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With its lean, muscular lines, Mitsubishi's Montero Sport has long been one of the best-looking SUVs. Lately, however, Mitsubishi has been working to prove that beauty is more than skin deep. Last year, the Montero Sport benefited from interior refinements and a coil-sprung rear suspension. For 2001, the body has been re-engineered for greater safety, and both available engines massaged for lower emissions with better fuel economy.
Headlining the changes, however, is a new performance-leader 3.5XS model, which combines Mitsubishi's biggest engine with a unique exterior appearance and a surprisingly moderate sticker price.
With its big 3.5-liter V6, the Limited model is a gutsy rig. Accelerating from a standstill, it almost feels as potent as some of the bigger, V8-powered SUVs. It certainly shows no sign of strain when asked to move its 4330 pounds. And like the smaller, 3.0-liter V6, it's a smooth revver.
Montero Sport handles well on freeway ramps, and on winding roads. Its frame is fully boxed, and its long front torsion bars, beefy A-arms, and hefty rear trailing arms are unmistakably heavy-duty pieces. Really big impacts feel like, well, really big impacts, but you only feel them once and they never leave you with the feeling that you've broken something. The front suspension has adequate travel, so it will soak up uneven railroad crossings with aplomb. However, while you notice very little shake inside, there is enough side-to-side wiggling of the body to remind you that Montero Sport is not a car.
That said, the most comforting aspect of Montero Sport's ride is the lack of rattles, squeaks, and extraneous movements, which are endemic to most truck-chassis vehicles. (You'll notice them particularly if you are trading in a passenger sedan for your new sport-ute, as are so many buyers these days.) In comparison, however, the more expensive Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mercedes M-class wagons hide big bumps the best.
The antilock brakes (standard on all but ES) work well on steep hills in four-wheel-drive mode, even when low range is selected in the transfer case. It's an extra comfort for dirt drivers, who don't rely on much braking in these conditions, and instead use low range and low gears to walk down slick hills. On the pavement, the brakes feel terrific, and you can tell if you're on slippery or sticky roads by the feel of the pedal.
The low roof of the Montero Sport is an advantage in tight parking garages. We once enlisted a Chicago parking attendant to ride on the rear bumper of a big Montero, just to sag the rear end enough so the roof rack would clear the ceiling, and we could exit the underground parking lot of the Swissotel on Wacker Drive. A lower top is also beneficial when loading kayaks or mountain bikes onto the roof rack.
The sharp-looking Montero Sport is not as accessible to budget-SUV shoppers as the Jeep Cherokee or Nissan Xterra; yet it is priced below the larger, more-popular Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee, while offering similar performance. In overall ride and refinement the Montero Sport feels more luxurious than Explorer, which adds to the Mitsubishi's value.