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OFF-ROAD TEST

Mitsubishi Pajero 3.2 DID GLS 3-DR (A)





24 July 2007


Racy looks, hardcore 4×4

The adage that what wins on Saturdays sells on Mondays is as old as the motorcar itself. Race versions have won countless ultra-distance rallies, but how good is the Pajero you buy from your Mitsubishi dealer? We find out

Success in motor racing sells cars, even if most punters realise machines found on racetracks and desert trails are pretty far removed from what glistens on the showroom floor.

Nevertheless, we’ve chosen to put through its paces the model in the fourth-generation Pajero range that, in looks anyway, is as close to the Dakar car as you can get without a competition licence.

That means the short wheelbase version, which in road trim looks very racy for an SUV, with a stubby, slightly belligerent look.

More than 2,5-million Pajeros have been produced in almost 25 years and this latest one builds on the strengths of its predecessor, launched in 2002.

It could, arguably, be termed a facelift rather than an all-new model. And it certainly looks familiar, which means muscular wheel arches and a purposeful stance – kind of like Mike Tyson but with better teeth and hopefully less inclination to bite. In the middle of the grille are those three Mitsubishi diamonds, while the rear end is defined by the spare wheel under a rigid half-cover, now 50mm lower on the rear door to improve rearward visibility.

There’s also plenty of sex appeal and there’s more than a hint of bling in the tail lamps, while features such as extensive chrome detailing, silver-coloured front and rear skid plates, neatly integrated side steps and bold fog lamps confirm this is no shrinking violet. The overall look wasn’t universally praised, and some testers felt that the combined effect of the frontal styling was just a little over the top.

Features and equipment
★ ★ ★

Off-roading is this Pajero’s raison d’être so you’d expect it to boast some pretty trick drivetrain stuff. It does, namely the latest version of the Super Select four-wheel drive system, coupled to electronic “helpers” such as Mitsubishi’s interpretation of hill descent control, as well as traction/stability control.

What’s under the bonnet is an updated, common-rail development of Mitsubishi’s proven 3,2-litre, direct injection turbo-diesel (though power and torque are the same as before) mated to an intelligent five-speed automatic transmission with sequential Sport gate. Electronic controls of the gearbox and engine have all been improved.

Suspension also remains largely unchanged, so you get fully independent setups front and rear, working off a monocoque rather than a ladder frame chassis – as in the third-generation model.

Detail changes to the body include an aluminium bonnet, and exterior mirrors with integrated indicator repeaters.

Equipment standard to GLS spec (the only one offered with the SWB) extends to a double- volume sunroof, climate control, and on the safety front, the cramming of front, side and curtain airbags into the cabin.

Accommodation
★ ★ ★ ★

The cabin of the short wheelbase version is all about those in front, and there’s little reason to complain if you’re using it as transport for you and a close friend. The seats are excellent, being leather-clad and supportive without being unforgiving. They’re heated, too, and the driver’s is electrically adjusted – including the degree of lumbar support.

Getting into the back is best done from the passenger side, as it is only that seat that has a tilt/slide function. Being a serious off-roader with a high-riding stance means rear access will be challenging for the mini-skirt brigade, but once passengers are inside there’s decent space.

Rear windows are manually operated and hinge outward rather than rolling up and down. Outer armrests flip down to reveal cup-holders but with the arm rests in the raised position there is room for three abreast, though this is really a 2-plus-2.

The rear seat folds forward in a 60/40 split, and can then be tilted up against the backrests of the front seat to expand luggage capacity. Usable volume ends up being respectable, but with a wheelbase of just 2545mm and very little rear overhang, the vehicle was never designed with load-lugging in mind.

The most significant changes are in the facia. It is logically laid out and the fit and finish are excellent. The SWB version doesn’t get the Rockford Fosgate ICE, and unfortunately the sound system fitted to our test car was remarkable only for its poor radio reception and indifferent sound quality.

