ROAD TEST: Mitsubishi Pajero Sport 3.2 DI-D GLS
There is always going to be a trade-off when selecting a no-nonsense vehicle for off-road excursions, normally in the form of impracticality when it is used away from its first-choice role.
In recent years, many manufacturers have introduced a range of sports utility-vehicles which, whilst looking the part, prove unsuitable for anything but the simplest of tasks once taken off the tarmac. Unfortunately for the buyer, many of the 'soft-roaders' promise much, but deliver very little when taken to task.
And conversely, it is unfeasible to acquire a 'true' off-roader if it is only going to spend a fraction of its life performing its chosen role.
There are, however, a few vehicles which cover the middle ground - realistically able to handle the rough stuff, but also useable as day-to-day transport, and as a 'transporter' to and from your vacation destinations.
One such is Mitsubishi's Pajero Sport, until recently only available in 4-speed automatic mode, and which is now to be had in South Africa in a 5-speed manual variant.
A REAL OVERTAKER
Powered by the same 3.2-litre turbodiesel engine found in the popular Triton 4x4 bakkies, the Pajero Sport has sufficient grunt to cruise at motorways speeds, and the powerplant's 343Nm of torque gives it exceptional overtaking acceleration for a vehicle in this class, especially in those important 100 to 140km/h manoeuvres.
This is a Euro III diesel engine and can safely handle 500ppm diesel fuel.
Off road, the Pajero comes into its own. The suspension - bar-stabilised double-wishbone up front and 3-link coil at the rear - along with the exceptional torque from the diesel engine and four-way gear options, give the Pajero more than enough to handle most situations.
Though the gearbox may feel agricultural to some, we found the box solid and reassuring. The last thing one wants is a woolly or imprecise change.
The Mitsubishi box has four options available - 2WD, 4WD, 4WD with central diff lock, and low-range 4WD with rear diff lock - and proved sufficient to get us in, and out, of most situations. In addition, the gearbox shifts precisely, and on-the-fly, at up to 100km/h.
Unlike many previous-generation Mitsubishis, the Pajero's ratio-shifter is mounted on the driver's side of the gear lever, which means that changes can be made without the worry that the 5-speed shift is knocked out of gear.
An excursion to a mountain track, in low-range and with all the locks engaged, saw us traverse some steep slopes and obstacles, with the torquey diesel requiring very little input to keep us on track. A surprising (and welcome) feature of the Pajero was the turning circle - just 5.6m - which enabled us to negotiate hazards where other vehicles had to reverse and re-enter.
Ground clearance is 215mm, with approach and departure angles of 36 and 25 degree respectively.
Even ballasted with the equivalent of five adults and luggage, there was no discernable difference in the ride or handling of the Pajero either on or off road - if anything, a heavier set-up made the rear end of the vehicle more stable.
Because of the high stance of the vehicle, the predictable steering and the large 'greenhouse' layout of windows providing excellent all-round visibility, the Pajero Sport is easy to manoeuvre in tight spots, and the driver is also aided by park-distance control in the rear bumper. Electrical folding side mirrors are another feature which allows the Pajero to fit into tight spots more easily.
The dashboard layout is intuitive and the controls well marked and easily adjustable - dials are, if anything, oversized compared to the norm, which is a boon if the driver is on rough terrain or is wearing gloves.
Likewise, the leather-trimmed steering wheel feels solid, and the footwell is generous, so a driver with heavy boots is not going to be encumbered by the 'wrong' pedals.
COSY AT THE HELM
The electrically-operated drivers seat and tilt-adjustable steering wheel gives a wide range of positions, and even our 'portly' tester had no problem making himself comfortable. Likewise, our svelte candidate said she had no misgivings with the layout, and wasn't intimidated by driving the Mitsubishi.
Automatic climate control is standard, and a nice touch is venting which pushes the output to the centre and rear seat passengers if required.
A multi-function unit in the centre of the dashboard has a range of display features, including compass, barometer, altimeter, outside temperature, fuel consumption and range functions.
It also acts as a display for the 6-speaker audio unit, which is CD, MP3, iPod and USB compatible. Full audio controls are duplicated on the steering wheel, as are the cruise control selectors.
The interior, whilst practical, has a utilitarian and rugged layout, which will aid in cleaning, and features several storage compartments for essential items.
Seats are easily-cleanable leather, and durable plastic panels feature extensively in the loadbed area. There is also sufficient under-seat space for stowage.
ROOM FOR SEVEN
Internally, the Pajero Sport offers seven seats, with the centre seats split 60:40, and the rear pair folding down into the floor, giving the vehicle many different load- and passenger carrying options.
Access to the Pajero is first-rate, with wide-opening doors and sturdy grab handles, as well as rugged side steps to aid entering and exiting. The centre seats fold forward to give access to the rear units, though legroom there limits their use to short trips or smaller passengers.
There were no complaints about the ride comfort from backseat occupants, and because of the large windows and high seating, the observation potential wasn't compromised.
Load carrying capacity, especially with the seats folded, is vast - 416 litres with the centre seats in place, 1512 with them folded - and because the spare wheel is underslung, the rear sill is low and thus access to the load bed through the rear door doesn't require excessive lifting. The loadbed is also fitted with enough rugged tie-downs to keep heavy items from straying, as well as a heavy-duty 12V electrical output. Removable carpeting makes cleaning easy, and there are few nooks and crannies where items (and spillages) can escape to.
The capability of towing a 1500kg trailer (braked), is another of the Pajero Sport's practical benefits.
SIPPING IN THE LOW NINES
Fuel economy for a vehicle this size is fair, returning a combined figure of just over 11 litres/100km, but on our open-road runs we managed to beat that significantly, achieving low 9s. The fuel tank holds 74 litres, and thus a decent 650km+ range can be expected.
Mitsubishi engineers have paid plenty of attention to all aspects of active and passive safety. This ranges from the patented RISE (Reinforced Impact Safety Evolution) body construction to six airbags, anti-skid ABS brakes with electronic brake distribution and traction control. There are also good passive safety features like side impact beams and a collapsible steering column. To make the vehicle even easier to drive, and safer, the Pajero Sport comes standard with rain sensing windscreen wipers and dusk-sensing halogen headlights, as well as twin front driving lights.
Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by the Pajero Sport's abilities. As a jack-of-all-trades it does well, and it comes pretty close to matching the 'masters' when it comes to its sturdiness, off-roading ability, and durability.
Priced at R435 000 (R445 900 for the automatic version), the Sport comes with a 3-year warranty and 5-year service plan. Service intervals are at 10 000kms, and Mitsubishi currently has 57 dealers nationwide.