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Rumble Seat 

Whatever else you might say about the redesigned Mitsubishi Montero--and you might say it looks like an enormous set of flared nostrils--you can't complain about the price. At the leather- and wood-slathered apogee of the model line, the Montero Limited will retail at a mere $35,897.

In addition to a copious list of standards, the Limited, expected to account for 80 percent of Montero sales, is loaded with luxo appointments, including heated front seats, automatic climate control with rear air-conditioning unit, moonroof the size of the hole in the roof of Cowboy Stadium, seven-speaker CD-equipped stereo, and five-speed Sportronic automatic transmission.

In the realm of full-size, seven-passenger luxury SUVs, the Limited is the retail equivalent of an Omega watch at the Everything-for-a-Dollar store.

There is a certain anxious quality to the Montero's overcontenting, and it's hard not to see the discount price as compensation for the vehicle's lack of a V8 engine. Mitsubishi's only V8 motor is a direct-injection unit that requires cleaner gas than is currently available outside of California (the motor sees use in the home market of Japan).

Mitsubishi officials concede the Montero is at a disadvantage in the U.S. market against such V8-powered, loot-ute competitors as the Land Rover Discovery II and the Toyota Land Cruiser. The engineers eagerly hint that a supercharger might fit handily under the Montero's curvaceous hood. Such an install might help to raise the Montero's towing capacity, rated now at a rather modest 1,500 pounds.

The current engine is an SOHC V6 putting out 200 horsepower and 235 foot-pounds of torque. Combined with the five-speed automatic and its well-spaced ratios (a four-speed is standard in the base XLS), this motor is plenty frisky enough to serve the commuting masses around town or--in case of exceedingly bad map reading--off-road.

However, on the great American interstate, the 4,765-pound Limited seems exactly that, as the lack of top-end horsepower runs into the vehicle's bulky aerodynamic profile.

The new Montero is a big, buff SUV, with scads of glass and acres of body-cladding fashioned to echo the harmonies of the Eclipse's geo-mechanical lines. The wheel wells are flared exotically--if you think nostrils are exotic--and the front wheels are pushed so far to the front as to be almost beneath the headlights. One wag called the look "post pre-frontal collision." The Limited's extravagant brightwork on the door handles, taillight trim, mirrors and gothic grille seem destined to conquer the wilds of America's gated communities.

The most significant change in the Montero is its use of a unibody chassis as opposed to the venerable and rugged body-on-frame design. The monocoque yields better interior packaging. Passenger room is up in all directions commensurate with increases in wheelbase, width and track. Also, by discarding the underbody frame rails, Mitsubishi engineers were able to install the market's first flip-and-fold seat, à la Honda Odyssey. Hidden under a panel in the cargo area, this two-person seat emerges easily and locks into place, leaving its floor compartment available for storage; the seat may also be removed altogether.

Meanwhile, the second row of seats splits 60/40 and folds forward to ease access to the third-row seats; or the second row may be folded flat against the front seats for more cargo-carrying.

Because the unibody floor is thinner, step-in height is down almost 2 inches, while ground clearance is up almost the same amount, to a rangy 9.3 inches.

Another factor in the ground clearance is the newly independent rear suspension, where a multilink setup replaces last year's low-riding three-link solid rear axle. Ideally, a fully independent suspension promotes better on-road handling; but because Montero's primary mission in the rest of the world is off-road, the Montero's long-limbed suspension feels a little willowy and loose, and the vehicle heels over unnervingly before it tightens up on its springs.

It seems the U.S.-market Montero, destined to be used almost exclusively as grocery-getter, could stand a firmer suspension. Or at least Mitsubishi could bring back the three-way adjustable shocks of yore.

It's actually rather a shame that few Americans will take the Montero off-road, because there it is exceptionally confident and competent. In the hills around Tucson, as rough and abrasive as Sen. McCain's famous temper, the Montero scrabbled happily down and up rocky grades that hurt your neck to look up at them. Wheel articulation is excellent, and the enlarged track gives the vehicle even better balance than before.

The XLS retains the part-time 4WD with two-speed transfer case and mechanical shift-on-the-fly. The Limited uses a new, electronically engaged ActiveTrac system. Viscous couplings in the center and rear diff allot power to the wheels that have better traction. The 4WLC setting locks the diff at 50/50 torque split; the 4WLLC low-speed setting multiplies that torque by 1.90.

Here's a novelty: The rear prop shaft is made of carbon-fiber. Take that, Ferrari.

Curiously, the erstwhile Montero's locking rear diff--a proven off-road technology--has been scrapped, though the company says it would be no great feat to add it back to the options list.

With the asphalt-friendly Montero Sport covering its flank against hybrids like the Lexus RX300 and Mercedes M-class, Mitsubishi was free to retain the essential hard core nature of the Montero, so beguiling to a certain class of dilettante, while adding heaping measures of clubby luxury. The lack of a V8 might cause a few buyers to check up, but the Montero's price will no doubt find lots of other takers.

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