Well, on paper certainly, it’s easy to see why the Japanese manufacturer is crowing about the hybrid version of its popular Outlander. Exempt from vehicle excise duty, a claimed 148mpg, 44g/km emissions and capable of 32.5 miles on electric charge alone, this car is an exciting prospect for anyone looking for an SUV that’s easy on the wallet as well as the environment.
What’s more, it’s got a sophisticated four-wheel drive system, a combined range of 510 miles and, between the120bhp 2.0l petrol engine and the two 60kw electric motors, you’ve got plenty of power available should you feel the need to put your foot down.
All that and, when you factor in the Government’s £5000 plug-in car grant, it costs the same as the diesel version of the car, and could be yours from £28,249.
I’ve been driving the Outlander in GX4hs trim, which gives you heated leather seats, a built-in sat nav, DAB radio, adaptive cruise control and a host of other extras that you won’t find in the base model. It’s a well-specced car, the little luxuries and driver aids setting you back a further £4,650.
Styling-wise the PHEV looks like your run-of-the-mill two-box SUV from the outside. The large blue EV lettering on the wings the only clue that beneath the boxy exterior lurks a car loaded with space-age technology.
The interior is a little bland, but the material and build quality is good and the cabin is well planned and spacious for the driver and front passenger. Rear leg room leaves a bit to be desired — as the child’s size 6 footprints left by my daughter on the back of the driver’s seat will testify — but the huge boot has more than made up for that while running the PHEV as a family car.
The leather seats are nice and comfortable, although only the driver’s side benefits from electric adjustment — passengers having to manage with a manual plastic lever.
The centre console is dominated by the high-tech infotainment system.The interface feels a little unresponsive in a world where mobile phone manufacturers have fine-tuned touch-screen technology to perfection, and one month in, I still can’t work out how to stop a CD mid-song without ejecting it. Delve into the sub-menus and there’s a mind- boggling amount of information available at your finger tips. Sophisticated flow charts on energy distribution, graphics detailing how the engine is using its power and detailed figures on your eco performance update in realtime and once you get used to the sheer amount of information assailing you, help you tailor your driving style to get the best performance out of the hybrid system.
Driving the Outlander PHEV takes a bit of getting used to. Unlike most non-plug-in hybrids, it is automatically configured to drive on battery only, the petrol engine only kicking in if the car needs power or acceleration levels that the battery alone can’t supply, or if the battery level drops below a predetermined point. The transition is seamless and the engine so quiet that, if it wasn’t for the flashing amber display in the console, you might not realise it’s running at all. Aside from battery power, there are two additional driving modes available. These are series hybrid — where the engine charges the power cells, which in turn power the wheels — and parallel hybrid — where the engine provides drive to the wheels directly. The computer decides which mode is appropriate based on your throttle use and power level.
There’s a regenerative braking system, which charges the battery by using the electric motors to slow down the wheels. This can be adjusted manually via paddles at the side of the wheel and can actually be used to inject a bit of dynamism into cornering once you get the hang of them. It really does handle quite well considering it’s about as aerodynamic as a three-bedroom semi and there’s not nearly so much body roll as you would expect from a sizeable SUV.
That’s not to say it’s a barrel of laughs to drive — at least not in the traditional sense. To get anywhere close to the reported mpg figure once you get beyond the electric-only range you have to drive very conservatively, and not just ‘putting it in neutral at the lights’ conservatively either. To rinse every last mile out of the PHEV you really have to find your inner granny. Inside lane? Check. Twenty miles per hour under the limit? Check. Air conditioning off? Check. Driving gloves, tinted specs and Werther’s Originals? Optional, but probably recommended.
On longer-distance drives the mileage claims start to feel a little far-fetched. On a recent drive from Edinburgh to Leeds and back, I achieved 40 mpg — not bad for a petrol-engined SUV, but falling considerably short of my expectations. Adopting an octogenarian approach to the throttle pedal on a recent 60-mile jaunt to Dunkeld I did manage 90mpg, but the return trip returned a figure in the low 30s. The lesson being that the really spectacular figures seem to be most achievable when the EV-only range makes up a significant proportion of your journey.
Despite the question mark thus far over long distances and absence of pure driving thrills I find myself really enjoying the Outlander and, living in a commuter town 35 minutes’ drive from my office, can genuinely see the benefits of owning one. I charge it overnight from the mains socket in my house — it takes just over five hours — and, nine times out of ten, can make the 30-mile round trip to work and back without using a drop of fuel. All the eco information on the flat-screen display plays into my competitive streak and I’m starting to relish the challenge of hyper-miling the battery. I’ve almost stopped noticing all the HGVs overtaking as I waft along silently in the inside lane, thinking of all the unused fuel sloshing around in the tank. Almost.
If, like me, your office is within range of the Outlander’s battery, that reported 148MPG figure can theoretically — if you drive sensibly — stretch into infinity.
That does put a massive smile on my face.