Mitsubishi's latest baby jumps on the small-crossover bandwagon

2011 Mitsubishi RVR GT 4WD(Photo: John LeBlanc)

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia - My late father was a two-door kind of guy. So despite needing to jam my younger brother, myself, our hockey gear, and maybe even an occasional friend three or four times a week to a local rink or the requisite monthly road trip to some out-of-town tournament, Dad drove a steady stream of Ford Fairlane, Pontiac Ventura and Oldsmobile Cutlass two-door coupes, eschewing the more practical but not as cool image of a four-door sedan or - gawd forbid! - a station wagon.

Of course, today, no self-respecting parent would subject themselves (or their kids) to such an impractical ride. In the same way casual Fridays replaced three-piece suits and skirts, or nylon backpacks instead of brief cases, practical is cool. Well, up to a point, at least.

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Which leads us to the new 2011 Mitsubishi RVR. With five doors, it's obviously no Mazda Miata. But as the latest in the burgeoning niche-within-a-niche small compact crossover segment, like the also-new-for-2011 Nissan Juke, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage and next spring's Mini Countryman, the Mitsubishi is a lifestyle statement. It's a new type of vehicle for buyers who don't want to be lumped in with the mom 'n dad image of the more practical Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4 or Chevrolet Equinox, but need a bit more utility than Roger LeBlancs of the past would have had to forego.

New RVR priced smaller than regular-sized compact crossovers

2011 Mitsubishi RVR GT 4WD(Photo: John LeBlanc)

The RVR shares the same wheelbase but no body panels with Mitsubishi's more conventional Outlander crossover. It's also significantly smaller in all dimensions. Whereas the Outlander can be specced with a third row and seats for seven, the RVR is strictly a two-row, five-seater. Available in two trim levels and either front- or all-wheel drive, the RVR is also significantly less expensive than its big brother, right in line with its chief rivals.

Whereas the Outlander starts at $25,498, the base 2011 RVR SE 2WD with a five-speed manual gearbox is $21,998. Standard kit is generous, including seven airbags, ABS with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist system, stability control, traction control, hill-start assist, and Bluetooth hands-free with streaming audio and USB integration with voice control. A $1,200 continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is optional on 2WD models.

To get four-wheel traction in an RVR (that can be changed from 2WD to 4WD and full-on power-distribution lock via a console-mounted dial), you need to opt for the $24,998 SE 4WD trim, which also includes the mandatory CVT. The topline RVR GT 4WD adds magnesium steering-wheel paddles, rain-sensing wipers, a panoramic roof, high-intensity-discharge headlights, larger wheels and tires, and other details for $28,498.

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Small Mitsu crossover offers premium exterior styling and driver-oriented cabin

2011 Mitsubishi RVR GT 4WD(Photo: John LeBlanc)

One look at the RVR and you can tell Mitsubishi designers took a more restrained approach than some of its rivals (i.e. the Juke). Its Lancer Evolution-inspired front end is balanced nicely with crisp lines and an overall perky stance. If a snobby German badge was stuck on the RVR's front grille, people wouldn't flinch.

Inside it only gets better. Not trying to reinvent the wheel, the RVR continues with solid, driver-oriented ergonomics found in other small Mitsubishis. Only topline RVR GT 4WDs were available on the two-day media drive that had us winding back and forth along Nova Scotia's scenic south shore Lighthouse Route. All RVRs benefit from a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, supportive and comfortable front seats and excellent fit and finish throughout. And compared to the Hyundai or Nissan competition, all-around outward visibility is excellent in the Mitsubishi, while the GT 4WD's standard panoramic roof lightens up the interior even on a cloudy day.

From a practical standpoint, all of the new Mitsubishi's interior dimensions are competitive, except for width; it's a bit narrow inside. The RVR offers a split, 60/40 rear bench with a pass-through in the middle that's perfect for my younger daughter's ringuette sticks. However its rear styling cuts down on cargo space. The Mitsu's maximum cargo room (1,402 litres), while space behind the rear seats (614 L) is about 10 per cent smaller than its Korean rivals, although there's considerably more on hand than in the tighter Nissan.

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Excellent fuel economy strangles RVR's performance

2011 Mitsubishi RVR GT 4WD engine(Photo: Mitsubishi)

While the RVR and its ilk offer less cargo room than standard crossovers, they also sip less at the pumps. As Tomoki Yanagawa, Mitsubishi Motor Sales of Canada's vice president of sales, marketing and corporate planning told the attending media, "While fuel prices have moderated from the highs of 2008 and 2009, Canadians still care about ongoing operating expenses and do consider fuel economy when choosing their next vehicle."

To that end, the RVR has been engineered to be light (with a 1,405 kg curb weight, it weighs considerably less than the Tucson, Sportage or Juke) and aerodynamic. The results are excellent: 8.4 L/100 km city and 6.6 L/100 km highway ratings for either 2WD or 4WD models when equipped with the CVT.

Unfortunately, the Mitsubishi's frugality comes at a cost. The RVR only comes with a 148 hp and 145 lb.-ft. feet of torque, 2.0-litre inline-four gas engine. That's about 30 to 40 horsepower and around 20 to 30 lb.-ft. less than its small crossover rivals. Despite its relatively light curb weight, with the RVR GT 4WD's throttle matted on a highway onramp, it took over 11 seconds to get from zero to 100 km/h. Plus the appliance-like whine from the CVT makes a sound like a load of laundry on spin cycle. There is an option: If you agree that a good set of snow tires and some winter driver training beats AWD and all-seasons - and can live without the extra goodies - the base RVR SE 2WD with its five-speed manual may be worth a try.