Day one: The future is here. The future is a sort of SUV with large badges on the front wings that say PLUG IN HYBRID EV. There’s another big badge on the boot that says PHEV. It sounds like a terrorist organisation we’ve yet to encounter. Maybe a rival for current baddies, Lexus IS.
Anyway, the PHEV arrived chock full of electricity which means I can drive to the supermarket and back without once troubling the petrol engine. This feels rather brilliant. Quiet, smooth electric power for short local journeys but knowing you’ve got internal combustion on board if you need to go further. And all in a large five door car with space for people and a proper boot.
Day two: The PHEV is called a hybrid but it’s set up to behave as much as possible like a battery car. There are two electric motors, one on each axle, and if there’s juice in the batteries it trundles around on these. Unless you really floor it, in which case the 2-litre petrol engine kicks in to help out. Or, if the batteries are running low, the petrol engine can act as a generator to re-charge them while the car continues to move about on the electric motors. So at low to medium speeds the PHEV is driven by electricity with a petrol engine that helps out when it can. This seems to be a very sensible way of ordering things. If the petrol engine is doing its generator duty you barely notice it. Only when you really clog it do you hear the engine revving away. Another clever thing is the number of options you have over the way you use the technology. If you want to over-ride the computers and set the petrol engine to keep charging the batteries, there’s a button for that. And if you want to preserve the level of battery charge and use only the petrol engine to move about, there’s another button that makes it so. Today I’m driving up the A1 to Rutland. Keen to save my electricity until I’m back in town, I try this mode on the drive north. Running on petrol power alone, the car reckons it’s doing barely more than 30mpg. This is pretty poor. Turning off petrol-only mode and letting it decide its own hybridness bumps it up to 38mpg. Better, but still unimpressive.
Some other discoveries from driving the PHEV to Rutland. At certain points, usually on the approach to a roundabout, it suddenly makes a single bing noise almost exactly like the one you hear on planes when they turn off the seatbelt warning. As far as I can work out, the Outlander is not telling you it’s now safe to move around the cabin. In fact, I have no idea what it’s telling you. It’s definitely not the collision warning system, that makes a different, more panicky noise, and it’s not the beep you get from pushing almost any of the dashboard buttons, which is also different and even more annoying.
Day three: Another drive out of London, this time to Kent. The Outlander is still beeping at things. Its touchscreen stereo /nav unit likes a good beep too. What it doesn’t like is operating in a slick and visually pleasant way. In fact, it’s woefully slow and difficult to use. Unlike the seats which are very easy to use but not very comfortable. And the entire dashboard which feels like it was designed over 10 years ago. You know you sometimes read car journalists describing a car as ‘a nice place to be’? The Outlander is the opposite of that.
Day four: Today I’m going to the Belgian Grand Prix, ooh get me. I suppose I could have taken the PHEV but I was offered a Mercedes SL63 AMG instead so I’m going in that. Sorry.
Day five: Back from the Belgium, this time in a Mercedes E63 AMG S. The PHEV is waiting for me in a Kentish car park. After giving this some thought, I can exclusively reveal that the Mercedes E63 AMG S is a nicer car than the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (other statements of the frigging obvious available on request). This is partly because the Merc is very fun to drive. And partly because the Mitsubishi isn’t.
Day six: A trundle across London to my office at the BBC where I can plug in the Outlander in order to cruise home entirely on electric power. There is one tiny moment of joy when I go to plug in the car. The bag that contains the charging cables also contains a pair of blue rubber gloves, presumably for people afraid of getting electrocuted. This feels very thoughtful and quite Japanese. I wish there was more of this delightful and moderately bonkers stuff about the PHEV. But there isn’t. There really isn’t. I mean, it rides and handles. But only in the most literal sense. The suspension keeps the body from dragging along the floor and does a passable job of permitting the car to go around left and right handed bends. But that’s it. Otherwise, there’s just no joy about it. It feels like the future has been trapped inside a design from 1998.
Goodbye: If you have a charging point at home or at work it’s quite an attractive prospect to complete your commute without using any petrol yet knowing it’s there in reserve if you need it. This feels like a practical answer to reducing fuel bills and localised pollution. But it is absolutely the only attractive thing about the Outlander PHEV. Unless you count the price, which is no more than you would pay for an equivalent Outlander diesel. Mitsubishi thinks this makes it good value. Which it is, if you pre-suppose that your only car choice is some sort of Mitsubishi Outlander. And it really shouldn’t be. The PHEV system is very clever but it’s excellent technology fitted to a completely mediocre car.
The car talked about here is a Mitsubishi Outlander GX4hs. It has a 119bhp 2-litre petrol engine and two 80bhp electric motors. Mitsubishi says it can go from 0 to 62 in 11 seconds and on to 106mph. It costs £34,999 including a £5000 government grant.