Andy Palmer tells us more about the car Aston will race in Le Mans’ new top class
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£39,445 when new
Hmm. That doesn’t look very exciting. What?! You’re not doing gleeful backflips of joy at the sight of a Japanese plug-in hybrid SUV? Well, maybe it’s time for you to go to the doctors to get your Fun Gland checked out as this, ladies and gents, is currently the most interesting and word-worthy car that Mitsubishi makes. Are you being sarcastic? Yes, to a point. See, that last bit is quite a disappointing reality given Mitsubishi is the same firm that brought us ten generations of the brilliant, rally-refugee Lancer Evolution. But the Outlander PHEV (that’s Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) has been an amazing success since its launch in 2014, clocking up 10,000 sales in the UK within the first ten months and 26,600 by the end of 2016, bringing big smiles to the faces of bosses back in Japan in the process.
Why is it so popular? Because if you have a short commute, you barely ever need to fill up on fuel – making it a better alternative to petrol and diesel rivals. And, because of its incredibly low emissions, it used to save you a shed load of cash as a company car driver. And we mean a fortune: thousands of pounds over three years. Plus, when you included the old government green car subsidy, the Outlander PHEV was exactly the same price as the diesel one. So, if you did the maths, it made complete sense. However, since it launched, the government has moved the financial incentive goalposts quite drastically, messing up the numbers and these benefits. But more on that later. So what’s so new about this Outlander PHEV? Not a lot. In 2015, there was a more drastic makeover for the platform that furnished it with a better interior as well as various performance and efficiency gains. For 2017, the PHEV has just had minor tweaks. There’s a new EV switch so you can prioritise silent, EV driving (if there’s sufficient charge in the batteries, that is) and an electronic parking brake, as well as new dampers and rear suspension bushes to try and soften the harsh, heavy ride. Oh, and rapid charging has also been improved as you can now juice the batteries to 80 per cent in 25 minutes, rather than 30. Gotcha. So how does this PHEV thing work? The plug-in system is split into two parts – a 2.0-litre petrol engine with 119bhp, plus twin electric motors (one on each axle) pushing out a total of 60bhp and 245lb ft. Either system can also be declutched and used to re-charge the batteries. For 2017, it’s now possible to run the Outlander on electric-only for up to 33 miles – a sole mile better than last year. But good luck getting that figure. We found that getting 20-odd miles on EV was possible while minimising things like the air con, heated seats and heated steering wheel, but you really have to be gentle. When the batteries are depleted, the petrol engine kicks in and it acts like a normal car. It’s just that when you get home, you can charge it back up to run on electric power for another day of cheap motoring. Think of it like the plug-in Toyota Prius, only with more emphasis on electric-only driving and better mpg and CO2 figures (a theoretical 166mpg and 41g/km), and you’re about there.
So, what does it drive like? With that heavy drivetrain, Mitsubishi’s engineers haven’t quite nailed the ride yet. But under electric power, the Outlander is quick, quiet and great in town. In EV mode, it has the pronounced sci-fi whizzes and whirs from the motors that make you think you’re stuck in a microwave on ‘Defrost’, but the petrol engine doesn’t kick in too early (unlike in the Prius), and there’s plenty of poke on offer. When the petrol engine does fire up and take over the driving duties, it’s a seamless, near-silent handover (helped by poor wind noise when you get up to higher speed). However, out of town, it doesn’t drive particularly well. It lollops through corners with wayward body control and poorly weighted steering. And with 0-62mph seen off in eleven seconds, it’s far from exciting. However, there’s one trick that does make it interesting: paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel that control the amount of electric motor regen. This subconsciously leads you into a game of chicken between your fingers and feet as to which appendage can brake latest. Oh, and if you want to get mucky (which we’re sure most of the buyers won’t) you can use the adaptive four-wheel drive and lock the twin electric motors driving the wheels like a diff. What’s it like on the inside? Just like the flabby design outside, the inside doesn’t exactly project the image of technological force and efficiency Mitsubishi would like it to. The fiddly and infuriating infotainment system makes cheap aftermarket offerings appear to be high-end NASA equipment. Our test model refused to accept our Bluetooth connection, and cycled through ALL of our music playlists at once, like we were stuck in an impatient game of musical chairs. The top-spec ‘5S’ we had featured a full Nappa leather interior, blue LED mood lighting (including puddle lamps), twin rear USB charging ports, and an uprated Alpine hi-fi system. However, the driving position is awful due to the fact there’s no adjustment for reach on the steering wheel (a nightmare for gangly people), our driver’s seat moved under braking like it wasn’t bolted in properly, and the PHEV still remains a five-seater only, as a seven-seat option isn’t possible because of where the batteries are under the boot floor. Should I buy one? Well, this is where we need to go back to the numbers. See, as of this month, HMRC has plugged the mighty loophole that Mitsubishi has been taking advantage of for the last couple of years, souring the attractiveness of the PHEV. April saw drastic changes to road tax bands, so because the PHEV isn’t completely zero emission (41g/km), you’ll now pay £140 annually if your car is under £40,000 (though the first year’s tax is just £10). However, if you decide to spec a PHEV over £40,000, you’ll then pay an annual £450 after the first year. But then there’s a third degree of burn. As of last year, the government halved the Plug-in Car Grant, so subsidies for the PHEV are now £2,500 instead of £5,000. This means it’s now a couple of grand more expensive than both its petrol alternatives. So, with prices starting from just over £34,000 (excluding the £2,500 Plug-in Car Grant) and climbing into the mid-forties, we’d recommend that you work out where most of your driving is done, crack out the calculator and do some maths. Make sure diesel or pure petrol isn’t a better fit.