A few years ago, the national press and – it seemed – the national psyche, were preoccupied by an excess of Daily Mail-style hand-wringing about 4x4s being planet-killers and gas-guzzlers.

There were calls to make them illegal, schemes to tax them to hell and back, and probably even plans to cram them into a boat and ship them off to the Laurentian abyss to be dropped into the ocean where they couldn’t hurt anyone.

Even the Queen’s trusty old Defender was looking like it might be dragged behind the cow shed and crushed.

I’d have loved to have had a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV back then, because this is an SUV that would have blown their tiny minds.

Why?

Two numbers: 156 mpg and 42 g/km.

There are mopeds on the road that can’t match those figures. In fact, there are probably even some cyclists that huff out more CO2.

So what new wizardry is behind this?

Well, technically the Outlander PHEV isn’t new. It’s been on sale since 2014, so you perhaps won’t be too surprised to learn that since then it’s become the UK’s best-selling plug-in electric vehicle.

…it’s become the UK’s best-selling plug-in electric vehicle…

For 2016, however, Mitsubishi have given the Outlander something of a re-style: gone is the slightly bulbous look of the previous car, and it now wears what the company calls its ‘Dynamic Shield’, a design that’s set to feature on future SUVs from the company.

Inside, the quality of the leather has been upgraded, there’s a new ‘black ash’ trim, a new steering wheel with a thicker rim that’s heated on top models, and it offers a decent range of adjustment that’s matched by the new, more comfortable seats.

Rear seat passengers are well looked after, too – there’s plenty of headroom, and there’s only minimal floor intrusion because there’s no driveshaft running to the rear axle.

The media system has received a few tweaks: it’s now faster to start-up, and although it offers most functions you could ask for, it still feels a little ‘aftermarket’ in comparison to some other systems.

The top two models come with a power tailgate as standard, although it is a little slow, particularly when closing, but once open it reveals a practical load space with 463 litres up to the window line, an underfloor compartment to hide away the various charging cables, and with the split-folding seats, space increases to anything up to 1,603 litres on the commercial models.

Open the bonnet and you’ll be greeted by what looks like two engines.

On the left is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that, by itself, produces about 119hp. However, it’s joined by a 60kW electric motor and a generator, while under the floor there’s a 12kWh lithium-ion battery and another 60kW electric motor driving the rear wheels.

The petrol engine can drive the front wheels directly, or charge the battery via the generator, and with everything working together the system produces about 200hp and 332Nm of torque – that’s enough for 0-62mph in 11 seconds dead.

What’s clever about the Outlander’s system is that it can operate in several modes.

In its pure electric mode, the petrol engine remains off and the front and rear electric motors drive the wheels, which they can do up to about 75mph and – Mitsubishi claims – for about 32 miles on a full charge, although we saw something closer to 24 miles during our testing.

When the battery charge gets low, or when you need more performance, the engine starts automatically and supplies additional power to the motors. This is called Series Hybrid Mode and it’s something you’ll most likely experience when overtaking or climbing a hill.

Lastly, there’s Parallel Hybrid Mode which sees the petrol engine drive the front wheels directly, with additional assistance provided by the electric motors, and it’s this mode that activates at higher speeds where the electric motors are less efficient.

If all of this sounds a bit too complicated for you, don’t worry, because it’s all entirely automatic. All you need to do is slam it in Drive and let the Outlander decide what’s best.

At low speeds, the system favours using the electric motors, and pulling away in near silence with only the muted whine of the motors to accompany you never grows old.

…pulling away with only the muted whine of the motors to accompany you never grows old…

When the petrol engine does fire up, it’s largely inaudible – certainly quiet enough for you to not notice most of the time, although if you gun it away from the lights, the engine will rev up pretty quickly.

Even then, it’s not intrusive – in fact, it’s probably about the same as any car with CVT transmission, but do bear in mind that in normal driving, most noises you hear in a car are more likely to be wind and tyre noise.

Here, the Outlander does an admirable job of insulating you from the outside world, although driving over sharp bumps and tarmac ridges can make a bit of a racket at times.

