The Right Stuff
In the course of a year, suffice it to say we drive a lot of cars. That's the job.
We drive them in all kinds of conditions available to us like in rain and in searing heat, on fast roads and slow, frustrating traffic. We evaluate them based on how they stack up to our expectations, and how they stack up to their primary competitors. We're critical of the vehicles we drive because we know you want to know the good -most especially our criticisms- about every car, van, SUV, truck, or even sports cars.
But there are times -albeit very, very rare- that we come across a model that we absolutely like, above all others in its class and price range, so much so that we give them a perfect score, or at least a grade that's very close to it.
One such example is this: the 2019 Mitsubishi Xpander GLS.
Lately, we've been getting excited about the small seven-seat Asian MPV and SUV class. Yes, technically they're different, but they're all priced in the same range and they're all related (in a manner of speaking) that we can consider them as one big and fast growing group that it's becoming a Royal Rumble of sorts. Every volume carmaker wants to get in on the action.
Of course we know of the Toyota Avanza and the SUV version, the Rush. There's the pairing of the Mobilio and BR-V from Honda. The Ertiga MPV, fresh from its launch, is also in the mix from the Suzuki corner. And now we have the Xpander, from Mitsubishi. Personally, I haven't driven the Ertiga yet, but I'll put this out there: the Xpander, in this GLS form, is exceptionally impressive.
The Xpander is unique amongst these little giants in that blurs the lines between MPV and SUV. Two birds, one stone; that's the Xpander. Dimensionally, the Xpander actually stands out as it is easily the biggest amongst the little SUVs and MPVs thanks to its 4475mm length (the closest one is the BR-V at 4456mm) and the widest at 1750mm. The Rush edges out the Xpander's 1700mm height by just 5mm.
Even in terms of ground clearance, the Xpander is actually excellent amongst its peers: at 205mm, only the Rush can go over taller obstacles with its 220mm clearance. Even the BR-V, a model marketed as an SUV, sits lower than the Xpander at 201mm. But perhaps the biggest advantage the Xpander has that's measured in millimeters is the wheelbase: at 2775mm, the Xpander has a clear edge over the Rush (2685mm), the BR-V (2662mm), the Avanza (2655mm), the Mobilio (2652mm), and the much newer Ertiga (2740mm). Those who are unfamiliar with the significance of having a longer wheelbase, I'll explain it in a few paragraphs' time.
Not everyone is a fan of Mitsubishi's new design, but personally, I like the direction that Mitsubishi is going for in their bigger vehicles, and the Xpander is perhaps a shining example of that. Mitsubishi is actually one of the few carmakers wherein the concept car is almost directly translated into the production car you see in showrooms. That's true of the Lancer Evolution X (and Lancer EX) when it was developed from the Concept X, and that's also true of the Xpander when it was developed from the Concept XM. It's like you can actually bring home a cool concept car. I do wish that Mitsubishi carried over the rear design of the Concept XM into the Xpander, but I guess we all have to make a few compromises.
Where the Xpander really impresses is in the interior: it's very spacious. Of course the Xpander is the widest and longest amongst its peers, and that naturally lends the Xpander the potential to be spacious inside, but perhaps what's more important is how Mitsubishi maximized it.
The simplest way to describe it is that Mitsubishi borrowed a page from the Honda playbook when it came to small vehicle design. Take, for instance, the Jazz; in that vehicle, the engine is practically under the dashboard. The hood in the Jazz only covers up a little bit of the engine bay, and the A-pillars -if stretched out- go past the front wheels. This configuration gives the designers of the Jazz -and in this case, the Xpander- a big advantage when it comes to space.
From the driver's seat and inspecting the dash, I honestly can't tell whether I'm looking at plastic, or some kind of soft touch material. Given that it's an economy “crossover-MPV”, the dashboard, the door sidings, and many other surfaces are indeed made of hard plastic, but somehow Mitsubishi's execution just speaks of impeccable quality. The texturing -particularly the matte finish- can deceive the eyes into thinking it's some kind of soft leather. Heck, they even nailed it when it came to the simulated thread texturing on the fake “stitches”.
The more I fiddle with the controls and explore the front row of this Xpander GLS, the more that I realize how well thought out it is. The gauges are clear and straightforward, as is the 2-DIN multimedia unit at the center of the dashboard which comes with Bluetooth, navigation, even screen mirroring via Wifi. The A/C system is a manual dial type, but it's got power and manages the temperature well, even without window tint to help. Underneath the A/C controls next to the USB and 12-volt socket is a two-tier pocket where I can fit my phone and wallet, and any extra loose bits can go in the little compartment underneath. There's a long pocket above the glove compartment in front of the front passenger for phones, wallets, and any everything else in between. There's even a rather deep compartment between the two front seats for, well, anything else you can think of. Yes, the Xpander's front cabin was very well though out by people who understand a modern driver's requirements.
