Test Drive: Mitsubishi’s Outlander Sport sits right in the middle

By our unofficial count, we’ve driven nine compact and midsize sport-utility vehicles in the past year. With the exception of the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk, every one of them cost more than last week's test-drive subject, the 2016 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. There was nary a BMW, Cadillac or Mercedes-Benz in the mix – just ordinary American, Japanese and Korean models.

Superficially, the Mitsubishi seems a good choice. Our white Sport GT, equipped with the 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine, continuously variable automatic transmission and Mitsubishi's all-wheel-control system, had a sticker price of $28,245. It’s a nice-looking crossover with a long standard-features list, good fuel economy of up to 27 mpg, and a 100,000-mile power-train warranty.

And unlike the competing models from Honda, Chevrolet, Hyundai and others, Outlanders aren’t ubiquitous. While the Sport is Mitsubishi’s biggest seller in the U.S. market, sales have declined a bit from 2015 to this year, from 33,610 to 30,567 units sold. That’s about 20 percent of the combined year-to-date sales figures for the Hyundai Tucson/Kia Sportage cousins.

Critics downgrade the Outlander Sport for its stiff ride, underpowered and sometimes noisy 2.0-liter base engine, and uninspiring handling. We didn’t mind the ride – an Outlander trait since its introduction more than a decade ago – and thought it handled fairly crisply for an SUV. And our test car had the larger of the Sport’s two available engines.

The base Sport ES, with the 2.0-liter engine, 5-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive, starts at about $20,000. Our GT featured the AWC system, which lets the driver select from front-wheel, all-wheel or 4-wheel drive lock mode with the touch of a large button between the front seats. In addition to the bigger engine and CVT transmission, the GT packs a panoramic glass sunroof, leather upholstery, 8-way power driver's seat, premium sound system, satellite radio, start-stop engine switch and numerous other features.

Major competitors in the compact-SUV include the Chevrolet Trax, Jeep Renegade, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Honda HR-V, and Mazda's CX-3. Based on its high ground clearance – 8.5 inches – and the AWC system, the Outlander Sport probably has an edge in off-road capability over all of these models except the Renegade. Most critics place these models ahead of the Outlander Sport in terms of drivability and refinement. Having driven most of them, we do not view Mitsubishi's offering as significantly less desirable than the others.

Frankly, we found the car enjoyable to drive, with enough room in front for most drivers, and a comfortable driving position. We also reached and sometimes exceeded the official mpg figure.

Built in Japan, Outlander models have a good reputation for reliability. The 2016 Outlander Sport didn’t quite make the grade as an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, having achieved the top “Good” rating in all crash tests except the small-overlap frontal test (“Acceptable”). The seven-passenger Outlander, a midsize SUV, did attain Top Safety Pick status.

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.

2016 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport 2.4 GT

Price: $28,245

Engine: 2.4-liter inline Four, 168 horsepower, 167 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: continuously variable automatic

Drive: all-wheel

Weight: 3,285 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear

Wheels: 18x7-in. alloy

Tires: 225/55R18 all-season

Ground clearance: 8.5 in.

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 20.1 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 48.8 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 15.8 gallons

Fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 27 mpg highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline