I have had tenure of a number of Mitsubishi Pajeros over the years and without exception, the overriding issue has been the old-fashioned auto transmission which produced more slip than an oiled banana skin. Traversing the hills in my neighbourhood simply exaggerated this annoying attribute so when an invite rolled into my in-box inviting me to sample the latest iteration of the breed on the sand dunes to the north of the Mother City, my interest was piqued.
Driving in sand always provides a stern test of transmissions so had the purveyors of this brand that has achieved so many victories in the gruelling and ultra-gritty Dakar Rally got something up their sleeves? Happily, the answer is an unqualified YES so read on to find out just how Mitsubishi has transformed the driving characteristics of a model that frankly had been falling behind in the family/SUV off-road segment.
For starters, I must point out that the Pajero is a bakkie-based SUV which means no matter how much advertising spin the brand custodians apply, it is never going to match a monocoque-based machine with multi-link suspension in terms of on-road ride comfort or handling.
Any ladder-frame chassis is compromised in this area but as some of you may be aware, this Pajero owes much of its hidden bits to the Triton, the latest iteration of which has garnered a lot of positive comment from those in the know when it comes to bakkies. Truth be known, and I endorse this observation, the Triton has little to fear from SA’s two most favoured bakkies.
Only the Amarok shades it in terms of paved road behaviour and I must say that in the admittedly rather brief encounter with the Pajero Sport on tarred and gravel road surfaces, Mitsubishi’s new contender fared rather well. For sure, the fact that four adults were on-board doubtless quelled some of the vertical disturbances that bakkies always trigger on broken surfaces, but this SUV felt unusually composed, acceptably pliant and importantly, it imparted a solid feel which means that squeaks and rattles were entirely absent.
While we’re on board, let me tell you that the interior of the new Pajero Sport is nicely executed and provides space for up to seven occupants, albeit that the third row is suitable only for the younger set. Seats are upholstered in what appears to be good quality hide that is neatly ruched to add to the visual effect but the good news doesn’t stop with appearances as the comfort of the front seats in particular is excellent thanks to unusually good levels of support and a nicely-judged amount of firmness.
Externally, the Pajero has been finessed with all-new sheet metal that adds more style than ever before but I wasn’t alone in thinking that there are quite a few elements that display similarities with the Toyota Fortuner. Perhaps the rear lamps are guilty of being rather ornate but overall, the appearance is sleeker and much more mod with nicely-executed black detailing providing an eye-pleasing contrast with the white paintwork of the test vehicles.
With all the mod-cons on board, and a lofty driving position to boot, it seems that this Mitsu would be a pleasant device to occupy on longer runs – bear in mind our open road experience was limited to around 20 minutes – but all the comfort in the world is of little comfort if the motive power doesn’t match up.
The bonnet hides the latest iteration of Mitsubishi’s 2.4 litre turbo diesel which produces a useful 133kW at a mere 3 500 rpm, but of much more importance is the torque peak of 430Nm which is accessed at 2 500rpm. The motor operates quietly and smoothly and masks diesel clatter very well such that on the cruise, it’s hard to tell what fuel is being burned. Indeed, even at crawling speeds, the isolation of mechanical disturbances is pleasing but frankly, this otherwise very competent engine must take second place to the new 8-speed auto transmission which, simply put, has transformed the driving characteristics of the Pajero.
Some may question the recent trend towards stuffing more and more cogs into a gearbox casing and in some instances, the ambivalence may have credence in that the primary objective is to reduce emissions figures through the expedient of longer gearing. In this application though, the extra gears benefit off-road driving and open-road cruising and because the shifts are for the most part very smooth, occupants are not aware of how much cog-shifting actually goes on underneath the transmission tunnel.
Of greatest relevance though is that this new box has put to rest the awful slippage characteristics that so tarnished driving pleasure in models of the past. Open the throttle and the motor gets on with forward propulsion. The box is also endowed with “intelligent shift control” but the clincher for me is that Mitsubishi has wisely seen fit to add paddle shifters which provide the driver with all the control needed.
Any good auto box is enhanced by the presence of paddle shifters which are especially useful in activating engine braking on long downhill sections as well as in making driving more fun which the presence of Sport mode clearly recognises. And with eight speeds to play with, first gear can now be lower which is advantageous in crawling and towing situations and the two top ratios allow for much more relaxed and economical open road driving.
We all tend to forget that tyres are the only point of contact between the vehicle and the traversed surface so with an SUV of this type, traction is an all-important element. To this end, Mitsubishi has fitted the latest version of its Super Select 4-II 4WD system which now has electronic assistance built in.
The assistance package now incorporates settings for gravel, mud/snow, sand or rock. In simple terms, that means a clever ECU automatically optimises engine, transmission and braking actions to maximise traction and minimise the chances of grinding to a halt. Add in a lockable rear diff and the chances are good that you’ll be able to go where most fear to tread.
Certainly, in traversing the Atlantis Dunes, the Pajero performed admirably and demanded far less “rushing of obstacles” than I thought might be necessary. Sure, there’s a need to maintain momentum but thanks to the fact that wheel spinning is automatically controlled, absolute speed can be kept within bounds as the vehicle maintains an extraordinary level of traction even in very loose sand.
To my surprise, all activity on the dunes was conducted in high ratio but as you’d expect, a low ratio setting is available for dealing with really tough stuff. Activation of all modes is as easy as turning a dial or pressing a button so forget any ideas of old-fashioned levers.
It hasn’t escaped my notice over the years that heavy braking on sandy downslopes can build up large tracts of sand in front of the wheels and cause a stoppage when it’s least expected. Thanks to the fitment of Hill Descent Control, the speed of which can be controlled by throttle inputs, even this aspect has been taken care of but I guess the real advantage will come when descending steep, mud-strewn slopes.
If you’ve been paying attention, you should have got the drift that this new Pajero Sport has raised the game a long, long way for Mitsubishi. With the lovely new auto box and all the styling and equipment tweaks, not to mention loads of active and passive safety features, this Pajero really can claim to tackle paved and unpaved driving with little compromise. Despite its relative bulk, it’s even easy to manoeuvre in tight situations thanks to a good turning circle and to a power steering system that takes all the effort – and some of the feel -out of wheel-twirling.
Equally importantly, the Sport is very well equipped in standard guise and strikes me as being very competitively priced within this segment. Take a peek at www.mitsubishi-motors.co.za to get a handle on all the niceties that make up the package and then, if you’re in the market for a 7-seater multi-purpose SUV that won’t have your bank manager hiding under his desk, go and take a drive. This short association suggests that the Mitsubishi may just be the new class leader.
(It is possible that model configuration may differ in Zimbabwe. Please consult Zimoco for clarification)