REVIEW | 2021 Mitsubishi Xpander begs for more fizz

07 July 2021 - 14:03
The capable Xpander is let down by a gutless engine.
The capable Xpander is let down by a gutless engine.
Image: Supplied

A few options come to mind when exploring the realm of cost-conscious seven-seater models.   

If you have particular disdain for the welfare of your human cargo, you could opt for the Datsun Go+ (from R191,600) with its third row. That could best be described as a compact wagon rather than a true, tall-roofed multipurpose vehicle (MPV).   

The Toyota Avanza (from R263,200) is an industry stalwart, a proven hit among public transport operators. Honda has a fine contender in the form of the BR-V (from R292,000). It is replete with a sprinkling of ruggedness, thanks to hardy plastic cladding and a higher-than-average ground clearance of 210mm, compared to 180mm in the case of the former vehicle.

Which is the same figure wielded by the Suzuki Ertiga (from R239,400). A special mention for this Japanese warrior: in 1.5 GL guise it won our November 2019 three-way comparison, on price, quality, specification and assuring driving mannerisms.   

The Xpander is a natural rival for the likes of the Renault Triber and Suzuki Ertiga.
The Xpander is a natural rival for the likes of the Renault Triber and Suzuki Ertiga.
Image: Supplied

Last year Renault launched the Triber (from R185,900); essentially a Kwid with room for deux more passengers.   

In our July 2020 report we praised the keen pricing and matured aesthetic character, but lamented that it could barely move out of its own shadow, with the 999cc, normally-aspirated three-cylinder not up to task.    

But last month the category received another addition, wearing a curious, but apt moniker: meet the Xpander from Mitsubishi. A certain manufacturer of security gates may or may not appreciate the homophone, but titles aside, there is little doubt that the average family would find plenty to like about the newcomer.    

Featured at the front is a rather bold application of the brand’s contemporary “dynamic shield” family face. It looks more aggressive and sharper than a humble family-hauler has any right to. But one cannot help but find this higher aspiration endearing, breaking the appliance-like templates that usually define this breed of affordable, three-row chariots.

From the side, it is clear that an attempt was made to massage a decent silhouette into the limited basic MPV template. But the relatively small wheels (205/55R16) look out of proportion, although they are of a rather attractive, five-spoke, Y-design variety. The rear of the Xpander is also quite expressive, with L-shaped lights that, when illuminated, look like the eyes of a demented robot. The children will love that.    

16-inch alloy wheels are standard on the automatic derivative.
16-inch alloy wheels are standard on the automatic derivative.
Image: Supplied

My test coincided with a house-move, which afforded the perfect opportunity to test the load-lugging capability. That last row of seats can be folded by the pull of a fabric strap. The second row uses levers.   

With both flat, the length of the space on offer is a handy 1,754mm, while a height of 880mm makes loading cumbersome items a tad easier. As is the case with the additional row in vehicles of this nature, usage is best suited to younger members of the family. Interior width side-to-side is a spacious 1,411mm. Ventilation for the rear compartment is included. And it has one of the most powerful air-conditioning systems in a car at this price point.    

Finishes are of a robust and seemingly durable nature, with effort made to add a veneer of plushness to proceedings, thanks to elements like a faux stitching pattern across the dashboard and door panels.

Overall, the cabin of the Xpander is screwed together tightly. We identified two points to remedy: those silver inlays look cheap and had already shown signs of fading in the case of our tester. Secondly, imitation leather for touchpoints like the steering wheel and gearstick would not have gone amiss.    

One specification grade exists for our market, leaving buyers free to choose only between transmissions: either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Power is transmitted to the front wheels. The model with the clutch pedal rolls on 15-inch wheels and has a 5mm lower ground clearance at 200mm because of that. We drove the two-pedal car, but more on that in a bit.    

A touchscreen infotainment system is fitted as standard.
A touchscreen infotainment system is fitted as standard.
Image: Supplied

As standard, you get three 12V sockets, a touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth, voice control and a USB port in the cubby attached to an extension cable, automatic air-conditioning and a multifunction steering wheel. The seats are upholstered in fabric.   

Safety kit comprises anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution and dual front airbags. It scored a four-star ASEAN NCAP rating when it was tested in 2018.    

So the Xpander has an assertive face, is built to a more than acceptable standard, has a fair safety rating and covers the bases on the kit front. A recommendable buy overall.     But what really besmirches the otherwise solid scoresheet is a totally gutless engine, paired with an archaic gearbox. It’s baffling that a car designed to move stuff and people would be given such an unfortunate impediment.    

The 1.5-litre, normally-aspirated, four-cylinder petrol (77kW/141Nm) is not at all suited to application. Trying to merge safely onto the freeway for the first time, you might be left speechless when you mash the pedal down to find that little changes (except the noise); trying to hustle from 80km/h to 100km/h.    

Shifting from “D” into “2” or “L” helps somewhat on inclines, winding the motor up to the point where you feel sorry for it.   

With all the seats folded flat the Xpander offers an impressive amount of cargo space.
With all the seats folded flat the Xpander offers an impressive amount of cargo space.
Image: Supplied

There’s an overdrive function too, deactivated by a button on the shifter. If the ubiquity of slick dual-clutch jobs in 2021 caused you to forget what that does, here’s a refresher from Mitsubishi.    

“The overdrive works to keep the engine speed below a certain rpm to improve fuel economy and reduce wear and tear.”   

“So, you’d have the overdrive on during normal driving conditions, but you’d switch it off when you need the engine to work at higher revs — say, if you’re moving heavy cargo/trailer up a steep incline.”   

“One feels a noticeable difference when driving on steep inclines for long periods and more so like when we did the tow capacity testing with load.”

According to the brochure, the engine “puts ample power at your command and more than enough torque to carry seven adults up steep mountain passes with ease”.   

Flexible seating can be configured to suit a variety of needs.
Flexible seating can be configured to suit a variety of needs.
Image: Supplied

Try it for yourself and see how truthful that is. Hint: it’s not. The upshot is that the default, sedate driving habit the driver will adopt is great for economy. After a 40km suburban and freeway route, the consumption readout read 6.9l/100km. Claimed consumption is 7l/100km. That shoots up quite dramatically around town, especially if the layout involves uphill travel.   

We asked, does the brand plan to procure some fizz from the Renault-Nissan side of the alliance?

“Not at the moment. At present, this is what is on offer to us, but we will continue to investigate all models available to us.”   

Which is a pity, because the turbocharged-petrol or diesel options available in products from the former two camps would really enliven the sluggish Xpander.

Pricing:

Xpander 1.5L manual: R299,995

Xpander 1.5L automatic: R319,995   

Pricing includes a three-year/100,000km manufacturer’s warranty and a two-year/30,000km service plan.


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