As we speak, the “truck wars”, so named by Nissan Philippines' president Toti Zara, is raging on. With the new Strada, Navara, and Hilux launched within just months of each other, it's undoubtably a good time be in the market for a pickup.

Yet in just a few months, the “SUV wars” will soon begin. Ford has already hit the ground running with its Everest. Toyota will unveil their highly anticipated Fortuner in January.

Here, on a cold autumn morning in Japan, just a day after the opening of the 44th Tokyo Motor Show, we find ourselves at the Fuji Gane Off-Road Park, a good two hours away from the city, having been shuttled here via a late night bus ride.

Parked by the tents at the staging area is a gleaming row of all-new Mitsubishi Montero Sports, with various engines and trim levels. It's the first crack at the highly-anticipated SUV, Mitsubishi's best-selling model, and key to maintaining it's number 2 spot in the Philippines' sales standings.

New Montero Sports at Fuji Gane Off-road Park

This marks its third generation, radically evolving from its origins, to its current iteration as a mid-size, 7-seater, rugged SUV. Its predecessors' exceptional sales have produced a wide diversity of buyers, tastes and expectations. This makes it all the more difficult for Mitsubishi engineers to meet them all, or even surpass them.

Styled for speed

Nonetheless, the result is already impressive. The Montero Sport will be the first Mitsubishi vehicle in the Philippines to bear the “dynamic shield” design language that hopes to communicate ruggedness and strength, while at the same time, coddling the passengers inside. Four shields (top, bottom, and sides) converge at the facade, resulting in a subtle outline of an anvil, made by the headlights, grille and lower valence. Daytime running light LEDs underline HID projector headlamps. Part of the grille creeps into the headlight cluster. While down below, foglamps are encased in pods at the corners.

Much of the design is aimed to communicate speed, from the wheel flares inspired by sports cars, tapered window graphic, to the side skirts that integrate step boards. Behind, tail lights are practically shaped like vertical wingtip fins, stretching down toward the bumper with tall reflectors. The tail gate itself is wide and convex for easier loading.

The Montero Sport going through a fast section of the track. 

Inside, hints of that “dynamic shield” styling can be gleamed as well. It's seen in the four-spoke steering wheel, the brushed aluminum accents of the center console and the boomerang door handles. Piano black inlays make for appropriate contrast and add a more luxurious finish. For the Philippines, Mitsubishi will bring in the all-black interior setup, which includes a leather wrapped steering wheel and quilted leather door panels for top trim models.

Gauges are an easy-to-read white on black with very few frills. The center LCD features the familiar digital temp and fuel gauges with multi-info display. Customers can expect a touch screen system with navigation. It will have dual zone climate control on high-spec models. On the center divider sits a more plush gear selector, inspired by those on luxury sedans. Below it is the Super Select 4WD II selector, just like the Strada. It's flanked by the Hill Descent button and the off-road mode selector that toggles through various preset terrain types like Sand, Mud/Snow, Gravel, and Rocks.

Gauges of the new Montero Sport 

Over in the back sits a wide second row bench with a fold-down armrest and 60/40 split folding. Passengers will notice the larger shoulder room here. Air condition vents for this row are positioned on the ceiling, by the folding handles. The seats tumble forward to grant easier access to the third row. There's also a new handle on the door pillar for passengers to grab on to when entering.

The third row itself now folds truly flat. It stows via a two-stage process where the seat cushions are first flipped forward before the seat backs fold down to make a flat space. These seats have their own air con vents just above the wheel well, which have their own blower switch and are exceptionally strong. And while it's far from the comfort of the second row, the deep footwell makes it far more tolarable.

With these seats folded, the Montero Sport can also easily accommodate bulky cargo with hooks concealed in the floor. There's also provisions for an optional cargo tonneau cover. Just by the door is a built-in trunk organizer for smaller items.

Potent power

The new 2.4-liter MIVEC turbo diesel engine 

Yet another element Mitsubishi has changed is the powertrain. The Montero Sport will be propelled by the new 4N15 2.4-liter Mivec turbo diesel engine. Thanks to MIVEC and a variable geometry turbo, this smaller engine produces 181 Ps at 3,500 rpm and an impressive 430 Nm at 2,500 rpm. This is paired with a new 8-speed automatic transmission (with paddle shifters) and Super Select 4WD II system. It has independently lockable center and rear differentials, making for a wider variety of 4x2 and 4x4 configurations.

Besides these, Mitsubishi has also been listening to customer feedback, improving the steering to return a quicker and tighter ratio and turning circle, as well as fitting drum-in-disc brakes in the rear wheels. It also has a water wading depth of 700mm.

Dizzying tech

Even more improvements have been added to the safety department. In addition to the usual ABS and airbags, the Montero Sport also comes with a new active stability and tractin control system, capable of individually braking each wheel to control the vehicle's yaw or forward traction.