The centre stack is very neatly laid out, with a modern high-tech effect created by the matte silver buttons for the sound system and large dials for the climate control. Soft blue instrument lighting creates an eerie effect at night, but is no less effective. A similar hue is used for the driving computer (which has an excellent range of features) but comes across as slightly garish.

The sound and cruise control can be directed from the steering wheel – a compact, meaty-feeling device which can be set for height.

Between the seats is a generous double-decker storage compartment, the upper section of which slides fore/aft to act as a handy armrest. Another neat feature is a small lidded compartment in the centre stack where there’s a slot for keeping a credit card handy.

Finally, a super-sized sunroof can make the Pajero’s cabin feel a bit like a sports convertible with the roof down.

Performance
★ ★ ★

The Pajero’s 121 kW and 373 Nm aren’t mind-blowing numbers for a modern 3,2-litre diesel, but Mitsubishi says that while outputs are unchanged, this updated version is cleaner-burning and more economical.

There’s never any doubt that there are four big, heavy pistons at work in the engine bay, and it’s the strong but not especially silent type. There’s also seldom any doubt that the Pajero weighs the best part of 2,2 tonnes. Performance is adequate rather than sparkling, and the same can be said about stopping ability, which turned out to be a little inconsistent.

Aerodynamics didn’t feature prominently in the design brief of the Pajero – something which counts against it on the fuel consumption front. A true 120km/h is cruised at 10,4 litres per 100km and we’d expect about 11,5 litres per 100km in mixed conditions.

One of the nicest features of the gearbox is its manual mode, where it will hold the selected ratio until prompted to change by the driver. It is also a decisive and smooth shifter when left in Drive, and ratios are well-matched to the engine.

Ride and handling
★ ★ ★ ★

It is going to take a serious 4×4 to beat the Pajero “shorty”, and with an approach angle of 39,1 degrees and a departure angle of 35,5 it can virtually drive up or down your average cliff face. Of course, you need intelligent torque distribution to go with it, and Super Select is seldom found wanting in this respect.

For the really serious stuff the driver needs to move the transfer case lever to the 4LLC position, which means low range with locked centre differential and torque distributed evenly front and rear. In this mode Engine Brake Assist Control (EBAC) will also kick in as long as first gear is selected, taking over the braking as soon as it detects a loss of traction.

For less serious stuff there’s 4×4 high-range with the centre diff locked, and then 4×4 High with the diff unlocked – just the job for relatively smooth dirt roads where you want extra traction but don’t want a locking diff causing any funny behaviour at speed, or when towing. In this setting, front/rear torque split is 33:67, the viscous coupling varying the allocation up to 50:50. Four-wheel-drive High can be engaged at speeds of up to 100km/h.

Ground clearance is a not immodest 225mm, and that coupled to the petite wheelbase makes for an exceptional 151-degree ramp angle. If you get the belly of this Pajero to touch you’re traversing some serious boondocks, but what we would’ve appreciated was some additional front suspension travel to help keep all wheels on the deck.

Compromise is the name of the 4×4 game and in the case of the Pajero comes in the way it rides on tarmac. It stands tall on a relatively narrow track and a wheelbase which is shorter than that of a Renault Clio, so physics dictate that it won’t be winning any slaloms – though it is a pretty nifty tool to have at one’s disposal when looking for a parking space.

The ride is firm and the sensitivity to changing cambers can make it quite tiring at times, but it always feels alert and alive – kind of how a sporty car of any genre tends to be. Despite this, it tracks straight and true at freeway speeds.

Verdict
★ ★ ★ ★

Mitsubishi says its approach has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. This amounts to taking what is proven and enhancing it, the end result being a very competent machine. Whether that is enough in the face of newer designs remains to be seen, though with the SWB model they largely have the playing field to themselves. So if you want a three-door, hardcore 4×4 with a turbo-diesel engine and an automatic transmission there is only one place to do your shopping…