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Mitsubishi Montero goes high-tech, high-lux for 2001

Mitsubishi Montero goes high-tech, high-lux for 2001

”What does it take?“ has to be the question of the hour for Mitsubishi executives on the eve of the 2001 Montero’s April debut. This stalwart amongst full-size sport/utility vehicles boasts an 18-year track record, a trophy case full of off-road competition honors (particularly for its near domination of the famed Paris-Dakar Rally), and a sales surge in 1999 of almost 25 percent. But those sales totaled a mere 5,115 last year, scarcely two-thirds of the results for rarefied Range Rovers costing twice as much. Amongst full-size SUVs—in a market characterized by almost irrational, indiscriminate demand for these hulking brutes—the Montero is pointedly off the pace. It can scale the dunes of Mauritania’s Trarza wastelands; it just can’t seem to find its way into yuppie garages in North America.

No wonder, then, that Mitsu is one of the early announcers of a new vehicle for the 2001 model year. Starting afresh with a nearly blank sheet of paper, Mitsubishi unveils a brand-new Montero that gives nothing away in the technical capabilities department while nevertheless looking for love in all the right places. Gilt with such marketing slogans as ”rugged yet refined,“ ”toughness with style,“ and even ”brutiful,“ the 2001 Montero is determined to transform itself into a status buy.

I can tell you a thing or two, by the way, about the new Montero’s Scamper Factor: In the unforgiving arroyos and sierras of the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson, Ariz., Mitsubishi recently turned loose a gaggle of auto writers in their new Monteros. For starters, I drove an ”entry level“ XLS model (base: $30,997) through a variety of highway and unpaved conditions. But it was in a fully equipped Limited version (base: $34,997) that I tackled the most technically demanding scramble up and down a mountainside at walking speeds and often with only three wheels on the ground.

I marveled in particular at one ”turtle section“ of alternating boulders, at which all four independently suspended wheels were deflected one by one for their full range of travel. Nefariously, the route required that I negotiate a 45-degree, precision turn while suspended against my shoulder strap facing downward, toward what felt like a purely vertical trajectory. With a gentle thump, the right rear wheel at last regained its purchase on loamy sand, and with the Limited’s standard-equipment ActiveTrac drive system set to Low/Low, I then proceeded to climb a sheer, near-vertical trail of schist and boulder, with each wheel slipping, catching, clawing in chaotic, random rhythm.

Not your typical drive to the day-care center, in other words. Which is why many of the trappings of this new Montero have less to do with backwoods survival than with surviving the daily commute. The seven-speaker, Infinity-designed sound system with 175-watt, five-channel amp is a case in point. So is the Limited’s five-speed automatic tranny with a Sportronic clutchless shifting feature. The automatic smooths acceleration into scarcely palpable upshifts, while Sportronic lets one indulge an occasional Walter Mitty celebration of banging manually through the gears, rally-racer style. (I, for one, am especially prone to such fantasies, and yet I found the Montero’s Sportronic shifts somewhat less instantaneous or smooth than other competing designs.)

An undisputed Montero strength is its standard seating for seven. This is accomplished with a so-called Stow & Go two-seater bench in the third row. Like similar executions in the Dodge Durango SUV and Honda Odyssey minivan, this little benchlet implodes upon itself and folds flush to the floor beneath the cargo deck. Unique to Mitsubishi, however, is the ability to remove Stow & Go altogether, leaving behind a relatively deep storage well that further increases a cargo space already 15 cu. ft. greater than before. It would be wrong to assign seven adult passengers to a new Montero for cross-country voyaging, however. Let’s just say that the rearmost benchlet is more fitting for the kiddies who think of their tree house as a palace.

Primary seating in the front buckets and second-row bench, by contrast, is Business Class expansive. Even three adults in the middle row will have few complaints over the long haul, since Montero has increased hip and shoulder room by 3 and 2.6 inches, respectively. Indeed, it is the dance of dimensional digits that is perhaps the Montero’s most striking, if understated, accomplishment for 2001. Outside, the vehicle is longer and wider, with more ground clearance, even though overall height and turning radius are trimmed. Inside, all passenger dimensions (head, leg, hip, and shoulder) are increased, and total cargo is up to 82 cu. ft. (with second- and third-row benches folded), yet step-in height is reduced by virtually the same amount that ground clearance has grown.

New unibody construction is no doubt largely responsible for these improvements in space management, as it is also for strengthening the Montero’s overall structure. Beyond the safety implications of a stouter enclosing cabin, moreover, there are the additional welcome benefits of better ride with less NVH (noise, vibration, harshness). There are 175 watts and seven speakers vying for the occupants’ attention, after all.

As of the Montero’s February media debut, the big news, of course, was the vehicle’s impending arrival at showrooms in time for an April on-sale date. Now that buzz is heightened in pitch by the revelation last week of DaimlerChrysler’s purchase of a one-third controlling interest in Mitsubishi. While there’s a good bit to like throughout the Mitsubishi lineup lately, it’s tempting to think that the D/C folks had their eyes particularly on this new Montero. It’s the roomy, technically proficient, yet luxuriously behaving SUV that neither Dodge nor Jeep nor even Mercedes-Benz can defensibly claim to have offered on their own so far.

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