I hop in the middle row, and I actually liked it. The ceiling-mounted air circulator is powerful, and the seats are quite plush. There's even a folding, full-size armrest on this GLS for the middle row, effectively simulating a pair of captain's seats. Perhaps what surprised me was the third row. Normally a guy of my size (and waistline) will be extremely uncomfortable there, but it's not so bad. And if you happen to be sitting at the very back, you'll also have your own 12-volt socket so you can charge your phone; again, Mitsubishi really thought this Xpander through.
One more key factor with the Xpander is the ease with which the two rows in the back fold, and the space they generate. There's a good bit of space for a few bags in the back with the third row up, definitely more than the token space offered by its competitors when fully occupied with passengers. But the important thing with the Xpander is that the rear seats were designed to fold down flat, creating a load space that is unhindered all throughout for 1.75 meters. Only the much newer Ertiga can compete in terms of having a flat load space.
Starting the Xpander GLS is literally as easy as pressing a button; Mitsubishi likes having push-button ignition systems wherein you can keep the key in your pocket, and that's something we really like. The engine itself is perhaps what gathered some mixed reviews: it's just a 1.5-liter MIVEC gasoline engine. That makes for 105 PS of power and 141 Nm of torque driving the front wheels. A diesel would have been much better, but Mitsubishi doesn't have a small displacement diesel in our market. Another mixed bag on paper is the 4-speed automatic; yes, there's something odd about having a 4-speed auto in this day and age, but the name of the game in an economy MPV or SUV is economy. An older tech 4-speed is simply more economical to produce, but again, it won't be a negative if they executed it well in the Xpander. And they really did.
I didn't expect much for acceleration, but the 4-speed does respond quickly to inputs from my right foot and settles into the highest gear quickly for economy. There's still the overdrive mode, and it works well to give a bit more economy at higher cruising speeds. Fuel economy is something the Xpander does well; the 1.5-liter engine and 4-speed perform well in the city, returning 9.2 km/l (23 km/h average), 8.6 km/l (20 km/h average), and 7.4 km/l (17 km/h average). Mind you, there were only two of us in the vehicle, so expect those numbers to drop with more passengers and weight. On the highway, the Xpander did well too, returning 14.8 km/l (86 km/h average) if you're mindful of your throttle inputs and speed.
The refinement of the Xpander, however, has to be the single key characteristic that you will undeniably enjoy on a daily basis. In the economy MPV or SUV class, you have to be prepared for a few compromised particularly with NVH, or noise-vibration-harshness lessening. Mitsubishi didn't play it that way though. The Xpander impresses again, especially considering its price tag; ambient noise doesn't penetrate into the cabin anywhere near much as competitor models like the Rush. Tire noise is also minimal; the Xpander is fitted with Bridgestone Ecopia tires on all four corners, and we know these to be very good. The suspension's performance is also great; you don't need sacks of rice to get a good ride. But there's more to it than just damping.
Remember what I said about wheelbase? Well, having a longer wheelbase generally means better straightline stability at speed) and, more importantly, generally indicates a much better ride. The impact that a longer wheelbase has on ride comfort is that if you hit a bump or pothole or other road imperfection, the extra gap gives the front suspension that little bit time to settle before the rear wheels run over the same bump, pothole, or road imperfection. If there are two vehicles that you're comparing that have the exact same shock absorbers, springs, and chassis rigidity, the vehicle with the longer wheelbase is likely to have the better ride. That is an advantage that many salespeople don't generally tell you about a vehicle.
Cornering is also a strong suit. The Xpander may not have been meant to carve corners, but it's definitely not a handful when the road ahead gets a bit twisty and fun. There's a fairly confident nature about the Xpander's steering, braking, tire grip, and weight management. Of course, that could change with more passengers, but it's good to know that the Xpander has really good bones underneath.
If it sounds like I'm raving about the Xpander GLS, I really am. If I were to nitpick, there are things I wish it had like stability control (that's reserved for the Xpander GLS Sport, with the body kit), more airbags, or even an automatic climate system, but the A/C works very well, you still have two airbags, and the ABS is more than enough for the speeds you should be driving it. Features can be added, but what got to me the most was how Mitsubishi nailed the engineering and development of the Xpander; that's something that can't really be fixed after the fact.
Very rarely does a carmaker get a model so very right, and it comes as no surprise that Nissan was eager to get their own version of it via the Alliance. The Xpander is also very competitively priced too. This GLS comes in at PhP 1,110,000; almost squarely between the Toyota Rush 1.5G 4AT at PhP 1,090,000 and the Honda BR-V 1.5V CVT at PhP 1,149,000. If you ask your dealer, don't be surprised if there are some very attractive offers available.
The Rush has its merits when it comes to features and value, and the BR-V certainly has its merits in terms of driving performance, but if you ask me, the Xpander in GLS form is the one I would pick everyday of the week, and twice on Sunday.