For the most part, the Outlander rides well. Its naturally forgiving suspension set-up smooths out the worst our crumbling road network has to offer, but it manages to achieve this without sacrificing body control.

We perhaps wouldn’t go as far as to call it engaging, but even sawing away at the wheel fails to induce too much in the way of body roll, so on the occasions where you feel the need to press on a bit, the Outlander will certainly play along.

Whether you’re being propelled by engine or motor, progress is always smooth – there are no gear-changes to get in the way, remember – and it’s also surprisingly punchy, with overtaking slower-moving traffic made easy by additional assistance from the electric motors.

However, drive like your hair’s on fire, and you’ll quickly put a serious dent in your fuel economy.

Whether you get to see anything like the Outlander’s incredible official figure of 156 mpg in the real world depends on the roads you drive on and the journeys you do regularly.

After a week’s testing that combined a mixture of roads and the occasional charge from the mains, we’d notched up an average of about 65 mpg. On longer and high-speed journeys where the petrol engine is mostly used, that dropped to about 35 mpg.

However, if you do mostly short journeys on urban roads and can recharge the batteries regularly, you might find yourself hardly ever having to visit a petrol station at all.

…you might find yourself hardly ever having to visit a petrol station at all…

At least one industry body reckons the UK average commute is just 25 miles – although we’re not convinced by that – but if that’s you, and you can charge up at work, then you’re all set for a life without petrol.

Charging via the mains takes about 5 hours from flat, or you can have a fast charger installed that drops that time to about 3½ hours. Alternatively, you can use a public charger that can generally get you to 80% capacity in around half an hour – enough to give you about 18 miles of range.

You can keep an eye on charging progress via a dedicated Mitsubishi app. It’s not as polished as, say the Tesla app, but it allows you to schedule charging or the climate control, as well as change a variety of vehicle settings – although the app only works if you’re in Wifi range of the car.

The Outlander really starts to make sense as a company car, though. With CO2 emissions of just 42 g/km, it attracts only 5% benefit-in-kind tax, companies can claim 100% write-down allowance, it’s exempt from the London congestion charge and – at least until next year – it pays no road tax.

What we like about the Outlander, though, is that it’s still a genuine 4×4 with 190mm of ground clearance and a useful wading ability.

It used to be the case that you could buy the Outlander PHEV for the same price as the equivalent diesel model. Unfortunately, on 1st March, the Government Plug-in Car Grant reduced to just £2,500, so now the PHEV starts from £31,749. Our mid-range GX4h test car weighs in at £36,399, for which you get satnav, heated leather seats, electric sunroof, power tailgate, 360-degree camera, and a few other goodies.

Admittedly, the use cases where the PHEV shines may be limited, but even outside of that, the Outlander is a stronger performer than you might think.

So good, in fact, it’s not hard to see why it’s the UK’s best-selling plug-in electric vehicle.

Tester’s Notes

  • Some systems – like power tailgate – feel like late additions
  • Infotainment system has aftermarket feel compared to rivals
  • Minimal floor intrusion for rear-seat passengers
  • Comfortable long-distance ability
  • Headline economy figures realistically only achievable on short journeys with battery recharge opportunities
  • Long recharge times
  • Seamless transitions between power delivery systems
  • Hybrid system responses well calibrated
  • Smartphone app only accessible within Wifi range of car; app UI needs polish
  • Stable handling
  • Genuine off-road performer with good ground clearance
  • 65mpg on test; 35mpg on long journeys
Entry-level Price £31,749 (incl. grant) Price as tested £36,399
Engine 2.0-litre petrol, 2x 60kW motors Battery 12kWh, 300V lithium-ion
Power 200hp Torque 332Nm
0-62 11.0 secs Top speed 106 mph
Economy 156 mpg CO2 42 g/km
Dimensions 4695 x 1800 x 1710 (LxWxH) Kerb Weight 1845 kg

Alex Kefford

Editor

Freelance journalist, ex-offroad driving instructor and long distance road-tripper. If you have any questions about this piece, feel free to hit me up on Twitter.