Mitsubishi is a brand that isn't very shy when it comes to off-roading. That's their prime expertise with their SUVs, perhaps the major reason why they've won so many Dakar Rally championships with the Pajero/Montero. Actually, the Mitsubishi Pajero has 12 Dakar titles to its name; more than any other model and more than any other manufacturer in the car class.
All that tech that stemmed from all the lessons they've learned in global competition is available in their 4x4 models such as the Strada and the Montero Sport. But it's one thing to know its there, and a whole other thing when you can experience and feel it for yourself.
To do that, Mitsubishi Motors Philippines held their 4x4 Camp at the newly built Tarlac Recreational Park, and they even brought the Strada and Montero Sport clubs to partake in a very unique experience; one that, chances are, most owners won't get to do.
For a weekend, the TRP and the Tarlac Circuit Hill became a Mitsubishi playground. And they maximized the opportunity to highlight the main technologies at their disposal to conquer the trickiest kinds of terrain.
Casual driving fun on the trail
A light off-road trail was mapped out around the circuit and track oval, which in the dry was easily done in 2WD mode aboard the Montero Sport, but in the wet 4WD was the order of the day, and it can be activated via the dials on the center console beside the parking brake. The 4x4 manual variants of the Montero Sport and the Strada have what Mitsubishi calls Easy Select 4WD, which basically has the more traditional 2H (Rear-wheel drive high), 4H (4WD high) and 4L (4WD low). But their true achievement lies in the Super Select 4WD II for the 4x4 automatic variants.
With Super Select 4WD II in 2H, the Montero Sport is best kept on normal roads; tarmac, concrete, perhaps even packed dirt in the dry. When the road gets trickier like when there's plenty of rain, activating 4H is best, as it affords the driver more control with a 40% of the torque sent to the front wheels while the rear gets 60%, the result of which is more traction, more control and ultimately, more confidence. Of course, there's also the 4L or 4WD low range, a mode best used for rock crawling or more challenging inclines or descents. But unlike the Easy Select in the manual models, the 4H and 4L on the Super Select system has sub-modes that lock the diff for maximum control on even more difficult paths.
On the trail you do feel very confident aboard the Montero Sport. What was truly different between the previous generation and this new model is the clean diesel engine. The 430 newton meters of torque from the 4N15 MIVEC turbo diesel allows the driver to easily power out of most situations. But what I did like was the silence and smoothness of the new powerplant; the reduced vibrations means the engine doesn't add to the undulations of the road, and the quietness means you can actually hear more of whats going on with the tires.
Big SUV, small circuit
After a few laps on the trail, I took a few lap of the compact circuit that they have on the other side of the park aboard another Montero Sport. What Mitsubishi wanted to illustrate was how they sorted out the handling of the SUV. It was only natural for them to do this, as they had Hiroshi Masuoka, one of the very few rally drivers in the world to have won the Dakar Rally twice and in consecutive years, to show us how to do it.
Tarlac Circuit Hill (TCH) was built by the provincial government to host motorcycle and kart races in an effort to keep riders off the streets. It was designed by 2003 Asian Formula 3 champion Pepon Marave to be very technical, making it very demanding on any car and requires focus on the driver to be quick over a lap or a race distance.
Despite being massive compared to what the track's limitations are, the Montero Sport exhibited the surefootedness that was tuned into the standard suspension; a surprise given the tight and supremely technical nature of the track's many corners. And if the suspension gets overwhelmed, Mitsubishi's driver aid tech kicks in; they call it M-ASTC, or Mitsubishi Active Stability and Traction Control.
It reads the vehicle using speed sensors on each wheel, measures the pitch and yaw, and reads the driver's intent by measuring the steering lock to determine how to best apply power or brakes. Yes it's very technical, but the concept behind M-ASTC is simple: intelligently manage the engine's performance, allocate power to the wheel that can use it, and adjust the braking force as needed, all to meet the driver's intentions and give him more control. And that's why the Montero Sport can traverse a track meant for go karts with ease.
Recce with Masuoka
But the real highlight of my day at Mitsubishi's 4x4 Camp was my ride with Masuoka on his reconnaisance (recce) run of the rally demonstration course. I had requested this ride from Mitsubishi for one reason: see how the two-time Dakar champion drives without any cameras rolling.
With a Mitsubishi Strada Fieldmaster with four passengers (two Mitsubishi executives, the clerk of course and myself), Masuoka set out to find and carve a route to better showcase the off-road capabilities of the Montero and Strada. Rally drivers are a different breed; most of the surfaces they drive over are unforgiving. Loose gravel, sand, packed dirt or even snow are the order of the day, and at the speeds they drive, they need a good co-driver to tell them the lay of the land three corners in advance. At least. Dakar drivers, however, are of a different level.
Unlike WRC where the course is fixed and uses existing roads, Dakar events are rally raids, meaning there are no roads or paths to speak of. It's up to the driver and co-driver to read the terrain and navigate their way through it. And that's the most remarkable skill that Masuoka possesses.
His experience allows him to instantly know how the tires (stock Strada tires, mind you) will perform over the rocks, the dirt, the grass and everything else in the way. And then when he has an idea of how fast he can take the high speed portions, he guns the throttle.
There really is no feeling in the world like a full speed, four-wheel drift with a Dakar champ at the wheel, instantly managing the throttle, the steering and the brakes to make the fully loaded Strada GT dance on the limit of traction... and with a ditch about 6 inches to our right. Still, he keeps at it, using the inertia to toss the truck into the next right hander over a mix of gravel and dirt, applying throttle to rotate the truck and making it behave as he wants to. And to think, this was a recce run.
Some may wonder: What's the point of this ride along?
The answer is simple: Masuoka is very much involved in the development of many of Mitsubishi's drivetrains and off-road tech. The reason why the Pajero, Outlander, Strada, Montero, and many other Mitsubishi models are so good off-road is because the brand involves their most successful drivers -like Masuoka- in the development process.
Their involvement raises the technical capabilities and limits of their cars, ultimately making them safer and better for those of us who just need them from A to B.