Black tie or black leather, whatever the pleasure, Christopher Tan recommends Mitsubishi's latest adventure
Dirty torque

IN EVERY SUV (sport-utility vehicle) driver, there is a Lara Croft or an Indiana Jones dying to get out. Let's face it, why else would anyone living in an urban biosphere like ours need these bruisers of cruisers?

They have lumpy rides, poor cornering confidence and a huge thirst. And lately, they are accused of being a big threat to other motorists, especially those in Minis, Reliant Robins (none here, thankfully) or Ferraris.

That's generally and relatively speaking, of course. For all their warts, SUVs offer great visibility (until everybody starts driving one, that is), immense versatility (they will go where no sedan has gone before) and most relevantly, project an image of invulnerability. For some individuals, the last factor is a combination of mine's-bigger-than-yours superiority, you'd-better-give -way-or- else aggression, and a touch of I'm-taking- two-lots- so-bite -me attitude.

But for the majority of civilisation, buying an SUV is often a choice born of boredom. If I may be John "Biscuit" Cage for a moment here, I'd say Modern Man is sick and tired of logic. Getting into a gifted school was logical, reading (list any top five courses) at Oxford was logical, joining an MNC was logical, getting married was logical, stopping at two was logical, getting the kids into a gifted school was logical, etcetera, ad nauseam.

So, besides dying one's hair platinum, the safest way to give in to the rebellious streak is to buy an SUV. To cater to the growing number of curb climbers, almost every carmaker has gone into the segment. Alas, most products on offer these days are not as multi-terrain or multi-task as their brochures profess. In fact, most of them are made for paved roads, which studies have shown 90 per cent of SUV drivers never leave.

For weekend Macho Men and Jungle Janes, the crop of credible multi-terrain vehicles is limited indeed. But the best discovery here yet is Mitsubishi's new Pajero. First launched in 1982, it has grown to become a favourite workhorse in places such as Malaysia and Bangladesh as well as a top recreational choice in far more developed markets.

That should give you an indication of the Pajero's versatility. The product is known as Shogun in some markets and Montero in others. The reason, apparently, has to do with Pajero sounding like Spanish slang for a solitary activity commonly associated with healthy young men who are in between relationships.

But I stray. The Pajero is a marvellous machine that feels like no other SUV I've tried. Firstly, for a tall bulky roller, it rides exceedingly well, matching the comfort offered by the better minivans around. Road noise is minimal and wind noise only intrudes at speeds close to the max.

Independent multi-link suspension and thick 265/70R16 tyres contribute greatly to its ride comfort. The well laid-out and surprisingly plush interior - with luxuries such as electrically-adjustable seats and separate rear air-conditioning - completes the job.

And the car isn't as heavy as it appears, weighing in empty at 2,000kg - lighter than flagships from Mercedes-Benz or BMW. So consumption is not as great an issue as I thought.

The Pajero is not a Porsche, and as long as you don't drive it like one, it will sweep round most bends in a steely fashion. And you can always select the all-wheel-drive mode for more surefootedness. What I don't like about it, though, is its truck-like steering, which essentially requires laboriously more turns than in most cars.

Torque is adequate on the road and simply amazing on a steep grassy slope. It has little trouble keeping up with traffic, despite its seemingly modest acceleration statistics. For one, you will have no qualms pushing its willing three-litre V6 to the hilt. It has a smooth and steady delivery throughout the rev range, and is surprisingly quiet and vibration-free at its peak 6,000rpm. Gear changes are surprisingly seamless and quite adaptive - a trait often associated with luxury sedans. 

A separate lever next to the auto shift-gate selects four drive modes. There's a basic rear-wheel-drive for normal dry paved roads; and an all-wheel-drive for less ideal conditions such as when the roads are wet. Next, there's an all-wheel-drive with centre differential lock for even distribution of power to front and rear wheels to tackle modest offroad trails (or snow-covered roads); and an ultra-low all-wheel-drive with differential lock when the going gets really tough.

While I normally do not bother to take SUVs off the beaten track, there are exceptions and the Pajero is one of them. An open field off Paya Lebar presented just the opportunity. In the third drive mode, the car climbed the high curb with a muted shudder. And on the dew-covered grass, it felt totally at home, exhibiting none of the tail-straying antics of milder models.

But the true test was what looked like a 40-degree slope that leads back to the pavement. Although just the distance of three-car lengths, I've never considered it in any of the 4x4's I've driven.

I stopped the Pajero, put it to Neutral, and pushed the second shorter lever to that high-torque mode made for such situations. With heart in mouth and sweat in hand, I approached the slope at below 10kmh and made the ascent.

Halfway, the Pajero and gravity struck a stalemate. The car's headlights fixed on a nearby HDB block, illuminating a couple of flats on the fifth floor. Thinking that the whole exercise might not have been such a good idea after all, I pressed on nonetheless. With just a hint of wheelspin, the big thumper clambered up the rest of the way and was in an instant back on the road again. Whew!

Unlike the mechanical transfer case in previous models, drive-mode selection is now electronic; and the first three modes can be activated on the go. Quite effortless. Which is the overall feeling you get about the Pajero.

From the side steps that make mounting the behemoth a little less daunting to the enormous and sensibly-designed cabin to its cruise control, this big Mitsubishi is what you'd expect of a Japanese product - functional, friendly and foolproof.

It has a host of storage compartments, including a broad armrest between the front seats that doubles up as a two-tier console box. There are ample drink holders located throughout, as well as two 12-volt sockets and an electronic meter that displays a myriad of information. There is a compass, an altimeter, a graphic showing individual tyre grip, and a maintenance schedule for various components. However, like most SUVs, it doesn't tell you the severity of a slope.

But I suspect most buyers here would not be too concerned with the Pajero's offroad prowess. Nor the fact that it feels better built and finished than any Land Rover (the "undisputed king" of 4x4s), and is more comfortable by a long shot.

They'll find other traits of the car more endearing, not the least of which is its seven-seat accommodation. The two optional seats in the third row will take adults and they face the front, unlike variations found in the Land Rover or Daewoo Musso models. The second and third rows are foldable, as in most MPVs these days. The car's new exterior will also win points. Overall, it appears more rounded, with beefy wheel arches that are quite novel for its genre.

But in my book, the new Pajero's impeccable manners on as well as off road, not to mention its suite of an interior, make it a worthy contender in the $200,000+ segment. Strangely, logic seems to apply.

Suite interior: flexible seating from the Pajero