Cadillac Builds a Performance Wagon

2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport.

You probably noticed something if you’ve paid a visit to the gas station recently. Prices are on the rise again. Is it just a temporary bump-up, or are we going to see a gallon of gas go back up above the $4 mark again? Hard to say.

Regardless of current pump prices, America is on a fuel diet these days. More efficiency from our cars will be required in the coming years, as the federal government has mandated that carmakers’ fleets get more miles per gallon by 2016 and beyond.

Hybrids will still proliferate, as will battery-powered electric plug-in vehicles. But those will only be a drop in the bucket of overall car sales for the foreseeable future. More efficient conventional cars will be what the vast majority of buyers will drive, and smaller vehicles will abound.

One category that’s already growing is one that I like to call “mini SUVs.” While many people may think of a Honda CR-V or Ford Escape as small, some companies are coming out with models that are smaller still, and really just reconfigured compact sedans.

I wrote about the Nissan Juke some weeks back, and now I’ve taken a spin in another pint-sized sport utility, the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. It’s the latest offering for people who want something that’s small, fuel efficient and not too expensive, but still has that cargo hold. The genie is out of the bottle on easy-to-access cargo space, and now many won’t be caught without plenty of it.

The name may sound familiar, as the Mitsubishi Outlander has been around for quite a few years (and is about to get refreshed) in the small-to-medium crossover SUV category dominated by the aforementioned CR-V and Escape. The Outlander Sport is like an Outlander that was convinced by Valerie Bertinelli to give Jenny Craig’s diet plan a try.

Tipping the scales minus several hundred pounds, and sparing the tape measure to the tune of a foot less length, the Outlander Sport is probably all the SUV many people would need. It’s plenty roomy for driver and passengers, and there’s a cargo area that should please all but the most fervent Costco or Home Depot customers.

What surprised me most about the Outlander Sport was the available content. My test car was a fully-loaded ES trim model, and the little all wheel drive car-cum-SUV wanted for nothing. Heated seats? Check. Traffic info in the dash? Check. Rear-view camera? Check. It even had a handy automatic wiper system that I put to good use during our recent rain storms.

The Sport isn’t exactly a powerhouse, however. The sole engine choice is a 2.0 liter four cylinder making a barely-respectable 148 horsepower through a CVT automatic transmission. (A 5-speed manual is available, but only on the base SE trim and not with all wheel drive.)

OK, so its level of sportiness doesn’t really live up to the name Outlander Sport. But for the way most people are likely to use it, it’ll do just fine. Mileage estimates are pretty good, at 25/31 city/highway, and it only requires 87 octane regular gasoline.

Base price for the ES trim model is $18,495, and the SE AWD starts at $22,995. Add all the goodies my test car had (including a huge glass sunroof) and you’re at just under $27,000 before tax and license. Considering all the big-car amenities, still not a bad price.

If we’re going to be going on a “car diet” in America, little crossovers like this one will help us cut back our appetite for fuel, while still making us feel like we’ve been served enough on our plates.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.

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