DAKAR MOTORSPORT NEWS

Hybrid vigour: Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV rally car

What the bloody hell is Mitsubishi up to? Flying journos halfway round the planet to show off a new car is one thing, but sending us to a remote town in Eastern Portugal just to watch a one-off rally car compete in a local two-day cross country race seems a little unorthodox, to say the least.

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Stranger still, said race car comes from a car-maker that has effectively washed its hands of its motorsport involvement. Canning both its WRC and Dakar teams, and even going as far as closing its legendary Ralliart race department.

Things aren’t any clearer when we arrive in a remote field in the middle of the Portuguese countryside, somewhere 220km north east of the capital, Lisbon.

Sitting in the middle of a neglected olive grove that also, terrifyingly, doubles as a gun range, a team of Japanese service crew swarm around a black, silver and red Outlander rally car. A nod to its past, and adding extra intrigue — the crew all sport faded, but immaculate ‘Ralliart’ overalls.

Parting quickly after a wheel change, they reveal the meanest, wildest-looking Mitsubishi SUV since the Dakar-winning SWB Pajero Evolution.

Up close, this Outlander is a serious bit of kit. Broad shouldered and towering above the standard road car we arrive in, the firm’s first rally car in almost half a decade looks the business.

The work of hundreds of hours, the fully-fledged off-road racer has been created to conform to FIA ‘Group T1’ Cross Country Cup spec. That means the Outlander gets long-travel suspension, a full-cage and a massive front bash plate, plus plenty of underbody armour.

It’s a far more modified Outlander than the one Mitsubishi Australia enetered into the last ever Australasian Safari a couple of years back. But similar under the skin. For, instead of V6 or V8 power, this off-road racer is a hybrid, adopting its guts from the road-going Outlander PHEV.

Coming with exactly the same 2.0-litre engine that acts as a generator to charge the batteries, the front-mounted engine can also drive the front wheels directly through a reduction, just like the road car.

Where it differs from the SUV Mitsubishi sells to Joe Public is where the showroom-spec PHEV engine only drives the wheels at speeds over 110km/h, the race car’s donk only kicks in at over 170km/h.

The other big change is the race car gets more powerful 16-17kWh batteries (the road car has 12kWh cells) providing lots more power.

Engineers wouldn’t let on how powerful the rally car is, but did let slip that it has a top speed of around 210-220km/h. This means it should be significantly quicker than the 10.0 seconds it takes for the road car to hit 100km/h.

Weight, is a serious problem. Remember, the road car tips the scales at around 1900kg. We’d be amazed if the racer weighs less than 2.4 tonnes with two huge spare race wheels and a 100-litre fuel tank on board.

Luckily, to make up the deficit, Mitsubishi has a secret weapon: former outright winner of the 2003 and 2003 Dakar Rally, Hiroshi Masuoka.

With nothing left to prove, you’d wonder how much coaxing Masuoka needed to come back to Mitsubishi to drive a pre-Dakar race without actually going the full hog and racing the real thing. We expect, not much, considering the broad Hiro’s wearing this morning.

Fighting fit, despite a 40-a-day habit, Masuoka is instantly at home behind the wheel, despite the PHEV being radically different from the short-wheelbase Pajero Evo he once successfully campaigned.

Climbing in beside him there’s just enough time to smirk at the standard car’s interior before I strap in and we set off.

Initial thoughts as we leave the service park are not good. The Outlander PHEV crawls along while the engine revs sky high, a bit like a hateful CVT or a car with a slipping clutch.

It’s embarrassing, especially after the warp-speed launch you get from a luxury Tesla sedan. I moan to Masuoka, he nods, “Very slow, but wait.” And, sure enough over 50-60km/h the PHEV suddenly lifts up its skirt and flies.

At this speed the ride, that at first seemed rock solid, softens up but on the tight narrow course, managing two and a half tonnes of Mitsubishi remains a challenge as it hauls past olive tree after olive tree.

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Approaching a tight left hander and braking well in advance, Masuoka has his work cut out but adding precise steering inputs, he unsettles the rear that plus a helpful grab of the hydraulic handbrake and the Outlander dances in a way it has no right to.

Without a conventional gearbox for engine braking, there’s two column-mounted paddles that increase or decrease the severity of the brake regeneration helping slow the Outlander when needed.

Just when I begin to throw in meaningless superlatives about ride comfort, we hit a patch of heavily churned rocks and my head is flung so violently I check to see if it’s still attached.

As the track gets narrower we trade olive grove for farmyard and acfter carrying silly speed through a narrow gate, we brake. Hard!

Brought back down the walking pace, again, the PHEV is slow to pick up the pace. Tailoring the PHEV system for long stages up to 300km long, strong acceleration from standstill is seen wasteful by engineers keen to preserve energy.

On the next section of road in a long sweeping right-hander, we have our ‘Evo’ moment.

Entering far too fast Masuoka encounters understeer, but instead of lifting off, he flattens the throttle and, hey presto, the two electric motors mimic a Lancer Evo’s Active Yaw Control, magically shuffling torque to the rear of the car providing for a glorious drift. We both laugh.

Now up to race speed, it’s interesting to see Masuoka use a technique I’ve not seen before.

Where a rally car floats and slides over heavily rutted roads, Masuoka aims for the deepest ruts he can find and uses them as improvised rails, hooking the front wheels in to carry unreal speed through the tight corners.

Not once showboating, Masuoka’s driving shows what it takes to win Cross Country.

Cheekily, I ask him if he misses the sound of a angry V6 or V8, he looks over at me (at 160km/h), but pretends not to understand the question. Instead he tells me how much he enjoys the challenge of learning how to get the best out of the hybrid tech.

Not that the team, this year, do, despite its best efforts. The 29th Baja Portalegre Baja 500 sees Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV – the only factory-supported car in a field of private entries finish 47th out of the 48 cars – but that result needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The cars in the fastest FIA class were in many case former Dakar racers, like the Lancer rally car that is actually based around lightweight tubular spaceframe chassis. This means that, as well as being around 1000kg lighter than the poor road car-based Outlander PHEV, they have substantially more power.

It didn’t help a 12-volt fuse blew too, almost prematurely ending the rally but, thanks to a tow from a fellow competitor racing a Dakar-spec Pajero Evo, Masuoka and his PHEV carried on and run a consistent second place in the slower Nacional class (although time penalties for the tow shuffled it to the back of the finishers).

So what was the point of its one-off foray? We’re still not sure, but it certainly wasn’t for fun. The bill for two days’ running must have set back Mitsubishi millions of dollars, from building the car, reuniting the band (all its former team members) to importing 1.5 tonnes-worth of spare parts.

This was no PR exercise.

With too much money already invested we’d be astonished if Mitsubishi wasn’t working on a lightweight space frame as we speak with more powerful higher density batteries for a high-tech crack at Dakar.

Even if the hybrid is not ready, Masuoka-san will be.