Mitsubishi has scooped the 4x4 Award for two years running with its Outlander 4Work and is winning new friends with its plug-in hybrid version, James Dallas reports
The 4x4 segment is not part of the mainstream light commercial vehicle industry but a niche division of the market that nevertheless serves an important role for those, generally out of town, customers who have no need of a heavy-duty pick-up truck but do require some off-road capability.
Mitsubishi’s Outlander 4Work has carved out a useful berth for itself in the sector and has now collected the What Van? 4x4 Van Award for two years in a row.
The commercial 4Work variant is a fairly straightforward conversion of the Outlander passenger car, carried out at Colt Cars’ import facility in Bristol. A load floor replaces the back seats but the outswinging rear car doors remain.
To the diesel derivative, a particular favourite with country vets, according to the brand’s UK boss Lance Bradley, Mitsubishi has now added a plug-in hybrid 4Work model.
Qualifying for the Government’s Plug-In Van Grant and capable of travelling for more than 30 miles on battery power alone, before reverting to petrol-hybrid propulsion, the newcomer has an impressive official fuel economy figure of 148mpg. A 2.0-litre petrol engine and a pair of 60kW electric motors connected to a lithium-ion battery pack drive the PHEV.
CO2 emissions are a miserly 44g/km, and, in case it does venture into the smoke, the GX3h 4Work is exempt from the London Congestion Charge.
Bradley is delighted with the credibility the What Van? award gives the vehicle
“For people in the market for commercial vehicles, that (What Van?) is what they buy. If you want to find out which van to buy – it’s what you buy,” he says.
He points out that because the award raises the profile of the Outlander overall, increased awareness of the PHEV also leads to a rise in diesel model sales. But overall volumes are modest and in total he predicts sales of about 400 Outlander CVs annually.
The Government’s Environment Agency has also boosted the plug-in commercial Outlander’s reputation by putting in an order for 65 of the models and a handful have been sold by dealers to local businesses since it arrived in showrooms in November last year.
Bradley describes these customers as two builders, a farmer, a joinery firm and a meat wholesaler.
“With access to charging points it’s perfect,” he claims. This enables users to regularly top up the electric charge before it runs out – a process, Bradley says, that has come to be known as ‘nibbling’.
Bradley says the passenger car version of the PHEV Outlander has sold “outstandingly well” due to the road tax and company car tax incentives, which do not apply to LCVs.
But although he admits the case for buying the commercial PHEV is less compelling he stresses it still delivers the same fuel advantage.
“There’s not the tax benefits you get with the cars, so it’s a pure choice on efficiency.
“Where organisations have a policy to be green or to be seen to be green it has an advantage,” Bradley adds.
But aside from its environmental credentials Bradley extols the hybrid’s performance.
“It’s not crap to drive, it’s really fun to drive,” he insists – and this from a man whose chosen mode of transport is a rally-based Lancer Evo.
He draws attention to the dashboard feature that displays zero to five green leaves, depending on how economically you have driven.
“You have to try to get five,” he says.
Mitsubishi puts its dealers through a comprehensive training programme in preparation for selling the PHEV, detailing features such as the paddle shift regenerative braking system, for example.
But if customers take the vehicle on contract hire, which admittedly is likely to be a rarity for traders that have a relationship with their local dealership, they are often left to just pick up the keys and get on with it. Consequently, Bradley says the manufacturer is considering an initiative similar to that Apple offers to its PC customers, who can pay a fee that entitles them to a limitless number of product tutorials.
“So you can pop back as often as you like and you don’t feel bad because it’s not free.”
He explains that although dealers would be willing to advise customers, many feel awkward about taking advantage of this if they have not paid for the service.
If they have signed up and paid a small fee for it, Bradley reckons PHEV drivers would have no qualms about asking for advice to get the best out of their vehicles.
Bradley acknowledges the plug-in hybrid has been a game-changer for Mitsubishi’s image with a pervasive TV marketing campaign raising awareness of the headline 148mpg fuel consumption figure in particular.
But he claims the brand, known for its rugged off-roaders, has been improving efficiencies in response to customer demand since back in the 1990s.
“We want to give people efficient options, not to tell them not to drive a big 4x4,” Bradley remarks.
“Are we an eco-warrior?, he asks, “probably not – but a responsible citizen? Certainly.”
An example of the changing times, and of how environmental concerns have moved up the agenda is that Mitsubishi has phased out the Evo performance line just as its PHEV technology has come to the fore.
With just the faintest hint of regret Bradley notes: “In any company there is a finite research budget.”
Looking ahead, Bradley says Mitsubishi will launch a commercial version of its compact crossover, the ASX, in the second half of 2016 – like the larger Outlander, this can also be expected to be available in PHEV and diesel modes.
Coming before this and likely to cause a far bigger splash in the LCV market will be the launch of the next generation L200 pick-up in the third quarter of this year.
The current L200, which is now eight years old, is widely acknowledged as having revolutionised the sector by inventing the lifestyle pick-up adorned with desirable features such as big wheels, chrome and black leather and emblazoned with bold, aggressive names such as Barbarian and Warrior.
“It was like a Tonka toy, it took the market by storm,” Bradley recalls and claims that at its peak the L200 commanded a 70% share of the pick-up sector before, inevitably, the rest of the market caught up.
With the new L200 Bradley is confident Mitsubishi will once more blaze a trail.
“It’s completely different,” he claims, “it has a new body, engines and interior.”
He says the L200 will use a more powerful development of the Outlander’s 2.2 diesel unit, which produces147hp.
More details of the new model will emerge in March but Bradley promises: “It’s going to be a step forward, in terms of efficiency and what it can do.”
Mitsubishi revealed a production version of a new pick-up truck in Thailand late last year that is likely to form the basis for the next generation L200. Although the Triton is tailored for Far Eastern markets it would be a surprise if it did not bear more than a passing resemblance to the forthcoming L200.
The Triton, however, is powered by a 2.4-litre turbo-diesel mated to either six-speed manual or five-speed auto transmission. It will be available in three bodystyles – single cab, extended cab and double cab.
Mitsubishi is bridging the gap to the new L200 with a run out version of the current model, the Challenger, which replaces the Trojan as the range’s base model. Priced from £16,499, Bradley describes it as “dead cheap”. He says the Challenger will overlap with the new model in order to give customers more choice and names the Isuzu D-max as its natural rival in the marketplace.
In contrast to many of its competitors in the pick-up sector, such as Ford (Ranger), VW (Amarok), Toyota (Hilux) and Nissan (Navara) Bradley points out that in volume terms the L200 is a key vehicle for Mitsubishi, expected to account for more than one-in-five (6000 in 27,000) of all its vehicle sales in 2015.
However, with PHEV technology on board the brand has an exciting new string to its bow giving it the potential to attack the market on a wider front.