Mitsubishi's plug-in hybrid offers 4x4 fun without the thirst of an SUV
Outlandish Outlander The Outlander PHEV is the world's first petrol-electric 4x4 which you can charge via a wall socket. -- PHOTO: MITSUBISHI MOTORS

Mitsubishi is putting most, if not all, of its money into hybrid and electric cars.

While it is too early to determine if the strategy is paying off, one thing is clear: Its new-age cars are fun and affordable.

Take the i-MiEV subcompact, for instance. It is the first mass-produced electric car from a mainstream manufacturer (discounting General Motors' failed EV1 of the 1990s) and has been available in Japan since 2009.

The puny power ranger zips around with the enthusiasm of a hot hatch and the tarmac tenacity of a go-kart. Acceleration is strong, clean, seamless and almost endless.

With its bank of lithium batteries arranged below the floor, the car has the cornering confidence of a VW Golf GTI.

It is also the least expensive electric car, with prices starting from under US$13,000 (S$17,500) in the United States.

In Singapore, it is expected to be slightly more than $110,000 when it arrives in the second half of this year, making it cheaper than a Toyota Corolla Altis.

But for folks living in public housing, having an iMiEV may prove to be a tad challenging. Access to a parking space with a charging point is currently almost non-existent.

Which brings us to Mitsubishi's other green car: the Outlander PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) - the world's first petrol-electric 4x4 which you can charge via a wall socket.

A full charge, which takes about five hours from a regular household power source, gives you a full-electric range of 52km in ideal conditions.

But on a hot day with the airconditioning blasting and the traffic stopping and starting, you should get around 30km - which is adequate for most people to get to work and back without a trace of CO2 leaving the tailpipe.

But even if the day calls for lots of back-to-back trips and unscheduled airport runs, there is no worry of running out of juice. Before the batteries are depleted, the car's 2-litre combustion engine kicks in.

The five-seater will then operate like a regular hybrid vehicle, alternating between its two electric motors mounted on the front and rear axles, and its petrol engine.

In this dual mode, the test-car manages to cover more than 14km for each litre of fuel, which is fairly decent for a full-size all-wheel-drive.

If the all-electric range is included in the calculation, the car is said to be capable of 50km or more on a litre.

Although that sounds overly optimistic, the fact is that it is quite possible to carry on without visiting a petrol station if your daily distance does not exceed 30km.

But unlike a pure electric vehicle, you are able to drive the PHEV to Kuala Lumpur and beyond if you feel like it.

On the go, the Outlander PHEV is as refined as other plug-in hybrids tested, such as those from Porsche and BMW.

You can tell when the engine is in operation, but the interplay between the engine and the two motors takes place seamlessly. So much so that it is hard to tell if the engine, when engaged, is driving the wheels or powering a generator strapped next to it to juice up the batteries.

The car is constantly in all-wheel- drive mode, with the rear axle driven permanently by the 195Nm motor and the front axle powered by either the engine or the 137Nm motor or both.

The trio allows the 1.8-tonne Outlander to feel fairly lively in most situations, thanks to the ample availability of torque.

It has the driving characteristics of a car equipped with a continuously variable transmission, but the Mitsubishi actually does not have a gearbox. Well, not in the traditional sense, anyway.

On either axle, there is a flexible single-speed e-transmission by British engineering group GKN (which also supplies a two-speed e-gear to BMW for its i8).

Often, using the car's adaptive cruise control is the way to go. Set the speed and the distance between you and the vehicle in front and leave the car to its devices.

It may be a little leisurely in resuming its pre-set velocity when the gap in front widens, but this is so that it can maximise its efficiency.

Mitsubishi agent Cycle & Carriage will start offering the car for sale when the facelift arrives early next year. If its iMiEV is anything to go by, it should be competitively priced.