(Pocket-lint) - The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV has consistently topped the list of the UK's best-selling plug-in hybrid vehicles ever since it first appeared in 2014. Outwardly, not a great deal has changed since then, but under the skin the Outlander has benefited from a series of significant revisions, the most recent of which came in the summer of 2018.
Changes for the latest model include a new 2.4-litre Atkinson cycle petrol engine, a 15 per cent increase in battery capacity (now up to 13.8 kWh) and more power for the rear-mounted electric motor. A second electric motor works in conjunction with the petrol engine on the front axle, providing permanent all-wheel drive, while a third motor acts purely as a generator - allowing the Outlander PHEV to recharge itself on the move.
Elsewhere, the suspension has been revised to deliver better ride quality and the steering has been re-tuned to improve response. Meanwhile, there are a raft of minor changes to the interior, including a new front seat design and a new instrument cluster.
What's it like inside?
There's a no-nonsense feel to the Outlander PHEV's cabin. Material quality has taken a step up compared to the old model and it's generally well laid out. However, the German premium brands certainly won't lose any sleep over it, despite Mitsubishi's prices that are edging into BMW X3 or Mercedes GLC territory.
It's a similar story with the infotainment system. The 7-inch touchscreen display responds reasonably well and it's quite intuitive to use, but the graphics feel a generation behind some of its competitors. The functionality is quite limited too - even top-spec models do without a built-in navigation system. Fortunately, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay come as standard, allowing you to access a host of apps, including music streaming services and navigation tools.
On the upside, there's plenty of room for passengers, both front and rear, and you'll never be short of storage space or cupholders. Standard equipment is also fairly generous, with even the entry-level Juro model getting keyless entry, heated front seats, a heated windscreen and dual-zone climate control.
On the road
This is where things start to look up for the Outlander PHEV. It's not exactly a sporting car to drive, but it does handle quite competently for a full-size SUV, with accurate steering and a reasonably well-balanced chassis. It still feels most at home cruising along sedately, though, aided by those suspension tweaks that have noticeably improved the ride on the current model.
The Outlander PHEV's standout feature remains its plug-in hybrid drivetrain. With the electric motors doing their thing, you glide away in virtual silence, giving it a distinctly upmarket feel. Wind and road noise do start to intrude somewhat more at higher speeds, but it's still a reasonably refined package. And when the petrol engine finally wakes up it does so quite discretely - you'd struggle to notice the switchover if you had the stereo on. Things do get more vocal if you accelerate hard, but it's no worse than a conventional vehicle with a CVT transmission.
The performance in electric-only mode isn't going to set your hair on fire, but it's comparable to other hybrid SUVs and perfectly adequate for normal use. In fact, this rather stately progress seems quite in-keeping with the Outlander PHEV's relaxed nature - and you'll soon find yourself trying to beat the predicted range figures.
What's it like to live with a plug-in hybrid?
Prod the EV button on the PHEV's centre console and you can travel electrically for up to 30 miles on a single charge. We managed 23.3 miles in real-world conditions on a mixture of town and country roads. That might not sound like much, but it's more than twice the length of the average UK commute, meaning that some people could feasibly cover all of their day-to-day driving without ever using a drop of fuel. That's significant, because charging the Outlander PHEV at home works out at around a third of the cost of running it on petrol.
A full charge from a standard 13-amp household socket takes around five hours, while a dedicated wall box reduces this to three-and-a-half hours. Plugging into a public charging point can slash that time, with an 80 per cent charge taking as little as 25 minutes. There's also an app that allows you to remotely schedule and monitor your charging, as well as activating things like the climate control.
We used the Polar Plus network for charging, which gives you access to more than 6,500 charging stations, a majority of which are covered by the scheme's fixed monthly fee. Apps such as Zap Map not only show where to find charging points but also give real-time availability information, which can be particularly useful if there aren't many charging points available in your area.
Of course, unlike a pure electric vehicle (EV) you can always fill the Outlander PHEV with petrol and carry on indefinitely. To do so, however, is rather missing the point. Even with an empty battery, it's still marginally more economical than a conventional petrol or diesel car around town - we saw 43.2mpg - but the difference isn't night and day. Use it on the motorway - where there's little opportunity to harvest energy through regenerative braking - and that figure will be down to the mid 30s, by which point you'd be better off with a diesel. On the other hand, there were some short trips with a full battery where we genuinely did see over 100mpg.
Do the sums add up?
Grab a coffee, because we may be here some time. Last year the government effectively abolished the plug-in hybrid grant that used to shave £2,500 off the price of a plug-in hybrid. That means a mid-spec Outlander PHEV 4H now stands at just over £9,000 more than its petrol equivalent and around £4,750 more than the diesel. The government also re-jigged the road tax structure, which means you'll only pay a tenner less than the petrol or diesel versions after the first year.
On the upside, the Outlander PHEV was one of the few plug-in hybrid cars to retain its ultra-low emissions status when the new WLTP test procedure was introduced in 2018. As a result, you won't pay any road tax for the first year. That could save you £830 compared to the petrol model.
One thing to watch out for, though, is that higher trim grades will push you over the £40,000 threshold for the new 'premium tax'. This means you could actually pay more VED in years two to six than you would on a sub-£40,000 petrol or diesel car (£440 a year as opposed to £140).
All this means that private buyers purchasing the car outright will have to cover a lot of electric-only miles to recoup the price difference between the plug-in hybrid Outlander and the petrol or diesel versions. Bear in mind, however, that residual values for the PHEV are stronger than either and, of course, you get all the additional benefits associated with running a plug-in hybrid.
The biggest incentives apply to company car drivers. For a base rate tax payer, the benefit in kind (BIK) contribution for an Outlander PHEV 4H works out around £81 a month less than the petrol equivalent. With some attractive lease deals around for the PHEV, the BIK savings alone could be enough to cancel out the increased monthly hire costs (we even found one site where the plug-in version was cheaper). That means you could effectively upgrade to the PHEV for free and any subsequent savings in fuel costs will go straight into your pocket.
The caveat about usage still applies, though. If you don't cover many miles then you won't see a huge difference. Conversely, if you spend a lot of time on the motorway or fail to charge the battery on a regular basis then a conventional engine could still work out cheaper. But if you fall somewhere in between, it's possible that you could save hundreds or even thousands of pounds a year.
Other brands are rapidly moving in on Mitsubishi's turf with their own plug-in hybrid SUVs. For the time being, though, the Outlander PHEV still occupies a commanding niche. It offers significantly more space than the likes of the Mini Countryman Plug-in Hybrid or the Kia Niro PHEV, while it's usefully cheaper than premium alternatives such as the Volvo XC60 T8 or the recently-unveiled BMW X3 xDrive30e.
Whether or not a plug-in hybrid will actually save you money overall will still depend on your circumstances, but the Outlander PHEV's comparatively affordable price tag and impressive real-world electric range will help to maximise the financial benefits. What's more, the Outlander PHEV is a comfortable, practical and impressively refined car in its own right. It may not be the only option any more, but it remains a worthy contender.