There's Hill Start and Hill Descent systems too, with the latter capable of adapting its speed to brake and throttle inputs by the driver.

Much of these will be found on the new trim levels the Montero Sport will come in: GT (4x4) and various GLS grades (4x4 and 4x2). The top trim will naturally come with collisin mitigation systems like Blind Spot Warning, and Forward Collision Mitigation (a sensor-driven Auto Stop system).

Finally, there are also comfort features included like a push-button start, electronic hand brake, guide-me-home lights, emergency stop signals (repeatedly flashes the brake lights under hard braking), and auto folding mirrors among others. The only thing lacking in our test units is a power moonroof, though the Philippine models will have it as an option.

Needless to say, all these improvements made us all the more eager to try out the Montero Sport on the off-road course prepared.

Tough test

The Montero Sport entering the 4x4 track 

First off was the 4x2 on a mild track with steep drops and climbs but significantly less of the slippery stuff. The light 4x2 expectedly pulled away easily, with the 8-speed automatic riffling through the gears and keeping revs low. The throttle did feel a tad light, and the engine, eager to rev, but the brakes were very reassuring, stopping the car far shorter than expected. Going down the steep incline, the brakes in the rear had activated a few times, no doubt part of the stability control system keeping things in check.

Having familiarized ourselves with the vehicle, we moved on to the 4x4, with a course that incorporated even longer, steeper climbs and drops. These were all chosen to show off the vehicle's off-road mode programs.

Before setting off, we simply set the Super Select to 4HLc and the off-road mode to gravel. A display in the center multi-info display highlights the wheels driven in green and differential in amber, aside from the Super Select setting and off-road program. It also shows which wheel is losing traction via a blinking light.

The course was far from easy, with steep 40 degree climbs, large rocks and even more intimidating drop offs in some parts. Nevertheless, the Montero Sport made it all seem like child's play. Keeping steady pressure on the throttle, the automatic ensured revs hovered between 1,500 rpm and 2,000, barely calling forth the 430Nm of torque on tap. The suspension did well to mute much of the rocks and bumps. And thankfully, Mitsubishi's choice of hydraulic steering over a newer Electronic Power Steering system returned great feedback on the trail underneath.

By the time we crested the highest point, it was time to turn on the Hill Descent Control and allow the vehicle to roll down the long hill. It starts off conservatively, keeping speeds just below 10 km/h. Yet this adaptive system allows the driver to speed it up or slow down, just by pressing a tad more on the throttle or brake. It still overrides the driver and slows it down on the steepest descent angles, just to be safe. The Hill Descent will then regulate itself to that speed, individually braking each wheel.

The bottom of the course featured a much flatter area where we could take on some of the bumps at higher speeds. Thanks to the steep approach and departure angles, there weren't any fender benders at all. The course also integrated a banked coner where we could tip the car to its side as much 45 degrees.

The Montero Sport going through alternating 'moguls' 

The last part of the course featured 'moguls' — alternating bumps that would test the vehicle's articulation and traction control. When viewed from the outside, the Montero Sport showed a lot of articulation, fairly competitive with dedicated off-road SUVs. We were still on 4HLc through this part, yet there was no need to shift to 4LLc or lock any rear differential thanks to the intelligent off-road program that transfers torque to where it's needed.

I tried the course again, shifting to 4L and locked rear differentials at the more difficult sections. And while it was slower going, there was considerably less wheel spin, 4HLc with the gravel program managed fine and with much less hassle.

Flying finish

The Montero Sport being driven by Dakar champion, Hiroshi Masuoka.

As a final treat, the day ended a heart-pounding ride with Mitsubishi's Dakkar-winning driver, Hiroshi Masuoka. We half expected him to use a specially prepared Montero, yet he hopped into the very same unit we used. Volunteers jumped in the car for a high-speed, heart-pounding ride through parts of the same course that saw the Montero Sport sliding, drifting, and even going airborne at one point. He did as many as four runs with the car not even looking any worse for wear.

And perhaps that served as a testament to Mitsubishi's confidence in their new Montero Sport. The course, especially when taken at high speed, no doubt gave the car one hell of a beating. And yet after, the very same vehicle was positioned for a photo session with the driver.

Indeed, buyers have waited a long time for the Montero Sport, and judging by this off-road drive, it will be well worth it. The improvements are truly leaps and bounds, particularly in the off-road area and safety technology. We have yet to drive the new Fortuner, but as early as now, it seems like it's going to be quite the battle between Ford and Mitsubishi.

The all-new Montero Sport will be launched in January next year, with more complete trim levels, specifications and prices to follow. In addition, the outgoing Montero Sport will be sold alongside it, for a few months after the new model's launch.

Hiroshi Masuoka beside two all-new Mitsubishi Montero Sport units.