ranged from the confusing (Minica Lettuce) to the war-mongering (Evolution Zero Edition). I’d rather drive a Minica Lettuce than an Outlander Sport. Neither name means anything, but one of them will get you some Instagram likes. 

The alternative is to keep selling vanilla ice cream from a folding table on an intersection that also has Baskin-Robbins and Haagen-Dazs. You’re not going to catch a lot of eyeballs, or a lot of dollars, that way. With that said, if you know someone who wants one of those little compact box-cars on stilts and they’re looking for a pretty good deal, you could always point them to an Outlander Sport. It’s not special to drive or own, but very few cars are nowadays. That’s all I have to say for today. Thanks for reading, and for letting me… wait for it…

Vent a bit.

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